Mrs. Courtenay

“Many of the servants and laundress who went west were Irish and faced life on the frontier with a sharp tongue, quick fist, and a sympathetic heart.” Mrs. Courtenay was either born in Ireland, then immigrated to the United States, or she was born in an Irish family in Boston or New York. She had to be either in her late twenties or early thirties when she came on the winter campaign.

During the Battle of the Washita, Lt. Col. Custer had with him 689 men and one white woman. In an ambulance that was with Lieutenant James Bell’s supply train was an Irish woman named Courtenay. Mrs. Courtenay, a one-time laundress for F troop, and wife to Sgt. Dennis (or David) Courtenay, was Custer’s cook during the winter campaign. On March 16, 1802, Congress passed an act which regulated the numbers of laundress by the ratio of one per every 17 men, not to exceed 4 per company. It also provided them one day’s ration, and housing. As a laundress, Mrs. Courtney’s rates were “fifty cents per month for each soldier, two dollars for single officers, and four dollars for married officers, children and servants.” She could make up to $40.00 a month, while her husband, Sgt. Dennis Courtenay, was paid $13.00 a month. Mrs. Courtenay was “protected from nonpayment of the soldiers' bills. Army regulations specified that when the company mustered for pay, the laundress' bill was deducted from the soldiers pay before payment of his debt to the sutler.”

Custer chose Mrs. Courtenay as his cook for the campaign. How or why she was chosen is uncertain, but she was hired for the seven months campaign. As a cook on a campaign, she would serve Colonel Custer his rations which was either 12 ounces of salt pork or bacon, or 1 pound 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef. During the campaign fresh meat was usually venison or buffalo meat that was served. Plus either 1 pound 6 ounces of soft bread, or 1 pound of hard bread (hardtack). She would either cook beans or a stew. And maybe bake a Dutch oven apple or cherry cobbler for dessert.

Custer described to his wife, that Mrs. Courtenay, “is the ‘awfulest’ scold and the most ‘quarrelsomest’ woman I ever met. She and the man who waits on the table have constant rows.”Elizabeth Custer describes her as “tanned, and toughened by ‘roughing it.’ She was perfectly fearless, but the life had sadly affected her temper.” She proved to be braver than most men while making coffee for Lt. Bell the Indians shot a mule that was near her. Unflinching she kept making the coffee while muttering commonly under her breath, “Git out, ye red divils ye.”

Mrs. Courtenay proved to be a viable asset to Custer in two situations, one that Custer put Monahsetah (Meotzi), Chief Little Rock’s captive daughter, into her care and she assisted Courtenay with her daily duties. Mrs. Courtenay taught Meotzi to speak English; and two, she later helped Anna Belle Brewster Morgan and Sarah Catherine White after their release from the Cheyennes at Sweetwater Creek on March 19, 1869. They were conducted to Mrs. Courtenay’s tent, and from her “limited wardrobe they were able to obtain enough to replace the dresses made of flour sacks.”

Mrs. Courtenay stayed on campaign until the 7th Cavalry arrived at Fort Hays, Kansas, on April 7, 1869. She then faded in history, although not forgotten, for she became one of the unsung voices of the Washita.


George Armstrong Custer. My Life on the Plains.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. Pg. 373

Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Following the Guidon.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. Pg. 12-13.

Anne Bruner Eales. Army Wives on the American Frontier.
Boulder, CO: Johnson Printing, 1996. Pg. 131-144

Jerome A. Greene. Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyenne, 1867-1869.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Pg. 244n19.

Richard G. Hardorff. Washita Memories, Norman, OK.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Pg. 22, 166 & n11. 186n6, 231 & n45.

Last updated: February 26, 2018

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