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Cathay Williams: The Female Buffalo Soldier Autobiography Essay


The current research paper examines the life of Cathay Williams. She is the only female buffalo soldier in the United States of America. In the research paper, the researcher examines the soldier’s life from the time before her master shifted to Jefferson City, to her death in Trinidad. She was freed by the Union Army during the Civil War. The female soldier travelled throughout the United States of America serving in different capacities.

For example, she served as a cook and laundress for the country’s army during the war. She left the military after she revealed to an army doctor that she was female. She was taken through a medical examination after deliberately faking illness. Cathay moved to a community of Blacks and Hispanics in Raton, where she lived in a boardinghouse.

Afterwards, she returned to her former town of Trinidad. Back in Trinidad, the former soldier operated a business, owned a piece of land, and eventually died. Historians point out that there were at least 400 other female buffalo soldiers who served during the Civil War.

Introduction to Cathay Williams, the Young Slave Girl

The story of Cathay Williams began when her ancestors arrived in the United States of America from West Africa. The American slaves did not come from fishing and hunting communities. On the contrary, majority of them were drawn from West Africa’s agricultural tribes. The New World needed their agrarian skills to develop their plantations. Bound in chains, Cathay Williams’ ancestors arrived at the New World’s shores.

At this time, slave trade was a very lucrative business in the region. The trade was a significant contributor to the economy of the United States of America. Cathay was born to a free father and a slave mother, just like many other children in the plantations where the slaves worked in.

Cathay began her life as a slave girl in the town of Independence, Missouri. However, in spite of the fact that the United States of America was a democratic country, Cathay could not become a free American. From an early age, the girl determined that one day, she would attain some level of freedom (Adrienne, n.d).

In 1850, she moved from her home county to Jefferson City. The shift was necessary after the master, William Johnson, moved to Jefferson. According Adrienne (n.d), Cathay Williams never had children. Many historians have made efforts to explain this observation.

According to most historians, the reason why Cathay did not have children was probably because of the sad reality that her children will also end up as slaves in the white man’s plantations. There is evidence suggesting that some slave women would even kill their children to keep them from suffering the oppression of slavery.

Cathay was a domestic servant, but she would also help out in the farm during planting and harvesting seasons when labor was needed the most. Her main job description was, however, much easier than that of the slave working in the fields under the elements.

Her responsibilities at her master’s house entailed serving food, carrying out general cleaning duties, making clothes, running errands, and making sure that the house was well stocked with everything that was needed to run it smoothly (Gillis, 2012).

Fortunately, her owner did not have a daughter. As a result, she was spared the suffering associated with the naggings and whims of a young mistress. The lack of a young mistress notwithstanding, Cathay attended to her master and his wife, both of whom were of the same age as her own parents (Adrienne, n.d).

During her stay at the Johnson’s, it is likely that Cathay learnt to perform basic duties like building fires, hauling firewood and water, churning butter, and milking cows. But just like other slave girls, as she increased her stature and wisdom, she began to detest the life of slavery. She was not happy with how the masters treated their slaves like lesser human beings.

She learnt how to read and write by associating with white children or other slaves. At that time, it was illegal for her masters to educate her. However, because she was an in-house slave, she may have had the opportunity to bend the law by accessing educational materials from her master (Gillis, 2012).

Cathay Williams the Buffalo Soldier: From a Slave to a Servant in the Military

Cathay Williams the Army Servant

In 1861, just before spring, Cathay’s life changed dramatically. The change came during the Civil War. Her master died before the war broke out. After the death of her master, Cathay remained with the family. Soon, Jefferson City was full of Lincoln haters. At the time the war was breaking out, the nation was in the middle of a war with the Indians.

The government made the decision to withdraw most of the soldiers from the battle to tackle the civil rebellion. Throughout the course of the war, more than 33,000 African-American soldiers died as they participated in battle. Many blacks joined the war out of lack of better options. For example, the blacks hated slavery and there was no other form of decent employment available to them, as a result opting to serve in the army.

By joining the military, the blacks were assured of several benefits. They were assured of access to medical care, housing, constant pay, education, and perhaps a pension in some cases (Howell, 2008).

Cathay decided that it would be better for her to join the forces as a servant girl. She was of the view that joining the army was better than spending the rest of her life as a slave for the white man. Cathay left Mrs. Johnson’s household and moved with the soldiers to Little Rock. However, she was quite hesitant to become a cook for the military because she only had limited experience.

Nevertheless, the colonel went with her to Little Rock. Throughout her time as a cook, she travelled widely in the country, accompanying the army wherever they travelled. From Little Rock, she moved to Louisiana and Arkansas. She saw the army men burning tons of cottons in various regions. She also witnessed the burning of rebel gunboats that took place along the Red River.

Afterwards, the command shifted to New Orleans, Georgia, and Macon. Finally, her journeys took her to Washington City. She served both as the launderer and cook to General Sheridan’s staff. She was later sent to Iowa and Jefferson Barracks. After all the travelling, she felt that it was time to become a buffalo soldier (Gillis, 2012).

Cathay Williams: The Female Buffalo Soldier

Cathay Williams was the first and only officially documented female buffalo soldier in the United States of America. In 1866, she joined the 38th infantry of the Union Army. At the time she was enlisting in the United States’ army, the government did not allow women to serve in the forces as soldiers.

The only option for Cathay was to use the disguise of a man. She operated under the name William Cathay, which was closely linked to her real name. Physical examination to determine gender was not necessary because there were no possibilities of having female army candidates.

Some areas about Cathay’s life in the military remain unclear today. For example, it is not clear how she went through the military physical examination without anyone detecting that she was a woman, and not a man. In addition, she was hospitalized at least four times during the time she served as a soldier. Apparently, the medics attached to the military did not find out that she was a female soldier.

At the time she was joining the Army, there were at least two people who knew of Cathay’s “little” secret. The soldier is noted to have said that she joined the infantry together with a cousin and a friend. Some scholars have hypothesized that the ‘other friend’ was probably her boyfriend. The two individuals (her cousin and the probable boyfriend) knew of her true identity. However, they never told on her.

It is highly probably that when the nation was fighting the Indians, there were other women like Cathay who enlisted into the army. Other scholars have indicated that there was a possibility that women also participated in the Civil War as soldiers. Such reports, however, still remain unofficial, unconfirmed, and maybe, just hypothetical (Davis, 2002).

Buffalo Soldiers and the Civil War

Before the Civil War, African-Americans were serving in the military and building railroads in the West. In addition, they were serving as explorers, miners, cowboys, and fur trappers.

The white man was tapping at the high potential of the black man. While some blacks belonged to their masters, others were more of free men. As the century turned, blacks did not have much in terms of wealth and prestige. All they had was the pride of having served in the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th infantry.

It is still not clear why the Indians dubbed African-American army men ‘buffalo soldiers’. Some historians say that the name came from the rugged physique and appearance of black cavalrymen. Others say that the Indians saw similitude between the hair of the soldiers and the shaggy coat of the buffalo.

However, it is more probable that the name came from the long buffalo coats won by the soldiers during that time. Primarily, the name was used to refer to the cavalry, but in other instances, it was used to refer to black infantry (Howell, 2008).

After the war, the future of black soldiers in the army was not very clear. In 1866, the Congress authorized the formation of four infantry units and two cavalry regiments for black army men. The former were later consolidated into two infantry units. Most of the individuals who were recruited into the new regiments had served in the army during the Civil War.

Up to 1890, the four units composed close to 20 percent of all the soldiers serving in the United States of America. The four units were fighting five main enemies. The five were composed of Pancho Villa, Lone Wolf, Victorio, Sitting Bullk, and Geronimo. The soldiers took part in the exploration of the Southwest. In addition, they constructed telegraph lines, protected railroad employees, and built frontier outposts.

It is noted that the buffalo soldiers were assigned some of the most difficult tasks in the army. They were ridiculed because of their skin color and their uniform. However, regardless of the hurdles they encountered, the ninth and tenth cavalries remained the most dedicated and distinguished regiments of the army in the country (Howell, 2008).

In the earlier years, their main assignments were carried out in New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas. In 1885, soldiers from drawn the ninth cavalry were ordered to advance into the territory occupied by the Indians to remove white settlers who had decided to grab Indian land.

Black soldiers were common along the border of Mexico. In 1916, Pancho Villa’s followers descended on Columbus and set fields on fire. They also killed 19 Americans. After the agreement between the US and the Mexican Presidents, the buffalo soldiers were instructed to pursue the bandits in their homeland (Nealon, 2002).

During the times of Cathay Williams (and even afterwards), the life of most buffalo soldiers was generally difficult compared to that of other soldiers. The barracks housing them were infested by vermin and had poor ventilation. They did not have bathing facilities, apart from local creeks. They suffered from a myriad of illnesses like tuberculosis, bronchitis, diarrhea, and dysentery.

Their diet was poor considering that they were mainly fed on pork, beans, and potatoes. They worked for seven days a week throughout the year, except on Christmas and July 4.

A private like Cathay Williams earned 13 USD a month. Many blacks committed themselves to studying after work in the regiment schools taught by chaplains. Most of the buffalo soldiers were illiterate because going to school during slavery was illegal in the country (Davis, 2002).

Many buffalo soldiers could not see their wives and children during their time in the army. The villages surrounding the forts were notorious collections of gambling parlors and saloons. Black soldiers had to swallow the bitter pill of racial prejudice each day of their life. They endured racial vitriol from senior officers and local citizens.

When there were disputes between local citizens and buffalo soldiers, the juries and officials took the side of the locals (Davis, 2002). During the Indian Wars, the buffalo soldiers distinguished and applied themselves despite being given faulty equipment, insufficient ammunition, and old horses. They rarely took alcohol, even when assigned to regions known for alcoholism.

The court martial and desertion rates of buffalo soldiers were very low, in comparison to those of their white counterparts. For instance, between 1880 and 1886, the 24th infantry had the lowest rate of desertion in the Army of the United States.

In 1888, the honor for lowest desertion was given to both 24th and 25th infantry. They were disciplined soldiers; most probably because being the in army was their only other option apart from being slaves (Howell, 2008).

From Soldier to Civilian

In 1888, Cathay Williams left the army. She faked illness for the surgeon to find out that she was female. After her time in the military she went to the town of Raton in the West. The town, with a population of 50 African-Americans was a refuge to many. The Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church was their spiritual home. Most of the black women had come to the region to look for husbands, but still many were in pursuit of opportunities.

By the time Cathay was joining the Raton community the population of the town was 3,000. There were also Hispanics and Indians, and so it was common to hear people speaking Apache and Spanish. The rail road, stock-raising, and the mining of coal, were the main sources of income in the town. Cathay lived in a boardinghouse. It is hypothesized that she managed the boardinghouse.

With the large amount of traffic flowing into the town, her business must have picked up pretty well. Potential borders were railroad workers and other laborers. Other businesses that were thriving in the city included restaurants, hotels, and salons.

The town had a deep Hispanic culture, thus the days of Cathay Williams in Raton are referred to as “Dias Felicidades,” meaning, the Happy Days. It is probable that Cathay learnt Spanish, or even became a fluent speaker. The boardinghouse may have been a place where everyone was invited regardless of their race (Adrienne, n.d).

Historians point out that if the Raton boardinghouse belonged to Cathay, then, that was a success she could not have achieved anywhere else. The west had more opportunities for women more than any other place in the United States. In 1874, Anna Graham was running a successful salon in Virginia City. There were at least three other successful businesses in the region owned by African-Americans at the time (Nealon, 2002).

However, the association between Cathay and the boardinghouse at Raton did not last for long. Some historians aver that a fire broke out consuming the business. Others say that the deteriorating cattle industry in the town was responsible for Cathay’s departure. She left Raton to rejoin her former community in Trinidad. In case she was the owner of the boarding house, she may have sold it. It is also possible that she got sick or broke.

She settled in the north of Trinidad where many blacks and Hispanics lived. The twenty miles journey from Raton to Trinidad was the last in her life. She would live in Trinidad for a long peaceful time. She lived in Las Animas County and became a seamstress and laundress and worked independently.

It is also possible that she was a midwife; an occupation that was common among black women at that time. Some historians also indicate that she may have been running a farm. However, there are no documents to support such claims. She had enough money to have a place of her own (Davis, 2002).

In Trinidad she was allowed to own a small piece of land. This was the first time in her life when she was able to buy property. She may have had a small plot behind the house where she would grow flowers and vegetables. Land ownership was equivalent of a fulfilled American dream to all the slaves who were living in the West. She may have begun to farm in Trinidad. Nonetheless, if that be the case, it would be a major contradiction.

Most ex-slaves, after owning land never wanted to farm because of the hatred they had for menial jobs. After sometime in Trinidad, Cathay found it difficult to perform manual jobs because she was suffering from chronic diabetes. She was hospitalized for more than one year. Afterwards she could only walk using a crutch. The disability was the worst blow to the female buffalo soldier.

Her physical and economic woes took everything she had left with; even the pride of self-sufficiency and independence. She made an invalid pension application which was denied. Cathay passed on in 1892 (Howell, 2008).

Cathay Williams may not have been the only Civil War buffalo soldier. Historians have recorded that there were other women who also served as soldiers in disguise. Examples of such women are Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher.

However, the difference is that Cathay was not given her military pension despite suffering from diabetes which led to the amputation of several of her toes. Historians point out that there were some 400 women who disguised themselves as men and served in the army during the Civil War (Gillis, 2012).


The life of Cathay Williams depicts the terrible woes of slavery in 19th Century America. She became the only woman who was confirmed to have served as a buffalo soldier; the most challenging of all US Army regiments. Although she did not stay in for a long time in the Army, it is clear that she travelled a lot and was involved in fierce battles.

However, Cathay was not the only woman who fought as a buffalo soldier. Despite that the Army officials did not discover the other female buffalo soldiers; historians strongly suggest that women were involved in combat.


Adrienne T. W. (n.d). Buffalo soldiers left a legacy to remember. New York: Free Press.

Davis, T. J. (2002). Cathy Williams (Book). Library Journal, 127(1), 125.

Gillis, A. (2012). Incognito in the infantry. Humanities, 33(1), 9.

Howell, K. W. (2008). Buffalo soldiers in the West: A black soldier’s anthology. East Texas Historical Journal, 46(2), 79-80.

Nealon, J. (2002). U.S. Army women’s museum. American History, 37(4), 14.

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