Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Missiouri around 1844. Once the Civil War started, the teenage Williams was “liberated” only to be considered “contraband” and forced to work for Union Army officers until the end of the war. She worked as a cook and laundress for General Phillip Sheridan and his staff during his battles in the Shenandoah Valley.
When the war ended, she needed to find work; she turned to the army because it was the only thing she knew. At 5’9,” she was fairly tall for her sex and time, so she decided to put on men’s clothing, reverse her name to William Cathay, and enlist in the army. Private Cathay was assigned to Company A of the 38th US Volunteer Infantry and sent to New Mexico Territory. Her company marched five hundred miles down the Santa Fe Trail to Fort Union where they arrived on July 20, 1867. On September 7, they marched to Fort Cummings for eight months service. After that, Company A, consisting of Williams and seventy-four others, was transferred to Fort Bayard where Williams received a discharge with a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability. Cathay Williams served with the “Buffalo Infantry” of Afro Americans from her enlistment on November 15, 1866 until her discharge on October 14, 1868. The “Buffalo soldiers”—so named by their Apache adversaries because their hair was like the hair of buffalo—saw dangerous duty that they performed well. Cathay Williams served honorably.
It is reported that at Fort Bayard, Williams faked an illness to be discharged and was “discovered” to be a woman. She did not file for her military pension until June of 1891 while she was in Trinidad, Colorado. Her petition was refused. The Saint Louis Daily Times published an article explaining her military service and life on January 2, 1876.
After her discharge, she worked odd jobs around New Mexico. She settled in Raton where she bought and operated a boarding house. Throughout her life she used her wit and self-reliance to maintain her independence. Cathay Williams died in Raton in 1924; she was reported to be eighty-two years old.
Cathy Williams, From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier: by Phillip Thomas Tucker. Stackpole Books, 2002. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. by John Hope Franklin. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974. Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880.by Julie Roy Jeffrey. Hill and Wang, New York, 1979.
Caplan, Ramona L. Beatrice Chauvenet Fellow, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Research notes and studies. E-mail, etc.