Cathay Williams was born in slavery in Missouri in 1842. When the Union army “liberated” her in 1861, she found herself taken as contraband and assigned as cook to Gen. Philip Sheridan’s staff. Cathay, however, could not cook, and after the staff ate a few of her meals, she was reassigned as a laundress.
Cathay appreciated the constant movement of the army, and after the war, she decided she would like to stay in the army, especially now that the government was recruiting several units of black soldiers to protect settlers, cattle herds and the U.S. mail from Indians in the West. But the army was certainly not accepting women recruits.
After discussing the proposition with a cousin and a “special” friend, Cathay enlisted on November 15, 1866, as William Cathay. There was either no physical exam or she somehow managed to avoid it. William Cathay’s service in the Buffalo Soldiers, the name given to the black units by the Indians because of the tenacity of their fighting, was unremarkable. There is no report that “he” saw any direct combat. What is remarkable is that William Cathay was hospitalized at least five different times during the almost three years of his service, and at no time was it discovered that William Cathay was Cathay Williams.
As the end of the three-year hitch neared, Cathay Williams, apparently suffering from diabetes, grew weary of army life. In an ironic twist, she feigned illness, and this time upon admittance to the hospital, allowed her gender to be discovered. She was given an immediate honorable discharge.
She resumed wearing women’s clothing and spent the rest of her life, moving throughout the West, working as a laundress, seamstress and cook. She married once, but her husband stole her money and her horses. She had him arrested.