As we know from television, movies and other media, the westward expansion to our manifest destiny was the work of white men of European stock. The women were there for, well… you know what went on upstairs at Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon.
But in the Old West a person could get away from life’s previous entanglements, get a fresh start or simply lose oneself.
Black cavalry troops, known as Buffalo Soldiers, helped protect western settlers from Native Americans who took exception to their land being take by the newcomers. (There is no agreement about the origin of the label “Buffalo Soldier.”) They also shared the danger but none of the glory with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders on his famed charge up San Juan Hill.
About one in four cowboys was black. George Fletcher, an African-American, and Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce Indian, competed against each other at the second annual Pendleton Round-Up in 1911.
A few women became part of wild-west lore. Calamity Jane — who typically dressed in men’s clothes and liked her whiskey — and Annie Oakley — dubbed “Little Sure Shot” — parlayed their frontier adventures into greater fame as featured performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Although the term “transgender” was likely unknown in pioneer days, the Wild West had its share of colorful characters born female living their lives as men.
Harry Allen gained notoriety in the Pacific Northwest during the first two decades of the twentieth century. He had been in and out of jail for for brawling, horse stealing, bootlegging and the all-purpose crime of vagrancy. Allen, as we say now, was assigned female at birth. But, “I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl,” he said.
Mrs. Nash, known only by a married name, was born in Mexico and worked her way to New Mexico, then Kentucky. She was hired as a laundress for the Seventh Cavalry, which took her to the Dakota territory. During her more than a decade with the cavalry, she married three different enlisted men. Nash died of appendicitis in North Dakota in 1878. The woman preparing her body for burial discovered that she was attached to male genitals. The local newspaper eulogized her as a respected woman, interior decorator, midwife, famed tamale cook and a stalwart member of the community.
Mrs. Nash was one of a few; most transgender persons of that era were born female and lived as male. It was typically after death that their assigned gender became known.