Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s sister, Maggie, lived with her brother-in-law, Lt. Fredric Calhoun and his wife, Emma, at the Vancouver Barracks for several months during 1885. A decade earlier, Maggie lost her husband, Lt. John Calhoun, and three brothers (George, Tom and Boston) at Little Big Horn.
Like other Army widows, Maggie Calhoun was on her own. Without financial support and constrained by societal norms, officers’ wives often remarried quickly, fell back on the charity of their families, sought teaching or government jobs. As a celebrated member of the Custer family, Maggie Custer Calhoun (1852-1910) chose otherwise.
A sad nation donated money for the battle’s widows. Maggie received $510 and her husband’s $20 army pension. Even in those days, that was not enough to live on. After traveling with Custer’s widow, Libby, Maggie remarried. It didn’t last and she was again without finances.
April of 1885, Maggie arrived at the Vancouver Barracks. Emma Calhoun, a frugal wife, kept meticulous household accounts. We know about them because Jeff Davis, a local military historian, found them and published them, recounting how the couple assisted Maggie. They also reveal how Maggie contributed to the household. Some entries suggest she had been a laundress, and others, a performer.
Growing up in Michigan, Maggie attended a young ladies seminary studying dramatic elocution. While she stayed in barracks housing she put her training to good use. On Oct. 29, 1885, Maggie performed at the Standard Theatre in Portland.
On stage, she read excerpts from Brett Harte, George Eliot, Stephen Foster and several others popular in the era but forgotten today.
One critic said of her recital, “Her selections were, many of them, highly applauded.” He thought some “too heavy” and wrote that Maggie excelled “in those of more quiet pathos.” The critic from the Vancouver Independent was happy to see soldiers and families of the 14th Infantry Regiment (Emma’s husband’s) attending.
It’s unclear when Maggie left the area. However, her Portland performance sparked more in the East until her third marriage in 1903. She died of cancer in 1910.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.