Cathay Williams

American soldier

Cathy Williams, 1868

The birth of Cathy Williams in 1844 is celebrated on this date. She was a Black domestic worker and a soldier.

Born in Independence, MO, she worked as a house slave for William Johnson, a wealthy planter in Jefferson City, until his death. About that time, the Civil War broke out and she was freed by Union soldiers. Thereafter, Williams worked for the Army as a paid servant.

While serving the soldiers, she experienced military life first hand, serving a Colonel Benton in Little Rock, AR. She also served a General Sheridan and his staff. The Army recruited her to go Washington D.C., as a cook and laundress. While traveling with the Army, Williams witnessed the Shenandoah Valley raids in Virginia.

After leaving Virginia, she traveled to Iowa and St. Louis; When the war ended, Williams, wanting to be independent, enlisted in the Army in November 1866, as William Cathay in the Thirty-Eighth United States Infantry, Company A, (Buffalo Soldiers). She was able to do so because a medical examination was not required at the time. When she enlisted in the Army, women were not allowed to serve as soldiers. So Williams posed as a man and joined the Thirty-Eighth. Of the approximately 3,800 Black infantrymen and cavalrymen who served in the frontier Army between 1866 and 1900, she was the only woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier, as far as is known. Only her cousin and a friend were aware of her real identity.

Company A arrived at Fort Cummings, New Mexico, October 1, 1867, where her company protected miners and traveling immigrants from Apache attacks. In 1868, Williams grew tired of military life so she pretended to be ill. She was examined by a post surgeon who then discovered that she was a woman.

She was discharged October 14, 1868, and lived many years after her military service. Cathy Williams died at the age of 82 in Raton, New Mexico.


Michael N. Searles,
Augusta State University.

Cathy Williams: From Slave to Buffalo Soldier, by Phillip Tucker Thomas,

Stackpole Books,
copyright 2001,
ISBN: 081170340

Cressworth Lander

Talks about his father James' service with the Army's 24th infantry, Buffalo Soldiers; and briefly shares their history.

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