Cathay Williams (1844 – 1892), a.k.a. William Cathay, was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army, and the only black woman documented to serve in the US army in the 19th century. Born a slave in Independence, Missouri in 1844, Cathay worked as a house servant on a nearby plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City.
After the Civil War, employment opportunities were scarce for many African-Americans, especially in the south. Many of them looked to military service, where they could earn not only steady pay but also education, health care, and a pension. Cathay had a cousin and a friend who enlisted, and she decided that in order to earn a living, she would enlist too.
Women were prohibited from serving in the military at that time, so Cathay disguised herself as a man and switched her first and last names, using the pseudonym William Cathay. Cathay was tall at 5’9” (175 cm) and had no problem enlisting since a medical exam wasn’t required.
Cathay was declared fit for duty on November 15, 1866. She was assigned to Company A of the 38th Infantry, one of four all-black units newly formed that year. Only her cousin and her friend who were enlisted in the same regiment knew her secret.
Cathay’s military career was short-lived. She contracted smallpox soon after enlisting, and was frequently hospitalized in the following years. During all these hospitalizations, her gender was never discovered. Finally, in October of 1868 — almost two years after she enlisted — the post surgeon discovered she was a woman and informed her commanding officer.
Cathay was immediately given a disability discharge.At the time she had been stationed in New Mexico territory, so she went to work as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico under her original name. She briefly married, but the union ended when he stole her money and horses and she had him arrested. Later she moved to Trinidad, Colorado where she became known as Kate Williams. She subsisted on odd jobs as a cook, laundress, and seamstress. While living in Colorado, Cathay was approached by a reporter from St. Louis. He had heard rumors about the first black woman to serve in the US army, and had traveled to Colorado to interview her. He wrote an article about her life and military service which was published on January 2nd, 1876 in the St. Louis Daily Times.
Cathay’s poor health continued even after she left the army: she suffered from neuralgia (at the time a catch-all term for various illnesses) and diabetes. She had several toes amputated due to diabetes, forcing her to use a crutch to get around. She also spoke of suffering from rheumatism and deafness. In 1891, at the age of 47, she applied for a disability pension for her military service.
A handful of women had applied for military pensions before Cathay, most notably Deborah Sampson in 1816. Deborah had influential friends, including Paul Revere, who had helped her fight for her pension. Cathay, however, was on her own. After examining her, the doctor decided she didn’t qualify for disability payments, and her application was rejected.
It’s unknown exactly when Cathay died. She’s not listed in the 1900 census for Trinidad, Colorado. Given her poor health and the fact that she was probably having a hard time financially since she applied for a pension, it’s probable that she died sometime between 1892 and 1900.