March 04, 2023
FEMALE BUFFALO SOLDIER – PRIVATE William Cathay or Cathay Williams
BY JANICE FRALIN-STEELE
This is the story of one of U.S. history’s most extraordinary women to have ever put on a uniform. She was born Cathay Williams, but history will best remember her as William Cathay: the only female Buffalo Soldier. Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Independence Missouri in 1842. She was owned by a wealthy plantation owner who died when she was a child. Shortly after the Civil War began the Union Soldiers took her and other slaves with them. During this time she learned to cook and became a paid servant during the course of the war. After the war was over she faced the possibility of being unemployed but free. Being the independent woman that she was, she refused to be dependent on anyone. As dangerous as it was, she decided to enlist into the army.
Knowing that it was illegal for a woman to enlist in the army, she had no choice by to pose as a man (durning those days the enlistment process didn’t include a physical or any legal documents.) Cathay Williams became William Cathay and along with her cousin and a friend were assigned to the 38th U.S. infantry.
At the close of the Civil War the U.S. government found itself with over 180,000 African-American (freed slaves) still enlisted as soldiers. At the time popular opinion was that good non-Black men would take all the jobs and destroy their communities. There were those who just didn’t want to see Black soldiers in their communities. Congress created a place for these soldiers.
Congress reorganized the army and sent Black soldiers to patrol the new western frontier. They were no longer called Union Soldiers but became better known as Buffalo Soldiers. It is a little known black history fact that they were given this name by the Native Americans because of their dark skin and hair like buffalos (this was in no way a derogatory statement but just how Native Americans saw them).
William Cathay was able to perform all the duties as any other soldier. At no time did she try to bring attention to herself. Her secret identity was only known by the two people who enlisted with her. Life for Buffalo Soldiers was by no means easy. They were exposed to the harshest treatment as well as harsh discipline. They faced racism, poor food, poor equipment, and lack of shelter. Never the less she maintained her in the infantry regiment. Shortly after her enlisting, she became ill with the Small Pox and a case of rheumatism. It is unsure how long this went on. After a period of time she got past her illness and went back to her company. Against all odds, she was able to keep her identity a secret from the army for two years; however, she came down with another illness that was ongoing. At that time she decided to seek medical attention by the company surgeon and her true identity was revealed.
On October 14, 1868, William Cathay received an honorable discharged from the Army, but still she was denied her pension and all benefits. Little was know of her life after she left the military. The time of her birth and death were also unknown. What is known is that she preformed her duty for her country at a very important time in African-American history. It is also a little known black history fact that Cathay Williams secured her place in history by being the first female Buffalo Soldier. Her courage and bravery will never be forgotten. African-Americans have serve in war time since Colonial times but The Buffalo Soldiers were the first to serve in peacetime. Soultic magazine proudly solutes Cathay Williams and all Buffalo Soldiers who proudly served this country.