Born into slavery then forced to work for Union Army officers, she disguised herself as a man at the end of the Civil War, reversed her name to William Cathay, and enlisted in the Army. She served honorably with the “Buffalo Infantry” from 1866 to 1868.
Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Missouri some time 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 and turned to the Army because it was the only thing she knew. At 5’9,” she was fairly tall for her gender and time, so she decided to put on men’s clothing, reverse her name to William Cathay, and enlist. Private Cathay was assigned to Company A of the 38th US Volunteer Infantry and sent to New Mexico Territory.
Cathay Williams served with the “Buffalo Infantry” of African 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 reminded them of the hair of buffalo—saw dangerous duty that they performed well. Cathay Williams served honorably. 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 8 months of service, after which Williams and the seventy-four others in Company A were transferred to Fort Bayard, where Williams received a discharge with a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability.
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, Williams worked in New Mexico and Colorado in a variety of jobs including cook and seamstress. Throughout her life she used her wit and self-reliance to maintain her independence. Her date of death is unknown as there are no records about her after the denial of her pension in 1863.
Phillip Thomas Tucker. Cathay Williams, From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier. Stackpole Books, 2002.
John Hope Franklin. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.
Julie Roy Jeffrey. Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880. New York: Hill and Wang, 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.