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2007 Hall of Fame Inductee
Cathay Williams

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2007 Hall of Fame Inductee

Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams was born outside Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, in 1842. Although Cathay's father was a free man, she was born into slavery. She grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, and was a house-girl for William Johnson, a wealthy farmer. After her master died in Jefferson City, the Civil War broke out. Union Corps pressed Cathay and others into service. They took her and the other servants that were forced to enlist to Little Rock, Arkansas. The officers wanted her to serve the Union Corps as a cook.

During the Civil War, Cathay Williams persevered in military life to the greatest extent a woman could. Although the Union Army enlisted African-American men to fight, African-American women were barred from combat service. Of the almost 180,000 African-American enlisted, 33,380 died. After the Civil War, the surviving soldiers, many of who had served honorably, deserved a chance to continue their career, limited as it was. In addition to these Union Corps veterans, there were freed slaves from southern plantations that desperately needed employment.
In the south, there were not many employment opportunities available to blacks. So, many African-Americans took a long hard look at the military service, which offered shelter, education, steady pay, medical attention, and a pension. On November 15, 1866 after two Calvary units and two infantry units were formed, Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army using the name William Cathay. In a newspaper article she said, "I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent of relations or friends."

Cathay Williams, the future female Buffalo Soldier, decided military service was much better than frequent civilian unemployment. Only two people knew her true identity, her cousin and a friend. She informed her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5'9", with black eyes, black hair, and black complexion. An Army surgeon examined Cathay and determined the recruit was fit for duty, thus sealing her fate in history as the only documented female Buffalo Soldier, and as the first documented African-American woman to enlist in the Army prior to the 1948 law, which officially allowed women to join the army.
She was assigned to the 38th U. S. Infantry in Fort Bayard, New Mexico. During her service, she was hospitalized at least five times, but no one discovered she was a female. Cathay remained in the army until October 14, 1868. After less than two years of service and a medical treatment, her true identity was discovered. Cathay was given a disability discharge but little is know of the exact medical reasons. Cathay Williams tried to receive a pension for her service in the military; it was denied. It is believed that her medical records and her military records were not as clear as to what it was to include, especially since she entered as a man.

Historical research reports that Cathay Williams lived in New Mexico far away from any relations she might have had in Missouri, and that she was sick. Sparse information is known about her life after the army. She resumed the garb and identity of a woman, in fact of herself, Cathay Williams. She traveled to Fort Union and worked as a cook for a family of a colonel in 1869 and 1870. She then traveled to Pueblo, Colorado and worked as a laundress for two years. She moved on and lived in Las Animas Country, Colorado for a year, again working as a laundress. She finally settled permanently in Trinidad, Colorado, making her living as a laundress.

There is some evidence she may have also found work as a nurse. It is unfortunate that so little is know of Cathay Williams. The information in her pension file together with the scattered references to her military records is all that exists. Nothing definite is know of Cathay Williams after the Pension Bureau rejected her claim. Where she lived, how she survived, her quality of life, not even the date and place of her death are known. Historically, her memory and legacy live on despite whatever illness, hardship, discrimination and anonymity she faced during the course of her life.

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