Buffalo soldier Cathay Williams, aka William Cathey (1844-?)
Wikimedia Commons

Who was the first (and only) female buffalo soldier?

In November 1866, an African American named William Cathey, along with two companions, enlisted in the U.S. Army in St. Louis. Described by the recruiting officer as 5 feet 9 inches tall, with black eyes, hair and complexion, Cathey stated that he was 22 years old and a cook. What Cathey neglected to mention was that he was a she. Following a routine medical exam that must have fallen far short of thorough, Cathay Williams became the first and only known female buffalo soldier, and the only documented African-American woman to serve in the regular Army in the 19th century.

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We know little of Williams’ early life. She was born into slavery in Independence, Mo., in September 1844. She fled her master’s plantation in Jefferson City in 1861, seeking the protection of the Union troops occupying the city. Throughout the Civil War, she worked as a cook and laundress for several Union infantries; records place her in Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia. After the war ended, she returned to Missouri.

We don’t know Williams’ motives for her deception and enlisting in the U.S. Army. She was assigned to Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry, one of six infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments of black soldiers deployed in the post-Civil War Indian campaigns in the West. In these were the heroic buffalo soldiers. Williams’ company, however, never saw direct combat during her period of service.

Apparently as hardy as any man in her company, and among the tallest, she marched 536 miles with her unit from Fort Harker, Kan., to Fort Cummings, N.M., over a four-month period in 1867. But service took a toll on her health, and she was hospitalized three times in 1868, ultimately discharged from the Army on a surgeon’s certificate of medical disability. There was no mention of her sex. She claimed later that she confessed her true identity to secure her discharge, but this is not corroborated by any regiment records.

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After her discharge, the civilian Williams found work as a cook, laundress, seamstress and nurse in towns across Colorado. In 1875 she told a journalist her story, which he published in St. Louis the following year. Her poor health persisted, and in 1889 she was hospitalized for a year and a half. In June 1891 she petitioned the government for a military “invalid pension,” claiming that illnesses she had contracted in the Army destroyed her ability to support herself. She signed her pension papers as Cathay Williams but presented William Cathey’s discharge certificate as proof that they were one and the same person. She complained of rheumatism and deafness, purportedly stemming from the smallpox she had contracted while stationed in St. Louis.

A doctor examined her and disputed both claims. Despite a grisly finding that all 10 of her toes had been amputated, which necessitated her use of a crutch, he felt that she was in overall good health and did not merit a pension. The Pension Bureau agreed, and in 1892 rejected her claim, solely on medical grounds. That she had enlisted and served under false pretenses apparently had no bearing on the bureau’s decision.

Nothing is known of Cathay Williams after 1892, although she is believed to have died before 1900.