Cathay Williams, born in 1842, was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army and the first and only female buffalo soldier.
Although some believe Williams, the daughter of a slave woman and a “free man of color,” enlisted in the army due to a need for income, no one knows for sure as to why she decided to portray herself as a male and enlist. While serving in the military, she was assigned to Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry.
Williams was often hospitalized due to strain and smallpox, which is how medical personnel discovered that she was a woman. In 1868, Captain Charles Clarke honorably discharged Williams once he learned of her true identity.
Shortly after being discharged, she found several jobs that ranged from cooking to nursing across the state of Colorado. In 1891, she filed for a military “invalid pension,” due to her declining health stemming from her time in the military. Her petition was declined.
There is little information on Williams after 1892, but she is believed to have died sometime within the next several years.
Interested in learning more about other figures in black history? Read the courageous story of Claudette Colvin here.
Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.