Incognito in the Infantry: The story of the only documented female Buffalo Soldier
There is no gravestone marking the final resting place of Cathay Williams. Nor is there one for her alter ego, Private William Cathey, who served with the 38th Infantry on the western frontier from 1866 to 1868. But for a smattering of newspaper accounts and some census and military records, the story of the only woman documented to have been a buffalo soldier—the name given by the Plains Indians to African-American troops—might have disappeared.
It’s known that Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Independence, Missouri, that she was the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free man, and that she served in the military, says Diane Williams, who presents Cathay Williams’s life for the Mississippi Humanities Council’s speakers bureau. She was often sick, according to her military records, and, by Cathay’s own accounting, her fellow soldiers gave her a hard time when it was revealed she was a woman.
Cathay joined with a cousin and someone she called “a particular friend,” probably a boyfriend, says Williams. Neither ever betrayed Cathay or revealed her identity.
But the simplest facts—the correct spelling of her name, her birth date, and the circumstances of her death—may never have been recorded, and no one knows how she managed to fool the army surgeons and her comrades for so long. In telling Cathay’s tale, says Williams, “I’m relying on limited materials,” and “there are discrepancies throughout.”