The adults of frontier Montana faced danger and violence on an almost daily basis. The burden of this comes through in their writings, though with a dash of humor. Children’s lives were much different, however. For instance, the trial of Ives (the basis of the trial scene in my book) was a grim affair where the two sides threatened each other with guns. Langford, in “Vigilante Days and Ways” (p. 299), describes that at the same time:
“The urchins of the neighborhood were dodging in and out of the crowd, in merry pastime…”
This dichotomy is seen in all of the accounts I find of children in frontier Montana. Mary Ronan related her childhood in Bannack and Alder to her daughter in her memoirs, which Ellen Baumler reports in “Girl from the Gulches” (p. 28):
“The accounts of hardship, of suffering, of fear which one reads in the diaries actually written from day to day by the emigrants from the sixties – monotonous miles of jolting, weariness, illness and heat, acrid dust, alkali water, mosquitos, cactus, rattlesnakes, perilous ascents and descents on scarcely broken roads, terrifying fording of great rivers, dread of lurking Indians, apprehension that the parting from folks back home was for life, forebodings of worse not better fortunes in the new surroundings – such experiences and reflections left little impression on me. In my mind, spring days, gorgeous sunsets gilding distant mountain peaks and flooding with magic light great valleys, joyous eager childhood, the rhythm of going, going, going, combine to make a backdrop and a theme song for that long trek into the Land of Gold.”
Mary was an eloquent writer who enjoyed poetry at a young age. Calamity Jane was illiterate, but through her ghost writer related similarly her trip to Montana, at which time she was 13 by her report, though census records would put her younger:
“I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams for many in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams, myself on more than one occasion have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death…”
Calamity does not relate in her autobiography any experiences in Montana, but obviously, given the newspaper report of her begging in the streets, her family was in impoverished circumstances. They lived in Adobetown, which is described as an unappealing place in “Shallow Diggin’s” by Jean Davis: (p.95)
“Adobetown, that ‘wen grown of the body of Nevada,’ was a mile from the larger town and was the slum area of the city; here hovels and semi-caves replaced the cabins of Nevada; if possible, the streets were narrower and dirtier, the inhabitants more villainous and grimy.”
Since Calamity left no record of her years in this area, let’s look at the recollections of Lizzie Busick, a child who arrived a couple years prior to Jane’s arrival, at the age of four. (“The Bloody Bozeman” byDorothy M. Johnson, pp. 81-82) Her circumstances were impoverished as well, as her widowed mother apparently arrived with only a milk cow for property.
“At the first vacant cabin they saw, Mrs. Busick had her belongings taken out of the wagon and put on the ground by the door. She found who owned it, and she rented it – ten by twelve, with a dirt floor and a sod roof, one door and half a window.
“‘We children were happy, of course,’ Lizzie remembered, ‘but as for Mother, I never knew how she felt but her face was so sad that I will never forget.’…
“Mrs. Busick got a washtub and washboard; she had not even brought those typical weapons of a widow fighting poverty. And soon she seemed happy, Lizzie recalled, washing, mending, and baking bread for the miners, and boarding several of them, too.
“In the spring she almost died of mountain fever. One day as she lay in bed, mice played on the sleeve of her nightgown and she was too sick to shake them off.”
Her mother recovered.
At this point I would like to digress and discuss the evolution of my fictional story of Calamity Jane’s teen years. For about two decades, I intermittently labored to tell the story of the triumph of good over evil from the standpoint of the adults (Dr. Glick, the most controversial of the good guys, was the protagonist for my story for years). One of the problems with the adult viewpoint, however, was that the story was just too bleak. The goldfields sound like all work, uncertainty and violence from the standpoint of adults, (though peppered with constant joking). My solution was to tell the story from the standpoint of youngsters; rescuing their future from the outlaws.
More anecdotes illustrate the happy life of a girl at this time and place. Mary (Mollie) Ronan describes her arrival (Ellen Baumler’s “Girl from the Gulches” p. 30):
“At last the mule teams panted into a little valley, green and homey, snuggled among hills. We camped where a large stream, winding intricately under the high wooded hills from under the rim of a great bald crater, was joined by a tiny crossline creek. I jumped down from the wagon in haste and excitement, searched for a stick, whittled a place for my name, scribbled ‘Mollie Sheehan’, pounded the stick into the ground and announced that I had staked my claim. Father looked on and laughed.”
For the lack of other female competition, a young girl could expect to be treated like a queen at a dance (“Girl from the Gulches” p. 47):
“Candles in sconces stuck into the log walls of the cabin flickered softly over that long-ago festivity, leaving more shadow than lighted places. Out of that dimness of far away memory, two forms emerge. A fiddler at one end of the crowded little cabin sat with knees crossed, tapping his feet to accentuate the rhythm of the quadrille, varsovienne, schottische, polka, minuet, waltz, jig, or whatever his nimble fingers were tearing or picking from the fiddle strings…. Though I was but twelve years old, or scarcely that, women and girls were so few that young men sought me for dances. While this flattered me, it made me more uncomfortable than happy, for I felt very young and very, very shy.”
Here’s an anecdote I wove into my story, from early in Mary Ronan’s stay in this area: (Baumler, p. 36-37):
“Almost every morning the miners cleaned their sluice boxes with a tin contrivance called a scraper, but much fine gold was left in the cracks of the boxes and around the edges. After the miners had gone into their cabins for supper, a little friend and I would take our blowers and hair brushes, which we kept for the purpose, and gather up the fine gold. We took it home, dried it in the oven and blew the black sand from it. Sometimes our gold dust weighed to the amount of a dollar or more. It was the only kind of money I ever saw in Virginia City. I kept my dust in a small gutta-percha inkwell, which had travelled with us since Denver, and carried it when I went to the store to buy rock candy. …Sometimes the storekeeper had stick candy, candy beans or ginger snaps.
“A man would have entered another’s sluice box at the risk of being shot on sight, but it amused the miners to have us girls clean up after them. One never-to-be-forgotten evening I busied myself around the property of Peter Ronan. I was wearing my new shaker, a straw-poke bonnet, trimmed in pink chambray, which my stepmother had just made. I laid it on a cross-piece of a box while I stopped to brush and blow. Mr. Ronan, not noticing me, lifted a gate above and let muddy water through his boxes. It splashed on the adored pink chambray ‘valance’. Many times afterward I heard Mr. Ronan tell in his inimitable way how the angry little girl suddenly stood straight, the scrambled from the sluicebox, crying out, ‘I’ll never, never, never again mister, take gold from your sluicebox!’“
Mary (Molly) would have heard this story so many times, because she married Peter Ronan ten years after this incident. At the time of the sluice box dousing, she was ten and he was twenty-four. A ring she gave him, presumably at their wedding, was made from that gold she gleaned from sluice boxes.