Cathay Williams was an awesome lady with a badass portrait to match!
Cathay was born 1844 in Missouri to a free father and a mother who was still enslaved. Because her mother was not free, this meant that Cathay shared her legal status as a slave. She worked as a house slave on the Johnson Plantation outside of Jefferson City, MO.
Union forces occupied the area in 1861 and Cathay was pressed into service with the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Union forces considered captured slaves to be “contraband” and often used them as cooks, laundresses, or nurses. During the Civil War, Cathay traveled through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia with the regiment. She was at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Red River Campaign. When the war ended, she was working at the Jefferson Barracks Military Post in Lemay, MO.
On November 15, 1866, Cathay enlisted in the United States Regular Army as what is believed to be the first African American woman to join. Since women were prohibited from serving, she chose the false name of “William Cathay” and signed up for a three-year commitment. Of the decision she stated, “I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.” She served in the 38th United States Infantry Regiment where only her friend and cousin knew her secret. Unfortunately, she contracted smallpox not long after enlistment and endured frequent hospitalization. Eventually, a surgeon discovered that she was a woman, and she was discharged on October 14, 1968.
Cathay worked as a cook in New Mexico before moving to Colorado and marrying. Unfortunately, she married an asshat who stole her money and a team of horses. So, Cathay had him arrested!
She went on to work as a seamstress in Colorado. Her story was reported in The St. Louis Daily Times in 1876 after a reporter heard rumors of an African American woman who had served in the army. In 1891, she applied for a disability pension from the army. Despite having neuralgia, diabetes, and all of her toes amputated, she was denied. She died shortly after sometime in 1893. There is a monument bench dedicated to her at the National Infantry Museum and a bronze bust at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Kansas.