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Mrs. Nash

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 6/13/2024

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

“The post was located in a valley, while just back of us stretched a long chain of bluffs,” wrote Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer, wife of U.S. Army General George Armstrong Custer, in her 1885 memoir Boots and Saddles. She recounted her first days at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, built upon land the Mandan tribe had called home for hundreds of years. A smallpox outbreak in the late 1830s had forced them to relocate and combine numbers with a nearby tribe.

“On the summit of a hill, nearly a mile to the left, was a small infantry garrison, which had been established some time, and now belonged to our post. ... We found living in this bleak place—in small, shabbily built quarters, such as a day-laborer would consider hardly good enough for his family—delicate women and children, who, as usual, made no complaint about their life. ... The little post had been built before the railroad was completed, and the houses were put together with as few materials as possible.”

As the infantry men traveled with their wives and children, these military posts became little cities in need of all the conveniences of one, including entertainment, dining, cleaning, and laundering services. Infantry outposts, therefore, became attractive opportunities for those in need of steady work, good pay, and a secure place to live.


The woman who would come to be known as Mrs. Nash, or “Old Nash,” first connected with the U.S. Army in the 1860s in Kentucky. She was born in Mexico and traveled—as many did in those tumultuous days of expansion and conquest—to find work. By the time she would enter the pages of Libbie’s account, she was already highly prized for her precision with laundry. “When she first came to our regiment she was married to a trooper, who, to all appearances, was good to her,” Libbie wrote. “My first knowledge of her was in Kentucky. She was our laundress, and when she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure.”

Mrs. Nash was well-paid for her work and had accumulated some wealth. That trooper Libbie mentioned would soon leave Mrs. Nash, stealing her money as he went. Another husband did the same, and by most accounts, Mrs. Nash was married three times. It was from one of these husbands that she got and then kept the surname Nash. 

What little may be known of Mrs. Nash’s backstory is from the gossip or common talk of the Fort Lincoln community. She’d once, the story went, dressed like a man to work as an ox-cart driver in New Mexico. By some versions of the tale, her employer recognized her as a woman and rescued her into the womanlier duties of sewing and cleaning. By others, it was the expanding railroad that put ox-cart drivers out of work entirely, forcing her into new professions. 

The only known illustration of Mrs. Nash was circulated in the Feb. 15, 1879 issue of The National Police Gazette with the salacious news of her death. Public Domain.

According to Libbie, “Finding the life as a laundress easier, she had resumed her woman’s dress and entered the army, and thinking to make her place more secure, had accepted the hand of the man whose desertion she was now mourning. It was not long after this, however, before ‘Old Nash’ consoled herself. Without going through the ceremony or expense of a divorce, she married another soldier, and had come with us out to Dakota.”

“Of course her husband was obliged to march with his company,” Libbie wrote. “It was a hard life for her, camping out with the other laundresses, as they are limited for room, and several are obliged to share a tent together. In the daytime they ride in an army wagon, huddled in with children and baggage. After all the rough summer out-of-doors, it was a great boon to her to get a little cabin in Laundress Row, at our post.”

Libbie’s descriptions of Mrs. Nash are often laced with racism, referring to her as “homely,” “swarthy,” and occasionally “a creature,” while still praising her housekeeping and baking. “She always came at night, and when I went out to pay her she was very shy, and kept a veil pinned about the lower part of her face. The cook told me one day that she was sick and in trouble, and I went to see her. It seemed the poor thing had accumulated several hundred dollars by washing, baking pies for the soldiers, and sewing the clothes for them that had been refitted by the tailor.”

Despite her thieving husbands and apparent lack of youth and beauty, Mrs. Nash still enjoyed attending “the soldiers’ balls dressed in gauzy, low-necked gowns. Notwithstanding her architectural build and massive features, she had no sooner accumulated another bank account than her hand was solicited for the third time,” Libbie said. Mrs. Nash’s final—and seemingly happiest—marriage was to Indiana-born Corporal John Noonan, who Libbie called “the handsomest soldier in [Custer’s] company.” 

Libbie decided this was a marriage of convenience. “Fortunes are comparative; a few hundred dollars out there was quite equal to many thousands in New York. The trooper thought he had done a very good thing for himself, for notwithstanding his wife was no longer young, and was undeniably homely, she could cook well and spared him from eating with his company, and she was a good investment, for she earned so much by her industry. In addition to all these traits, she was already that most desirable creature in all walks of life—'a woman of means.’”

Mrs. Nash’s affection, however, seems to have been genuine. She called John “manny manny,” and everyone in camp admired the fine tailoring she’d given his uniform.

Frontier life was difficult, even in the infantry’s fort community. When Libbie’s friend “Miss Annie” grew unwell during her pregnancy, she found herself stranded in an unfamiliar land without medical care. “The trains had ceased running, so that [a doctor] could not be sent on from St. Paul. There was no neighborly help to be expected even, for all of our ladies were young and inexperienced,” Libbie wrote. “There seemed to be no one to whom we could look for aid. Instead of rejoicing, as we would have done in the States over the sweet privilege of coming maternity, we cried and were almost disconsolate.”

Elizabeth Bacon Custer with husband George Armstrong Custer in the 1860s. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.

The young women knew of Mrs. Nash’s experience as a midwife, so they went desperately to her door. They were immediately impressed by the woman’s home. “We found the little place shining,” Libbie said. “The bed was hung with pink cambric, and on some shelves she showed us silk and woollen stuffs for gowns; bits of carpet were on the floor, and the dresser, improvised out of a packing-box, shone with polished tins. Outside we were presented to some chickens, which were riches indeed out there in that Nova Zemblian climate. She was very gentle with our friend when we told our errand, and gave her needful advice in her broken Mexican tongue.”

Annie feared Mrs. Nash, “for the woman was a Mexican. ... She was tall, angular, awkward, and seemingly coarse,” Libbie said, “but I knew her to be tender-hearted.” Though reluctant at first, Mrs. Nash finally agreed to help the expectant mother, provided she could go home in the evenings to make dinner for her “manny manny.” 

Anxious Annie was soon won over by Mrs. Nash’s clear competence and kindness. As Libbie wrote, “Occasionally she [Mrs. Nash] came to the bed, and in her harsh voice asked, ‘Are you comph?’—meaning comfortable. The gentle, dexterous manner in which she lifted and cared for the little woman [Annie] quieted her dread of this great giraffe. By degrees I was promoted to the duty of bathing and dressing the little new-comer, the young mother giving directions from the pillow. When ‘Old Nash’ was no longer absolutely necessary she went back to her husband—a richer woman by much gratitude and a great deal of money.”

By most records and written accounts, there was not a single birth at Fort Lincoln that went unattended by Mrs. Nash. She was the most sought-after midwife for miles. 

In 1876, Mrs. Nash’s John marched with General George Custer into the disastrous Battle of Little Bighorn. George died (possibly from a blow delivered by Buffalo Calf Road Woman), but John returned to tell the tale. The defeat of “Custer’s Last Stand” only galvanized the United States’ military to meet the indigenous tribes with more exterminatory violence; John was frequently deployed to relocate or suppress tribes across the spreading nation. While he was absent on one of these campaigns in 1878, Mrs. Nash fell ill.

“Her past life of hardship and exposure told on her in time, and she became ailing and rheumatic,” said Libbie. In her final moments, she entreated those around her to bury her just as she was, in the very dress she wore. Her caregivers did not fulfill that promise. Instead, they performed the usual death rites of cleaning and preparing the body, which revealed Mrs. Nash’s biological sex to all of Fort Lincoln—and to the world.

A fellow soldier, John Burkman, wrote to a friend that “we was flabbergasted.”

A singular dispatch titled “Turns Out To Be A Man” appeared in papers all across the United States, and even as far reaching as Scotland and Australia. It was translated into German for newspapers there. “Mrs. Sergeant Noonan who Died at Fort Lincoln,” read the subhead in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Saturday, Nov. 2, 1878. “Mrs. Noonan was a laundress at the post, and a most popular midwife. ... Her husband is a member of the Seventh Cavalry, now in the field. There is no explanation for their unnatural union except that the supposed Mexican woman was worth $100,000, and was able to buy her husband’s silence. She had been with the Seventh Cavalry nine years.”

There’s no explanation—nor evidence—for the idea that John’s “silence” had been bought, yet this assertion was reprinted widely. Additional stories often painted Mrs. Nash as an outsider, or a person viewed with suspicion by the other residents of Fort Lincoln. But, as we’ve read, “old manuscripts that contain eyewitness accounts…reveal a somewhat different story,” noted Peter Boag, Washington State University History of the American West professor, in The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West. “They describe Nash as a highly respected member of the Fort Lincoln community, well integrated into daily life there, and accepted as a woman. Moreover, Seventh Cavalry people prized Nash for her culinary creations, depended on her decorating talents for post soirees, and relied on her skills as a midwife. Officers’ wives, furthermore, took advantage of her for her ability to carefully launder delicate fabrics.”

As the title of Peter’s article indicates, cross-dressing was not uncommon in the American West. The true gender identity of these individuals is uncertain and the use of modern labels can be presumptuous and misguided. People such as Mrs. Nash, however, challenge the binary notion that all frontiers-era “cross-dressers” were men pretending to be women, or women pretending to be men. “Old Nash’s story,” commented Peter in Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History, “suggests that something more akin to gender and sex feelings and identities must have been at work in the lives of at least some western cross-dressers.”

Many modern trans writers see themselves in Mrs. Nash’s story and claim her as one of their own. “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,” wrote Kimberly Kaye in “The trans midwife who cared for General Custer’s army” for LGBTQNation. “Mrs. Nash is a reminder that trans people have always existed—and have even thrived when given the space to do so.”

Mrs. Nash’s beloved John Noonan fared poorly as the invasive international news of her death spread. At Fort Lincoln, his grief was met with ridicule and bullying. Fellow soldier Burkman told this story of one interaction: “Noonan walked in. His face was gaunt and sorta set. The carpenter looked up. ‘Hello Noonan!’ he says. ‘Say, you and Mrs. Noonan never had no children, did you?’ We all started laughin’ and then we stopped sudden. Noonan was standin’, lookin’ at us…like an animal that’s been hurt.” Some stories say he argued back, insisting that he and his wife had been planning to have children. By Burkman’s account, John shot himself then and there, in front of them all. Others assert that it was when he was alone in the stables later that night. Certain, however, is that John, then just in his early 30s, died by his own hand barely a month after Mrs. Nash’s death. 

Most attribute his suicide to something akin to shame. As Libbie wrote, “After enduring the gibes and scoffs of his comrades for a few days, life became unbearable to the handsome soldier who had played the part of husband in order to gain possession of his wife’s savings and vary the plain fare of the soldier with good suppers.” 

Just as personal accounts skewered the idea that Mrs. Nash was an outsider, so do they call into question this rather mercenary view of her marriage with John Noonan. “Although Old Nash’s first two husbands may have married her for that reason—for according to reports they certain ended up stealing from and abandoning her—evidence suggests that more than just money registered in ‘manny manny’ when he looked into his wife’s eyes,” Peter wrote in Sexuality, Gender, and Identity in Great Plains History and Myth. “[O]ne might wonder why ‘manny manny’ did not simply desert rather than take the extreme measures he did. That would also seem the reasonable solution if the handsome soldier was, as [Libbie] declares, only after Old Nash’s money, like her former two husbands who did defect. There is one other probable reason for the tragic ending to this story: ‘manny manny’ took his life because he was grief-stricken over the loss of a partner he loved greatly.”

Regardless of the form their companionship took, this author would add that Mrs. Nash’s death, instead of being treated as a loss, was seemingly turned into a worldwide joke with which John was expected to laugh along. His apparent inability to join in the dehumanizing response to his wife’s death hints at some sincere feeling. Peter noted that people like Libbie may have just been unable to understand that “deep and abiding love may very well have played a role” in their relationship. Indeed, despite the assumptions that John had married Mrs. Nash for money, she had made arrangements before her death that all her wealth should be donated to the Catholic Church.

John was buried in what would come to be called Custer National Cemetery in Big Horn County, Montana. A simple white stone marks his grave, etched with his name. Mrs. Nash is buried in the same cemetery, though nowhere near John. She appears in the cemetery’s registers as John Noonan’s spouse, “Unknown Noonan.”

New mother “Miss Annie” read that same salacious passage that went around the world. Libbie recorded her response. “When our friend, whom the old creature had so carefully nursed, read the newspaper paragraph describing the death, her only comment was a reference to the Mexican’s oft-repeated question to her, ‘Poor old thing, I hope she is ‘comph’ at last.’”


Gutenberg Project: Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth B. Custer

The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West by Peter Boag

Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History by Peter Boag

Sexuality, Gender, and Identity in Great Plains History and Myth by Peter Boag

LGBTQNation: The trans midwife who cared for General Custer’s army

Midwestern Scout: The Mysterious Mrs. Nash

True West Magazine: Noonan’s Last Stand

Green Bay Press-GazetteNovember 2, 1878

Wikipedia: Elizabeth CusterFort Abraham Lincoln

The National Police Gazette:Feb. 15, 1879

Find a Grave: Sgt. John NoonanUnknown Noonan