A True Pioneer

Today is special for more than the usual “Hump Day” remarks.
We have a guest writer and she’s brought us a history lesson.
Sandie Grassino, co-author of two local histories — Jefferson Barracks and Sunset Hills — from the respected Arcadia Publishing brings us a tidbit of history – an accidental pioneer.
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Cathay Williams led a double life in ways that probably no one reading this could imagine.
She was born a slave in Independence, Missouri in 1844. Although her father was a freeman, Williams was a slave because her mother was a slave. While still a child, she served as a house-girl to her owner, William Johnson, a wealthy farmer. The Johnson family and their slaves uprooted to the Jefferson City, Missouri area where Johnson died shortly before the Civil War.
In the spring of 1861, Union forces tailed Claiborne Fox Jackson (Governor of Missouri) and his friend, Sterling Price (former Governor of Missouri) and their Missouri Militia across the state from Saint Louis. Fox, Price, and the militia they trained were Confederate sympathizers. The Union’s Colonel Benton was in charge of this sweep across Missouri to capture them. Cathay Williams was taken under the Union forces and made a cook and laundress for the Union officers as they continued to chase Jackson and the others. In an interview with a Saint Louis paper in 1876, Williams stated that she neither wanted to go nor knew how to cook. She next was employed by Philip Sheridan, who was, among other things, the quartermaster for Jefferson Barracks . She remained his cook for the duration of the war, as he completed assignments throughout the country. Cathay Williams returned to Jefferson Barracks before the war was over.
Jefferson Barracks was one of the military sites that formed a segregated Army regiment of African-American soldiers following the Civil War. Unable to find suitable work, Williams enlisted in that newly formed regiment, which would become known as “The Buffalo Soldiers” She enlisted as William Cathay on 15 November 1866. Evidently, the physical was somewhat lax, because she was accepted as a private in Company A, the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment. At 5’9”, she was one of the tallest privates in her regiment.
Before the regiment deployed, she contracted small pox; and, like other soldiers at JB who also contracted the disease, William Cathay was sent to a hospital in Illinois. After her health improved, she rejoined her unit. . After two years of primarily moving on foot to new locations with her regiment, William Cathay again took ill. This time, she was in a barracks hospital in New Mexico. And this time, her secret was discovered.
She was discharged. She moved eventually to Colorado. Around 1890, again ill and in the hospital for a while, Cathay Williams applied for a military disability pension . The pension doctor did not find that she qualified for the pension, despite the fact that she had lost all of her toes to diabetes and could only walk by using a crutch. Although the exact date of her death is not known, it is believed she died sometime in 1892.
Cathay Williams holds the historical distinction of being the only documented female African-American woman to have served in the US Army prior to the 1948 law which allowed women to join . She was – whether it arose from necessity or choice – a true pioneer.

Sandi Grassino
Sandi Grassino

3 thoughts on “A True Pioneer”

  1. Ellen, This is a very interesting story. Through the years I’ve read or seen on TV stories about other women who joined the military as men. That would be an interesting subject for a book. Maybe there already is one?

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