Cathay Williams: The Only Black Woman Buffalo Soldier


Private Cathay Williams was the only woman to serve in the US Army as a Buffalo Soldier. On November 15, 1866, she enlisted in the Army as a man. Williams reversed her name William Cathay and lived as a male soldier and served until she was found out due to the last of many illnesses she suffered while a serving. She is the only documented black woman known to have served in the Army during these times when enlisting women was prohibited.

Born in 1844 in Independence, Missouri, Williams was a slave as was her mother, but her father was free. She would work as a house servant on the Johnson plantation near Jefferson City. By 1861, Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the beginnings of the American Civil War. Slaves were considered “contraband” (they were property remember) and at age 17, Williams was impressed into serving. She served the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Now the Army recognizes and honors Cathay Williams but as with many other blacks she was mistreated. Although suffering from neuralgia and diabetes and having had all her toes amputated, she was denied a pension.

Having served as a man should not have been a factor and she should have received the pension like white women Deborah Sampson, Margaret Corbin and Mary Hays McCauley did. Cathay Williams had no one to fight for her pension rights and therefore got nothing. Little is known other that than Williams left Trinidad and moved just across the border to Raton, New Mexico where she ran a boarding house until she died in 1924.