Cathay Williams (September 1844 – 1893), who lived her later years in Pueblo and Trinidad, was a Southern born slave who worked as a cook and washer for the anti-slavery Union side during the American Civil War, then became the only documented female “Buffalo Soldier” in the first African-American peacetime army regiment after the war, in 1866.
Born in Missouri, Williams worked in her adolescence as a house slave on a plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, occupied by Union forces in 1861. Considered a captured slave or “contraband,” Cathay was forced to serve as a cook for the military. History isn’t clear but it appears that she traveled with soldiers through southern states until she enlisted in the military under the false name of “William Cathay” in 1866, at St. Louis.
Williams contracted smallpox after moving to New Mexico and was discharged in 1868 by the Army after a doctor at a hospital discovered she was a female. She went to work as a cook at Fort Union, New Mexico, then later moved to Pueblo, Colorado.
She worked as a washer for a woman named Ms. Dunbar in Pueblo under the name Kate Williams, where her mother, Martha Williams, ran a local orphanage. She was married briefly until her husband was arrested after stealing some of her possessions, money and horses.
She was married briefly until her husband was arrested after stealing some of her possessions, money and horses. She finally settled in Trinidad, Colorado taking jobs as a seamstress and laundress. There is some evidence she may also have found work as a nurse.
It was at this time that Williams’ story first became public by a journalist who traveled from St. Louis to break a story about her about her disguise in the military. They article was published in The St. Louis Daily Times on January 2, 1876.
“After leaving the army I went to Pueblo, Colorado, where I made money by cooking and washing,” she said to the reporter. “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.”
She continued, “I like this town (Trinidad). 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 that article her reasons for joining the army were made known. “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends,” Williams said, and that only a few know her disguise as a man. “They never ‘blowed’ on me,” she told the St. Louis Daily Times.
In late 1889 or early 1890, her health started floundering and she was diagnosed with diabetes. She had her toes amputated and walked with crutches until her death sometime between 1892 and 1900.
Her history is fragmented and her resting place is unknown. The 1900 federal census schedule for Trinidad, Colorado does not list Cathay Williams, nor cite any black woman with a similar name. Her headstone, likely made with wood, has since deteriorated.
Historians didn’t formally refer to Williams as a hero until nearly a century after her death. Upon discovery, a mythos around Williams emerged and an artist named William Jennings drew his version of rendering of her with sleek, relaxed hair dressed in a slim blue Zouave uniform.
Williams broke the rules of the U.S. Army when she disguised herself as a man, but she wasn’t the only women who served in the civil war as such. However, this fiercely independent woman has her place in history as the first African American and only female Buffalo Soldier to serve in the US Army.
In 2016, a bronze of Williams was placed in Leavenworth, Kansas at the Cultural Center and Museum, along with other monuments of Buffalo Soldiers. In 2018, a a monumental bench for her was unveiled on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, GA.
A book was published about her in 2009 called Cathy Williams: From Slave to Buffalo Soldier by Phillip Thomas Tucker, and another in 2010, Cathy Williams, Buffalo Soldier, by Sharon Solomon, of which the cover image by Doreen Lorenzetti, in this story is from.
The Rawlings Library in Pueblo, has hosted various documentaries about her including one in Women’s History Month: “Trailing Buffalo Soldier Cathay Williams.” with a description: “Can you imagine being a woman undercover as a man to fight in the Union Army? Now imagine being an African-American woman to boot. Cathay Williams is this real-life woman. Colorado Humanities scholar Rebecca Atkinson shares her new research on the lost years of this female Buffalo Soldier. View a documentary on Williams’ extraordinary life and times–some of which, Atkinson can prove, happened in Pueblo.”
Story compiled by Jenny Paulson / Pueblo Independent