Cathay Williams

Only Known Female Buffalo Soldier —

FROM HER HUMBLE start in Missouri, Cathay Williams made her way into the record books of military history as the only known and documented female buffalo soldier. 

Williams was born a slave in Jackson County and moved to Jefferson City with her family and master as a small child. In 1862, as the Union soldiers moved through Jefferson City, several slaves, including Williams, were confiscated by the 8th Indiana Infantry as ”contraband“ and taken to Arkansas. While with the 8th Indiana Infantry, she worked as a cook and laundress. After the war was over, Williams found work as a cook at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Not long after this, she decided she was going to join the army so that she could make her own way and not be dependent on others.

On Nov. 15, 1866, she enlisted in the 38th Infantry, Company A as William Cathay, a man. She performed regular duties that others in the company did such as working garrison duty or guarding railroads. In an article about her in the St. Louis Times, Williams was described as ”tall and powerfully built.“

After serving almost two years, the post surgeon discovered she was a woman and she was discharged. She eventually worked her way out to Colorado hoping she would get a land bounty for her military service. It isn’t likely that she ever received one since records indicate that her pension claims were denied in 1891.


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