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Cathay Williams
Birth: Sep., 1842
Independence
Jackson County
Missouri, USA
Death: 1892
Las Animas County
Colorado, USA

Company A 38th U.S. Infantry, Female African America Civil War Soldier

On Nov. 15, 1866, Cathay Williams was the first African-American female to enlist in the Army as a Buffalo Soldier and the only documented African-American woman who served in the U.S. army prior to the 1948 law, which officially allowed women to join the army. She used the nom de guerre "William Cathay" (the Army misspelled "Cathay" as "Cathey"). She was a Private in the segregated African-American Thirty-eighth U.S. Infantry 1866-1868. The regimental headquarters of the 38th was located at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis, where she would have done her training.

Williams was born near Independence, Missouri to and a woman in slavery, Martha Williams, and an unknown free man of color, making her legal status also that of a slave. During her adolescence, Williams worked as a house slave ("house girl")at the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri owned by William Johnson, a wealthy Jefferson City Missouri planter. Johnson died shortly after the Civil War started and in 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City and liberated Cathay. Captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as "contraband," and many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. At age seventeen, Williams was pressed into serving in the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Plummer Benton, in which she became a good and desirable cook.

For the next few years, Williams travelled with the 8th Indiana, as they marched through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia - traveling as far as Savannah. She was present at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. At one time she was transferred to Little Rock, where she would have seen uniformed African-American men serving as soldiers, which may have inspired her own interest in military service. Later, because she was so responsible and dependable, she was recruited to go to Washington to work as cook and laundress for Gen. Phil Sheridan and his staff. She traveled with Gen. Sheridan when he made his Shenandoah Valley raids. From Virginia, Cathay went to Iowa and then to St. Louis where she worked at Jefferson Barracks.


When she enlisted as William Cathay, she informed the 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 gave her a cursory exam (at the time, there was no requirement for a "physical examination") and determined the recruit was fit for duty, thus she became the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army even though U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, composed of Buffalo Soldiers, and after training they traveled through the West to Fort Riley and Fort Harker in Kansas, then several months later on to Fort Union then Fort Cummings and finally Fort Bayard, New Mexico. But before they even left she came down with smallpox and was hospitalized for 2 months and then went to Fort Riley in Kansas for a short time before rejoining her regiment in NM. During her service, she was hospitalized at least five times, but no one discovered she was a female. After less than two years of service, Cathay was given a disability discharge but little is known of the exact medical reasons, however, according to her own account it was at this exam that the post surgeon finally discovered she was a woman.

On Jan. 2, 1876 a reporter from the St. Louis Daily Times heard of her story went to Colorado to meet her. By then she was then living in Trinidad, Colorado where she worked as a cook, dressmaker and nurse and was known as "Kate" Williams. He published her autobiographical account entitled, "She Fought Nobly: The Story of a Colored Heroine who Served as a Regularly Enlisted Soldier During the Late War”. :

"My Father a was a freeman, but my mother a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson county, Missouri. While I was a small girl my master and family moved to Jefferson City. My master died there and when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Col. Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. I learned to cook after going to Little Rock and was with the army at The Battle of Pea Ridge. Afterwards the command moved over various portions of Arkansas and Louisiana. I saw the soldiers burn lots of cotton and was at Shreveport when the rebel gunboats were captured and burned on Red River. We afterwards went to New Orleans, then by way of the Gulf to Savannah Georgia, then to Macon and other places in the South. Finally I was sent to Washington City and at the time Gen. Sheridan made his raids in the Shenandoah valley I was cook and washwoman for his staff I was sent from Virginia to some place in Iowa and afterwards to Jefferson Barracks, where I remained some time. You will see by this paper that on the 15th day of November 1866 I enlisted in the United States army at St. Louis, in the Thirty-eighth United States Infantry Company A, Capt. Charles E. Clarke commanding.

"The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never 'blowed' on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends. Soon after I joined the army, I was taken with the small-pox and was sick at a hospital across the river from St. Louis, but as soon as I got well I joined my company in New Mexico. I was as that paper says, I was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to my back. I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got tired and wanted to get off. I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees. The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my discharge. The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman. Some of them acted real bad to me. After leaving the army I went to Pueblo, Colorado, where I made money by cooking and washing. I got married while there, but my husband was no account. He stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon. I had him arrested and put in jail, and then I came here. I like this town. I know all the good people here, and I expect to get rich yet. I have not got my land warrant. I thought I would wait till the railroad came and then take my land near the depot. Grant owns all this land around here, and it won't cost me anything. I shall never live in the states again. You see I've got a good sewing machine and I get washing to do and clothes to make. I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives."

In an excerpt from the article "Cathay Williams Female Buffalo Soldier" by Mary Williams, Fort Davis National Historic Site:

"After the war, Cathay enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry,
one of the newly formed regiments that consisted of troops of African-American descent. At the time of her enlistment on November 15, 1866, Cathay was 22 years old and was 5'9" tall. At the time medical examinations were not required of those who enlisted into the army. Cathay remained in the army until October 14, 1868. After leaving the army, Cathay worked as a cook for an officer at Fort Union, New Mexico Territory. From Fort Union, she went to Pueblo, Colorado. She stayed there for two years and worked in a laundry for a Mr. Dunbar. From Pueblo, Cathay moved to Las Animas and lived there about a year again working as a laundress.

In 1872 she moved Trinidad Colorado where she worked as a cook, dressmaker and nurse. In January 1890 she had been hospitalized for over a year with an unspecified illness when The Pueblo Daily Chieftain noted she was "lying very sick at her shanty on West First Street [in Trinidad] and is in destitute circumstances, having been for several days without fire or food." This information was taken from the Trinidad Advertiser, which wrote that Williams was well-known to most Trinidad residents, especially the older ones. "Kate (as she was called) is very masculine in appearance and when she first came to Trinidad passed as a male and went by the name of James Cady."

In 1891 she filed suit in Trinidad attempting to get an Army disability pension, citing rheumatism, neuralgia, and deafness but was denied even though she walked with a cane and had had all her toes amputated (probably due to diabetes which also causes neuralgia). Sadly, her disability lawyers who filled out the application only listed "deafness" and the doctor said she had "no disability".

According to a 6-8-2009 article in the Pueblo Chieftain, "Buffalo Gal – Notable Woman Soldier Lived in Pueblo," Williams then returned to Pueblo, where her mother, Martha (now herself a freedwoman), worked as a matron at the former Lincoln Home (aka Pueblo Colored Orphanage & Old Folks Home) in the early 20th century. Ruth Steele, director of the adjoining King museum, says Martha Williams helped care for orphans at the home and her daughter did alterations and was a janitor at White & Davis on Main Street during the same time period. (In fact, the photo of a woman in a dress and bonnet often claimed to be Cathay Williams, is instead her mother, Martha, in front of the Lincoln Home.) "I understand the kids were afraid of her (Cathay)," Steele says. "She was so tall and dark and she walked with a sort of a limp." (By that point her toes had been amputated). Researcher Ramona Rand-Caplan of Albuquerque, N.M., who's followed Williams' trail for about eight years says she worked as a dressmaker at White & Davis in 1909 and 1910 and lived on East Abriendo Avenue and "She says she was married, but I can't find a wedding certificate." Neither has she been able to find a date of death for either Cathay Williams or Martha Williams. "I've checked diligently in Pueblo, Trinidad and Raton but the records in the 19-teens weren't very well kept." So from this it appears she lived at least until 1910.

So, it appears her last known residence was in Pueblo where she lived until at least 1910.

Wikipedia, states she died in Trinidad in 1892; but, in fact, wiki which is not always a reliable resource, states, "The exact date of Williams' death is unknown, but it is assumed she died shortly after being denied a pension, probably sometime in 1892." Several other sources cite the research and presentation about Williams by Texas teacher and historical scholar, Cynthia Savage, to the West Texas Historical Society in 1997. While Williams last verified residence in Trinidad was April 1892, Savage traced her to Raton, New Mexico(Colfax County) just across the border from Trinidad in northern NM. Savage found a file at the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library in Raton, allegedly proving that after her disability fight in Trinidad, she moved to Raton where she opened a boarding house and died in 1924 at age 82. Raton was an unsegregated, welcoming town with a thriving African-American community, however, Rand-Caplan says the information found in the small museum in Raton, N.M., is about another "Kate Williams" who would have been too young to have served in the army when Cathay Williams did. Another researcher, Rebecca Atkinson, believes Cathay Williams lived in Trinidad for about 2 decades beyond 1892.


Linda (#48291572) 
 
Burial:
Unknown
 
Created by: E A Gray
Record added: Jan 25, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 83966948
Cathay Williams
Added by: George Seitz
 
 
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