During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers like Cathay Williams who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.
Born: September 1844, Independence, Missouri
Died: ca. 1892–1900
Best known for: being the only known woman to enlist as a Buffalo Soldier, posing as a man.
Changing her name and posing as a man, Cathay Williams enlisted in the U.S. Army as part of an all-Black unit of the military, later known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844 to a free father and enslaved mother. She worked as a house slave in Jefferson City, Missouri. Soon after the Civil War broke out, Union soldiers seized the plantation Williams was enslaved on, taking her to serve as an Army cook and washerwoman. At the time, captured slaves were referred to as “contraband,” allowing the Army to use them to perform various cooking, cleaning and nursing duties. She served under General Philip Sheridan, likely witnessing the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Pea Ridge.
When the war ended in 1865, Williams knew she would struggle to find a job because she was Black. But soldiers received pay, health benefits and pensions. After Congress passed an act in 1866 establishing all-Black units of the military serving on the Western frontier, Williams joined, posing as a man and changing her name to William Cathay (cited in some sources as Cathey). Women were not permitted to join the military at the time, but a cursory medical exam determined her fit to serve. Although she never saw combat, she marched through Missouri, Kansas and New Mexico and performed regular garrison duties.
During her time serving, Williams suffered health problems including smallpox and was recorded being hospitalized five times. During her final hospitalization in Fort Bayard, New Mexico on Oct. 14, 1868, doctors finally discovered she was a woman. Williams was honorably discharged from the Army with a certificate of disability. However, statements included in her certificate of disability said her “infirmities” of being “feeble, both physical and mentally” predated her stint in the Army.
After being discharged, Williams worked as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico, a laundress in Pueblo, Colorado and a laundress and nurse in Trinidad, Colorado. Her health issues forced her into the hospital again in 1890, and she filed for disability pension, citing deafness, rheumatism and neuralgia, which she said she contracted in the military. But the Pension Bureau denied her claim, stating she had no disability, and her condition pre-dated her enlistment. They also cited that her service in the military was illegal because she was a woman, despite her discharge being honorable.
The exact date of Williams’ death is unknown, but she stopped appearing on Trinidad, Colorado’s census between 1892 and 1900.
A statue honoring Williams sits outside of the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas.