During the 19th century, transgender behavior was considered unacceptable in the northern Dakotas. People who presented themselves possessing a gender other than what their anatomy dictated were subject to severe scorn and ridicule. As a result, the discovery of a woman who had successfully passed herself off as a man, and a man who had passed himself off as a woman, created a great stir in the communities where they occurred.
Isabel Gunn was born on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland in the early 1780s. After contracting smallpox, which disfigured her face, she believed that all hope of attracting a suitable husband was lost. Isabel's older brother worked for the Hudson Bay Co. On his return visits home, he told stories of excitement and adventure to his family.
In summer 1806, Gunn disguised herself as a boy, took on the alias of John Fubbister and signed a three-year contract with the Hudson Bay Co. On June 29, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean into Hudson Bay, and then to the south of James Bay in northeastern Ontario. John Scarth, an HBC employee who was also from Orkney, was on the ship with Gunn. Gunn and Scarth took a boat 80 miles up the Albany River to Fort Albany, an HBC trading post.
Gunn's supervisor was Hugh Heney, who had been a fur-trader involved with Lewis and Clark while they were at Fort Mandan. What Heney and almost all the others at Albany did not know was that John Fubbister was really a woman. Because he shared a cabin with her, Scarth was the only one to discover Gunn's true gender.
On June 22, 1807, Gunn and John Scarth were part of the workforce that made an 1800-mile canoe trip under Heney's supervision. Gunn was four months pregnant when she arrived at Pembina, which HBC management did not know. Gunn was assigned as a cook at the camp.
For the next five months, no one at Pembina knew John Fubbister was a woman. On Dec. 29, 1807, Gunn, feeling very ill, went to the house of Alexander Henry, manager of the North West Company, HBC's rival.
It was here that Gunn gave birth to James Scarth, the first white child born in what is now North Dakota. Gunn and the baby remained at a cabin in Pembina until May 1808, when the two were sent back to Albany. On Sept. 14, 1809, HBC discharged Isabel, stating, "We cannot think of keeping this woman any longer, as she is of a bad character and has not answered the intentions for which she was detained." On Sept. 20, Gunn and James were sent back to Orkney. Gunn died in poverty on Nov. 7, 1861. On April 19, 2001, the hourlong Canadian documentary, "The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn," starring Michelle Hart, was presented on television.
Mrs. Nash, first name unknown, was an excellent baker, midwife and seamstress who became Libbie Custer's favorite laundress. What Col. George Custer's wife did not know was that Nash was really a man. She was married at least three times during her acquaintance with Libbie, but no one other than her husbands was certain of her true gender. People learned the truth after she died in 1878.
Nothing is known about the early life of Nash. She claimed she was from Mexico and had two children. In 1866, she got a job doing laundry for the U.S. Army during Reconstruction. To earn extra income, she tailored officer's uniforms and "built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife [and] few births occurred at the post without her expert help."
Not noted for external beauty, there were a number of attributes that made Nash an apparent good catch. She was reputed to be an excellent cook, kept a neat and tidy house, was industrious and had her own source of income.
She became Mrs. Nash in 1872 when she married Sgt. James Nash, the personal servant to Libbie's brother-in-law, Capt. Tom Custer. In March 1873, the 7th Cavalry was ordered to Dakota Territory. The Nashes arrived at Fort Rice on June 10 to rejoin the rest of the 7th, and were then transferred to Fort Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 21. When the couple first arrived at Fort Lincoln, they seemed happy attending military balls and other social functions. "Then, unexpectedly, (James) Nash stole his wife's savings and deserted her." Mrs. Nash was then pursued by Corp. John Noonan, and the two were married later that year.
In fall 1878, Noonan was sent out on patrol in pursuit of some rebellious Indians. Mrs. Nash fell ill. When her condition became worse, she called for a priest and instructed her friends that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the normal preparation for burial. When Nash died on Nov. 4, her closest friends decided to show her proper respect by cleaning her up. They removed her clothing and discovered Nash was a man.
When Noonan returned, he was teased by many of the other soldiers. Not only had he lost the person he loved, he was humiliated. To get away, Noonan fled the fort and cleaned stables south of Fort Lincoln. On Nov. 28, a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune located him. Noonan insisted that "he didn't know his wife was a man. He said they had been trying very hard to have a baby." Two days later, Noonan shot himself.