Life

The trans midwife who cared for General Custer’s army 

Drawing of Mrs. Nash from the February 15, 1879 issue of New York's "National Police Gazette"
Drawing of Mrs. Nash from the February 15, 1879 issue of New York's "National Police Gazette"

She was an esteemed laundress, baker, bruja, and midwife with a penchant for wearing low necklines on her hand-stitched gowns. So the shock hit harder than a 19th-century cannonball when, upon her death, Fort Lincoln’s residents discovered “Mrs. Nash’ — valued friend of famed Colonel George Custer and his wife and a thrice-married military bride herself — had been assigned male at birth. 

So much for “we can always tell.” 

“Mrs. Nash,” whose birth name has been lost to time, was a Mexican immigrant first mentioned by historical records in the late 1880s. Reconstruction was underway, the Plains Wars raging, and Nash had reportedly landed a paying gig helping drive oxen across the Santa Fe Trail. 

If the surviving narrative is accurate, Nash was recognized by her employer as a “woman dressed as a man” during her cattle work and subsequently offered a more gender-appropriate job as a laundress and seamstress for the United States Calvary stationed in Kentucky. It was one of the best jobs any frontierswoman could hope for, providing steady income, access to food and protection, and independent living, all particularly difficult to come by in the burgeoning West.

Mrs. Nash didn’t just excel at her new position, but swiftly became one of the community’s most valued members. She cooked notoriously delicious tamales, catered the fort’s dances, and baked such superior pies that nearby towns started placing orders for delivery. There’s even a story about her working brujeria over the playing cards of an infantryman who kept getting destroyed when gaming with the other soldiers–once Nash completed her short spoken spell over his deck, he went on a winning streak.

With her cooking side hustle thriving, she bought bolts of fine fabric, then transformed them into stunning dresses with daring décolletage. Nash indulged in regular costume changes during formal events; brightened her living quarters with deft interior design; and had a generous demeanor that endeared her to soldiers and civilians alike.

Once Colonel George Custer and his wife, Libbie, were put in command of the base, they bonded immediately with the generous, well-dressed, and talented Mexican woman responsible for putting perfect creases on Custer’s cuffs. She often veiled in public, something the Americans assumed was an exotic “Latin” tradition, though it was more likely a tactic for concealing facial hair.

“I considered her a treasure,” Mrs. Custer gushed in her journals. “She had so course and stubborn a beard that her chin had a blue look after shaving, in a marked contrast to her swarthy face. She was tall, angular, awkward and seemingly coarse, but I knew her to be tender hearted. She always came at night and, when I went out to pay her, she was very shy and kept a veil pinned about her lower face.”

When it came time for Custer and his men to transfer to North Dakota’s Fort Lincoln for his ill-fated “last stand,” everyone demanded Mrs. Nash come as well. 

Catherine Gibson, the wife of a Fort Lincoln soldier, documented Nash’s vital work delivering babies: “Mrs. Nash was a very capable midwife. She handled those babies not only with efficiency, but with marked tenderness as well.” Almost zero births took place without her assistance. 

Nash married several times, including to a U.S. soldier named Clifton who ran off with half his wife’s savings. In 1872, with the help of Libbie Custer’s matchmaking, she wed her namesake, Sgt. James Nash. But he also deserted into the North Dakota wilderness with a fat pocketful of his wife’s hard-earned money. 

Given Mrs. Nash’s wealth, exceptional cooking and housekeeping skills, and awkward charm, she soon attracted the attention of Custer’s personal aide and “the handsomest soldier in his company,” according to Libbie, Sergeant John Noonan. Their marriage was, by all accounts, very happy. The pair even survived 1876’s disastrous Battle of Little Bighorn, but ran into personal tragedy in October of 1878. 

While Noonan was out tormenting indigenous tribes at the behest of the United States government, Mrs. Nash fell gravely ill with what some historians assert was appendicitis. She begged friends sitting with her not to undress or disturb her body if she died, requesting she be laid to rest as is. “Old Nash” finally passed October 30, before Noonan could return to say goodbye. Grief-stricken and feeling the man should come home to a clean body, the group undressed Nash…and found the secret she’d kept hidden from a literal army for decades. 

“We was flabbergasted,” wrote the fort’s carpenter, John Burkman, in a letter. 

The revelation that Mrs. Nash had not been “born a woman” spread like wildfire through the compound and North Dakota newspapers

“A singular development transpired at Fort Lincoln today. Mrs. Sergeant Noonan, who died last night, turns out to be a man….there is no explanation of the unnatural union except that the supposed Mexican woman was worth $10,000 and was able to buy her husband’s silence. She has been with the 7th Cavalry nine years.” – The Bismarck Tribune

This harsh take seems to have been total speculation, however. Noonan was visibly distressed when told about his wife’s death, told newspapers she was being slandered, and reportedly cried to other calvary members that the pair had been trying to have a baby for some time. 

The bullying and ridicule Widower Noonan endured from the press and soldiers over the next several weeks, compounded by his palpable grief in losing his partner, came to a head on November 30, 1878, when the poor man committed suicide in front of fellow infantrymen in the calvary stables. 

“Noonan was standin’, lookin’ at us…like an animal that’s been hurt. Then, afore we had sense to stop him he pulled out his gun and shot hisself dead, right thar at our feet,” Burkman recalled to a reporter. The onlookers, who had been teasing Noonan yet again when the shooting took place, were overcome with shame. 

Mrs. Nash and Noonan were both buried at Fort Lincoln with proper military burials. Once the fort closed, Nash was relocated to an unmarked grave for civilians in St. Mary’s Cemetery, while her last husband was reinterred at Custer Battlefield National Cemetery. 

She remains a strong challenge to the flimsy historical theory that all gender non-conformity in the Old West was driven by money rather than authentic gender dysphoria. Mrs. Nash is a reminder that trans people have always existed – and have even thrived when given the space to do so.

George Santos tried to fundraise off his criminal charges. It didn’t go as planned.

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