Female Badasses in History: Cathay Williams (1844-1892)
Cathay Williams is the first (known) black woman to have served in the United States Armed Forces. Born a slave, she still defied the time’s norms regarding gender, race and even class and stands as an example to remembered, not just for her own courage, strength and bravery but for all women and especially black women who served and fell for their country but have been forgotten by the history books due to their own success in masking their identity or due to racial and gender prejudices.
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844 as the daughter of a free man and an enslaved woman, making her too a slave. She worked as a house servant on a plantation near Jefferson City until the Union army liberated the area in 1861. She was declared a “contraband” and went on to serve in the army for the first time as a cook in the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
During her service she was transferred to Little Rock for some time where she must have seen African-American soldiers fighting in the Union Army thereby maybe inspiring her to also serve.
After the end of the Civil War, Cathay decided to enlist in the army for a three-year engagement, disguising herself as a man and using the alias William Cathay (which in my opinion is genius in its own right). Only two other people knew her secret. Unfortunately she contracted smallpox shortly after her enlistment and was hospitalized for a considerably amount of time. In 1868 she re-joined her regiment in New Mexico but due to the heat, the physical strain of the march to New Mexico and the smallpox, she again had to be hospitalized and this time the doctors discovered her secret. She was immediately discharged by her commanding officer.
After her service in the army she became a cook in New Mexico. In 1876, almost ten years after her service, details of her story became public and Cathay by that time sick again decided to apply for a disability pension from the army the same way Deborah Sampson had done.
What had worked in the case of Sampson, however did not work for Cathay Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from diabetes and her toes had been amputated, official examiners from the army did not grant her application. This certainly had to do in part with Cathay having no influential friends – like Sampson had Paul Revere – and even more with the fact that Cathay was African-American.
The exact date of her death is unknown but is likely to have occurred in 1892 based on the report of the examiners from the Pension Bureau detailing how severe her illness had become in 1890.
Cathay Williams’ story has a very sad ending. She had served her country defying patriarchal and racist norms and was denied her due payment for it. A payment, which other white women who had done the same, had already received. She died at an unknown time, at an unknown place under unknown circumstances and is hardly present in official memory today – also something that does not apply to her white counterparts like Deborah Sampson.
Cathay Williams’ story also certainly wasn’t the only one of its kind. Historians suspect that African-Americans and also African-American women already had served in the Armed Forces in the War of Independence. They are, however, largely forgotten today. Let us remember Cathay Williams in the place of all of them.