Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri, the daughter of a free father and an enslaved mother, the National Park Service (NPS) reports. As a child, she worked as a house slave near Jefferson City, Missouri on the Johnson plantation. In 1861, Union soldiers occupied Jefferson City, and many slaves were identified as potential contraband, being forced to serve in military support roles as cooks, laundry workers or nurses. At the age of 17, Williams decided she wanted to voluntarily enlist, despite the ban on women serving in the military army. On November 15, 1866, she enlisted in the U.S. Regular Army under the name “William Cathay,” passing herself off as a man. She made history as the first Black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army by posing as a man.
Williams was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment after she passed a less than thorough medical examination. However, shortly after enlisting, she contracted smallpox and had to be hospitalized. While she got somewhat better and was able to rejoin her unit in New Mexico, the illness coupled with the heat took a toll on her body, and she had to be hospitalized again. Due to her frequent illness, the doctors finally discovered that she was a woman, informing the post commander immediately. On October 14, 1868, after nearly 2 years in service, she was honorably discharged by Captain Charles E. Clarke.
Determined to continue her service, Williams didn’t let her discharge as a result of disability hold her back, and she soon signed up with an all-Black regiment of soldiers, making history as the only woman to become a Buffalo Soldier. After her military service, Williams found work as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico, later settling in Pueblo, Colorado. She did marry, but it ended badly after he stole her money and livestock. Williams had him arrested and moved again, this time to Trinidad, Colorado where she found work as a seamstress. It was then that a St. Louis reporter tracked her down, having heard a story of a Black woman who had served in the army. On January 2, 1876, Williams' story was published in the St. Louis Daily Times.
While the interest around her story should’ve brought her fame and possibly fortune, it did nothing to enhance her life. In 1890, records show that Williams attempted to receive disability assistance as a result of her military service. However, she was denied, despite the precedent set with previous white women who received disability while posing as men during the Revolutionary War. In September 1893, a doctor examined Williams again and diagnosed her with diabetes and neuralgia. She had to have her toes amputated and walked with the assistance of a crutch. Still, the doctor denied her disability payments, and it is said that she died shortly after.
Williams’ journey, while remarkable, is not unheard of, more than 400 women served in the Civil War while passing as men. However, it must be noted that Williams was the first Black woman to enlist and the only woman on record to have ever served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. She also has the honor of being a member of the distinguished Buffalo Soldiers and it is her heroism, courage and sacrifice that we should remember most.
Because of Cathay Williams, we can!
This article was originally published to BOTWC