Cathay Williams

Born in 1842 near Independence, Missouri. Her father was a free man, but her mother was a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer. When she was a small girl, the Master and her family moved to Jefferson City. When her Master died and the war broke out, and the U.S Soldiers came to Jefferson City, they took her and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. She did not want to go. Col. Benton, of the 13th Army Corp., who was the officer that carried them off, wanted Cathy to cook for the officers, but she had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. She worked for the Army as a paid servant. She learned to cook after going to Little Rock. She experienced military life first hand. She saw the soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River. She was sent to Washington City and at the time Gen. Sheridan made his raids in the Shenandoah Valley, she was the cook and wash woman for his staff. She was sent from Virginia to some place in Iowa and afterward to Jefferson Barracks. During this time, Congress passed an act authorizing the establishment of the first all Black units of the military (Two Calvary and Two Infantry), later to become known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

After the war, she wanted to be financially independent. So at the age of 22, she joined the Army. On the 15th day of November 1866, she enlisted in the United States Army at St. Louis, in the Thirty Eighth United States Infantry, Company A, Capt. Charles E. Clarke commanding, as William Cathay. She was able to do so because a medical examination was not required. Her recruiting officer described her as 5’9″ with Black eyes, Black hair, and Black complexion.
Only 2 people, a cousin and a particular friend, knew that she was a woman. They never told on her. They were partly the cause of her joining the Army. Another reason was she wanted to make her own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.
Company A arrived at Fort Cummins in New Mexico on October 1, 1867. At the Fort her company protected miners and traveling immigrants from Apache Indian attacks.
Soon after she joined the Army, she was taken with smallpox and was sick at a hospital across the river from St. Louis, but as soon as she got well she joined her company in New Mexico. She was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to her back. She carried her musket and did guard and other duties while in the Army.
In 1868, she got tired of military life and wanted to get out. So she played sick, complained of pains in her side, and rheumatism in her knees. She was examined by the Post surgeon who found out she was a woman and so she was honorably discharged on October 14, 1868, thus having sealed her fate in history as the first documented African American female to enlist in the Army as a Buffalo Soldier even though U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women.
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