Cathay Williams/William Cathay: Buffalo Soldier
Season 4, episode 2
Cathay Williams was an African American Woman who was conscripted to work as General Philip Sheridan's cook during the Civil War. When the war was over, she wanted to join one of the all-Black Army Regiments that later became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers." But women weren't allowed to serve at that time. So she put on men's clothes, changed her name to William Cathay, and spent the next three years as a Buffalo Soldier in the "Wild West." Her story could easily serve as a western myth – a portrait of so-called frontier courage in the face of insurmountable odds. But we look more closely at the way her choice to live as a Black male soldier also reflects the extremely limited options available to Black women at the time.
Guests: Rebecca Atkinson, John Bell, DeAnne Blanton, Peter Boag, Haskell Hooks, Shelton Johnson, Carlos López, Jan MacKell Collins, Paul J. Matthews, Al Melton, and Dexter Nelson II
- Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
- Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.
- Living Contraband: Former Slaves in the Nation's Capital During the Civil War - National Park Service
- TEDx Talk: How I'm fighting bias in algorithms by Joy Buolamwini.
- Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens.
- Redressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag
- They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton.
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William Cathay / Cathay Williams: Buffalo Soldier transcript
Noel: Hey, this is Noel. Even though you’ve heard her voice on other episodes of Lost Highways like “Spirits of Place: The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act and Its Legacy,” and “Busted: The Case of the Denver Police Department,” I want to reintroduce you to one of our producers, Maria José Maddox. She’s originally from Chile. And she came to the US in 2009. She got her PhD in Latin American Literature at CU Boulder, and we’re lucky to have her, and lucky to have her as a co-host and writer on this episode about Cathay Williams, aka William Cathay, the only documented female Buffalo Soldier.
Maria: My grandpa, who never set foot in the United States, was obsessed with Westerns.
He grew up in a boarding school and never saw much of his family.
According to my mom, that's where he fell in love with the American West... or at least the idea of it.
Maria: ¿Y ahí fue cuando empezó a leer?
Carmen Luz: Claro…. Entonces no tenía muchos amigos, entonces se iba a la biblioteca y ahí pasaba los días.
Maria: She says my grandpa, who didn't have many friends, liked to spend his days in the library.
Like many men of his time, he was a John Wayne fan. But my mom claims his fascination with The Old West stemmed from the books of one author in particular.
Carmen Luz: Sí, Zane Grey, así se llama.
Carmen Luz: Zane Grey.
Maria: Ya, lo voy a buscar después.
Carmen Luz: Ese era.
Jorge: Zane Grey, conocido como Zane Grey, fue un escritor estadounidense célebre por sus novelas del Oeste.
In the early 1900s, Zane Gray wrote dozens of novels. He mythologized cowboys, cavalry soldiers and gritty individuals of an idealized West that never was.
She remembers seeing his books like Riders of The Purple Sage and The Lone Star Ranger on his bedside table.
When I moved to Colorado from Chile in 2009, much of the West felt familiar. The seemingly endless roads, the Mars-like cliffs of Utah and Colorado. The saguaro cacti in Arizona. I'd seen it all in the movies my grandpa adored.
But I also saw what I hadn't seen. I saw that I, too, had romanticized the Wild West and the grimy men who spoke with bullets.
But it wasn’t the landscapes or the possibility of adventure that drew me to Colorado. Like many who took a leap of faith in the 19th century during westward expansion, it was the promise of a second chance. A rebirth. I married a gringo and changed my name. And I made a different life for myself far from the constricting and often painful history of my country.
Noel: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.
Maria: And I’m Maria Maddox. On this episode, we’ll meet Cathay Williams, aka William Cathay, an African American woman who, in the wake of the Civil War, passed as a man to serve in one of the Army Regiments that later became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers."
Noel: Her story could easily serve as its own western myth – a portrait of Frontier courage in the face of insurmountable odds. But we’ll look more closely at the way her choice to live as a Black male soldier also reflects the extremely limited options available to Black women in the so-called “Wild West.”
Dexter Nelson II: We're often taught in schools that the West was explored through Manifest Destiny, through white people, you know, having the initiative to go and explore things out in the West. So I think that's why we don't talk about Buffalo Soldiers. That's how we don’t talk about Bill Pickett or other Black cowboys or even Latinx cowboys.
Noel: This is Dexter Nelson II, Associate Curator of Black History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado.
Dexter Nelson II: We know that women helped settle the West too, you know, African-Americans did. We obviously know Native American Indigenous communities were there before, you know, living and thriving. And so, to me, I feel like that goes at a larger story of uncovering the truth about the West and just how diverse and rich the West was by itself before, you know, Americanized civilization, you know, made its way there.
Noel: It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, that scholars began to write more about the role that Black soldiers played not just in the Civil War but also in what we now know as the United States of America.
Paul J. Matthews: History in America is kind of like an apartment complex with a thousand windows in it. And you just can't go looking in one window and say, ‘Now, this is American history.’ You have to look in all the windows, the other 999. And that's sort of the kind of role that I think we play. We, meaning African-American museums, military museums, is one of those windows that you need to look in and observe and gain an appreciation for.
Maria: Retired US Army Captain Paul J. Matthews is the founder and curator of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas.
Noel: Broadly defined, says Matthews, the Buffalo Soldiers were comprised of about 25,000, mostly African-American soldiers, who served in the U.S. Army after the end of the Civil War in 1866 until 1917. They were stationed in various posts throughout the American West.
Paul J. Matthews: The number one question I get from Europeans when they come to the museum is ‘Why did the the Black man stay so patriotic to America in the face of segregation and discrimination, lynching and all of that?’ I take them back to Frederick Douglass, who made a very important point at the beginning of the Civil War. Frederick Douglass said, and I’ll paraphrase, "Give the colored man a uniform, a buckle with the U.S. on it, a button with an eagle on it, and a musket. And you're making a citizen, but you also make him a man". Because what he was trying to do was make sure the Civil War was being fought for freedom and not just to save the Union.
Noel: For the past 30+ years, Shelton Johnson worked as a park ranger with the National Park Service at Yellowstone and later Yosemite National Park. Like Captain Matthews, he's passionate about rescuing the history of the Buffalo Soldiers from oblivion.
Shelton Johnson: When people ask me, ‘Who were the Buffalo soldiers?’ I put it this way: the Buffalo soldiers were men who knew they were men and were not afraid to show it, to reveal that masculinity, to reveal that sense of integrity, to reveal that sense of strength. Putting that uniform on gave you a sense of pride, it gave a good sense of dignity, because at that time in America, the latter half of the 19th century through the last century, there were very few positions of authority that were available to African-Americans, particularly any type of job, if you will, that would fill an African-American man or woman with a sense of respect and pride.
Maria: When I told Dexter we were working on an episode about Buffalo Soldiers, he told me I had to talk to John Bell and his wife, Janet Bell.
Noel: John Bell is the founder, president and CEO of the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West, a historical reenactors group. He says that he first learned about the Buffalo Soldiers from his dad:
John Bell: One day walked in the room, and he said, "Son, what did you learn about Buffalo Soldiers in college?" And I gave him the standard answer "Nothing." He looked at me, said “I wasted my damn money,” and he walked out of the room. Didn't know why. My dad was a very quiet person, never got riled about very many things, but that really bothered him. So I asked my mother what my dad did in the army. She said it had something to do with horses. Went with my dad on a trip to Kansas City and he met some other older gentleman that he knew. And they had been Buffalo Soldiers. A gentleman by the name of R.T. Williams said to me: "Son, they don't know about the Buffalo Soldiers. Would you tell our story?" And I promised him that I would do that. I did not know that it would take 40 years to learn everything that I could about Buffalo Soldiers.
[The Persuasions - “Buffalo Soldiers”]
Maria: In 1860 - before the Civil War - Black Americans amounted to less than 2% of the population in the North. However, they faced barriers in just about every aspect of their lives.
Noel: Even in most “free” states, they were barred from voting, from education, and even from using public bathrooms.
Maria: Their job opportunities? Pretty limited. And they were usually confined to some of the poorest parts of cities like New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
Noel: According to Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, many Black Americans living in free states were constantly reminded of the racism that seemed as pervasive in the North as it did in the South. And they had, by the 1850s, quote “all but despaired of ever finding a secure and equal place within American life.”
Maria: It’s in this context that the Civil War ignited patriotism and restored faith in a better future - at least for some Black citizens.
John Bell: The Buffalo Soldier story actually begins with, and before the Civil War, the men who became Buffalo Soldiers had been primarily slaves. They worked on the plantations from can to can't, which means they started working in the morning when they first could see. And they worked all day until they couldn't see.
Paul J. Matthews: If you were Black in America, a Black man in America, you know, prior to the Civil War, you were basically doing four things: picking cotton, cutting sugarcane, working in a tobacco field, working in rice paddies. Guess what you were doing after the Civil War? Picking cotton, cutting sugarcane. You know, nothing really changed. So the military offered an opportunity for this young Black man to stop looking at the rear end of a mule. And they were some of the most dedicated soldiers that we had.
John Bell: I don't know if they're any braver than any other soldier. They did the best job they could because they didn't have any other options. And they were trying to prove that they could do a job as well as anyone else.
Noel: Though African Americans were not initially paid as much as their fellow white troopers, through concerted efforts, they eventually made the military standard, $13 a month, which during that time was a lot of money.
John Bell: They got a chance to get a horse. They got a chance to stay in a Fort and someplace where they got three square meals a day. And a lot of them really enjoyed the Army.
Noel: Buffalo Soldiers could receive an education, says Shelton Johnson.
Shelton Johnson: It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, because once you can understand language, once you become fluent with that form of communication, then you have access to antiquity, you have access to Voltaire, you have access to the great thinkers, not just in the United States at the time, but in Europe and other parts of the world.
Noel: For many formerly enslaved men, the ability to enlist wasn’t just a career opportunity, but an affirmation of their humanity.
Maria: There isn't a consensus about when or where Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname. Here’s John Bell:
John Bell: And they were sent out West because there were very few troops out here in the West. And when they came West, the Native Americans saw the blue coats coming and they assumed that the white troops were coming back out West. And when they got closer, they found out that these new troops looked different.That was the first time they had ever seen these Black troops in the West.
Noel: Dexter Nelson II:
Dexter Nelson II: So the term Buffalo Soldier has some mystery to the origin. Some people believe a few different tribes saw these soldiers and made the connection, calling them Buffalo Soldiers due to them being brown-skinned and having black, curly hair.
John Bell: And in Montana during the wintertime, these men wore great, big buffalo coats over their shoulders. And when they were coming through the snow, leaning over their horses, they looked like buffalo. Until they got closer. And the third reason is that the Native Americans found out that these men fought so fiercely, even when mortally wounded. And they fought just like their most sacred animal, the buffalo.
Paul: Paul J. Matthews:
Captain Matthews: They built camps, forts, railroads, delivered the mail, strung telegraph wires, charted the land, chased down outlaws, common [undecipherable]
John Bell: They protected the settlers from Indian attacks, from rustler attacks. They helped protect the railroad men who were out here and whatever else the United States government asked them to do.
Noel: But at times, protecting the interests of the United States also forced the Buffalo Soldiers to become agents of oppression themselves.
Dexter: You have that kind of the complexity of the Buffalo soldier, because they, at the end of day, they were there to fulfill the wishes of the federal government, which changed fairly regularly. So that's why they helped and hurt everybody.
Noel: As instruments of the U.S. government, they played a role in the displacement and killing of Indigenous peoples to quote “clear the way” for Euro-American settlers.
Dexter Nelson II: Some of the few examples are clashes between the Buffalo soldiers and the Ute tribes, of course, around Milk Creek in Meeker, Colorado. And again, conflicts with the Cheyenne in Fort Lyon.
Maria: Though Buffalo Soldiers were mainly asked to protect white settlers. Sometimes they also guarded American Indians against attacks from enemy tribes.
Noel: Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek farmers, for example, were just as likely to suffer from Comanche or Kiowa raids as their white neighbors.
Maria: But perhaps the least known fact about the Buffalo Soldiers is that they were also some of America’s first National Parks rangers.
John Bell: The government established these National Parks, but had no way to control that. They had people coming in, poaching animals, cutting down trees. So they had to have someone in the park to protect the parks. And so the first units in Yosemite were the Buffalo soldiers.
Noel: In 1900, Charles Young was one of the three Black men who graduated from West Point at the time. He was named superintendent of what is now Sequoia National Park, becoming the first African American man to hold that title.
Shelton Johnson: Color was ingrained in the fabric of America at that time. So the fact that Charles Young became a Colonel in that military hierarchy is absolutely amazing because there were so many slights he had to deal with and ignore. Because he lived in a world that was just so virulently racist, that Jim Crow period.
Maria: Among other offenses, Charles Young had to endure junior officers who would not salute him even though he outranked them.
Dexter Nelson II: At that time period, that if you're white, you more often than not look at Black bodies as property. You looked at them akin to shovels and livestock. So we still see this even after Civil war and slavery's ended supposedly, you know, we're still you know, we're in the middle of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, we’re still being seen as not human. And so you see that translate then into the military with the Buffalo soldiers.
Shelton Johnson: Many thought that an African-American could not be a good soldier, because if you were capable of self-sacrifice, if you were capable of courage and valor and did not care what happened to you in defense of a comrade. That's an act of, not just of courage. That's an act of gallantry. Self-sacrifice is an act of nobility.
Noel: African American soldiers were put in a tough spot. On the one hand, they may have wanted to prove their valor, and to show they were just as good as any other man in uniform. But because so many Euro-Americans during Jim Crow refused to see them as their equals, to exercise their authority could be seen as a provocation – an invitation to violence.
Maria: Meaning anything from harassment and discrimination to lynchings.
Noel: In other words, they had to be bold and strategic.
Shelton Johnson: They had to have that ambassadorial spirit to realize that these people see me, and they see less. So I can show them more, but I had to calibrate it in such a way where they don't feel that I think I'm better than them. It's just such a challenge, such a dance they had to play. And that's what race is, or what race creates, it creates a music that only the people who are the victims of race can hear and they're dancing to that music, but the other people who are playing the song are oblivious to the lyrics, oblivious to the sounds themselves.
Maria: Now imagine being a woman, a Black woman, and pulling off Being perceived as a Buffalo Soldier. At this time when it was so dangerous for African-Americans just to exist.
Noel: Cathay Williams was born into slavery. When she was a little girl, she and her family were moved to Jefferson City, Missouri with their slaveholder William Johnson.
Maria: Despite the fact that Missouri was technically part of the Union, Jefferson City was a horrible place for enslaved African-Americans at the time.
Noel: It was part of quote “Little Dixie” – the dozen or so counties that ran along the Missouri River in the middle of the state. White migrants from the South grew tobacco and hemp, and brought their culture with them, including slavery.
Maria: The area was also bursting with Rebels.
Noel: William Johnson died before the Civil War broke out. And in 1861 Union troops seized Jefferson City. During the takeover, soldiers claimed many enslaved people, taking them as what was called quote "living contraband of war.” The idea, put forward by General Benjamin Butler in 1861, was that because enslaved people were considered property by their slaveholders, taking them was no different than confiscating enemy property in wartime.
Maria: Here’s DeAnne Blanton, an expert in military history who spent 31 years working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
DeAnne Blanton: It's an appalling concept to us today to call human beings contraband. But it's the 19th century, it's the Civil War. And, Black people, enslaved people, were property.
Noel: Contraband workers were conscripted and often exploited by the northern army without promising them freedom so as not to anger those in border states like Missouri that remained part of the Union but still allowed slavery.
Maria: Rebecca Atkinson is a writer, speaker, and researcher on women of the American West.
Rebecca Atkinson: It was decided their slaves could be taken by Union soldiers to dig ditches, do laundry, nursing, cooking, everything. These contraband people at the end of the war they'd be returned to their masters or the masters would get compensation.
Maria: One of the enslaved people taken as contraband of war by the 8th Indiana Infantry was a young woman named Cathay Williams. Probably no more than 19 years old at the time.
Noel: Williams was brave and eager to prove herself. Though she had no experience in the kitchen, she learned quickly, and became the Chief cook to General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan became famous for driving confederate soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley by burning 400 square miles in a tactic that would later become known as “the scorched earth policy.”
Rebecca Atkinson: Williams was his cook and laundress and camp aide. She provided a house and food for him. So whenever the Army marched, she had to get there first and set up and cook and everything.
Maria: Sheridan brought with him everywhere he went during the war.
Rebecca Atkinson: She was an armchair participant in some of the biggest battles in the Civil War. She went from Savannah all the way up the coast to Washington, D.C. and up and down the Mississippi. She went to Arkansas for Pea Ridge. At one battle, the battle of Cedar Creek, the camp was overrun by Confederates and she had to run for her life. Had she been captured, she certainly would have been sent back to slavery, maybe killed.
Maria: The Battle of Cedar Creek took place on October 19, 1864, the year after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.
Noel: Despite the relative progress that Lincoln’s Proclamation represented for African Americans at that time, Cathay Williams also faced the constraints of being a woman.
Here’s DeAnne Blanton:
DeAnne Blanton: Women were allowed to run a boarding house, and that's what a lot of middle-class women would do when they fell on hard times. Women could be cooks. So women could go into domestic service. They could work in factories. The original sweatshops, actually, were public laundries. And, of course, washing clothes in the 19th century was horrible. Big cauldrons of boiling water and bleach. And, a nightmare.
Noel: Plus, says Blanton…
DeAnne Blanton: When your average woman's job might have paid $4 a month, maybe, if she were lucky. Most women's work was starvation wages.
Noel: So when Congress authorized the creation of all-Black military units in 1866, Cathay Williams may have seen it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure herself financially.
DeAnne Blanton: She had already been in the Army during the Civil War, so she knew what the life was like, and the Army was sending African-American soldiers out West. And it was her ticket to, to get out of the South and to start a new life for herself.
Maria: The problem, of course, was that only Black men were allowed to enlist.
Noel: But she was determined to live life on her own terms, so she chopped off her hair and put on men's clothes. And on November 15, 1866, she enlisted with the U.S. regular Army as William Cathay.
Maria: She told her recruiter she was 22 years old and a cook by occupation.
Rebecca Atkinson: Anyway, she joined and they didn't blink an eye. They didn't really do physicals like we think of today. And they were in such a hurry to induct people. One guy bragged, a doctor, that he could look at 90 recruits in an hour.
DeAnne Blanton: So getting into the Army was easy. And we also have to remember that in the 19th century, people didn't carry ID’s. Most people didn't even have birth certificates. So it was very, very easy to reinvent yourself in the 19th century. And both men and women would just go to a new town where no one knew them. And, then they're someone new, and they could be whoever they said they were.
Noel: It’s possible that other things, such as her height, contributed to Cathay Williams being able to pass.
John Bell: Now, William Cathay was about 5’ 9” and weighed about 145 pounds... Tall for a soldier.
Maria: There's no way of knowing for sure what went through the minds of Army recruiters when they evaluated Williams. However, in an ironic turn, it's possible that racial stereotypes may have helped conceal her identity.
Noel: In her book Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Deirdre Cooper Owens writes that white doctors tended to see Black women’s bodies through a racialized lens. Traits like femininity, frailty, and even beauty, were only used to describe white women. And they believed that enslaved Black women possessed almost superhuman physical strength, which is why they were expected to continue working despite being pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or being horribly sick.
DeAnne Blanton: No one thought twice about working a Black woman to an early grave. Whereas they would be horrified if a white, middle-class woman had to do her own heavy lifting, because she's so delicate. But really, only white women got to be delicate.
Noel: If this idea that Cathay Williams’ gender would be invisible to those around her seems far-fetched, consider that this kind of systemic racial bias is still rampant in American society today.
Maria: These biases even bleed into supposedly neutral things like technology and data.
Noel: Here’s Joy Buolamwini, in her TED Talk: “How I’m Fighting Bias in Algorithms”. She’s an African-American MIT graduate and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League.
Joy Buolamwini: And the coded gaze, like the white gaze, or the male gaze, or the postcolonial gaze, is a reflection of the priorities, preferences, and at times prejudices of those who have the power to shape technology.
Maria: Her inquiries began when she was using a facial recognition program that didn't register her until she literally had to put on a white mask.
Joy Buolamwini: I ran my TEDx profile image through AI systems from a range of companies. Some didn't detect my face at all, and the ones who did labeled me male. I'm a phenomenal woman. I am not a man.
Maria: Some of America's most iconic Black women: Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Serena Williams have all been mislabeled by artificial intelligence. They've been sometimes described as male, which speaks to the biases of those who developed these technologies.
If you associate being feminine with European features, it's possible you might not recognize a Black woman's gender, even if she's standing right in front of you.
Maria: But regardless of racial prejudice against Black women, there's another thing that Cathay Williams would have had going for her - if she wanted to pass as a man. -
Noel: In the 19th century, when gender codes were even more rigid, the simple act of wearing men’s clothes and calling herself William, instead of Cathay, went a long way.
Maria: Plus, says Deanne Blanton,...
DeAnne Blanton: Your average Victorian man had no idea what women looked like in pants. And clothing was so strictly enforced. Women wore skirts, men wore pants.
Maria: To discuss gender norms in frontier communities, we called Peter Boag, a History Professor at Washington State University.
Noel: He’s the author of Redressing America's Frontier Past. And you may remember him from our Season 2 episode “Going Back to Trinidad.”
Peter Boag: One of the interesting things, though, that I found in my research on crossdressers is there were so many in the West. I came across many stories of women who just wanted to travel for adventure and to see more of the world. But not only was that just precluded for a woman that was very difficult to do, but could also be quite dangerous. And so, if you assume the attire of a male, you could go perhaps somewhat unnoticed, and therefore unmolested.
Noel: Boag says sometimes women wanted to be miners. Or maybe they wanted to explore parts of town that were prohibited for women of their class. In short, there were many practical reasons to dress as a man.
Peter Boag: Where it was a little bit more difficult to figure out why somebody who was assigned a male sex at birth would give up all the privileges that came with being a male in order to become a female. So they tended to be treated not as well, I think, as a general rule. But there were exceptions.
Noel: A renowned exception took place in Altman, Colorado, which was part of the Cripple Creek gold-mining district. There, in 1901, writes Boag, quote “Douglass McPherson, a 27-year-old Scottish immigrant and ore sorter who donned long flowing curls, occasionally cross-dressed.”
Maria: His nickname was Countess MacPherson.
Peter Boag: He often dressed in women's clothing. I'm not sure he was transgender. But he actually was accepted and treated really well in that mining community where he lived.
Noel: It seems he was well-accepted among the miners. The local newspaper at the time described Countes McPherson in a neutral or positive tone. Peter Boag says it wasn’t uncommon for people at the time to be generally accepting of those who we now refer to as LGBTQ+.
Maria: And it's possible communities out West might have been more accepting of ethnic and racial minorities, too, says John Bell.
John Bell: It was a safer place. There were not very many people here. And they took that person for what he could do. If he had been a carpenter in the military, then he became a carpenter later on in his life. If he was a blacksmith, he became a blacksmith. People in the West were a little bit different than they were anyplace else because they had to depend on people's ability to survive in an area where there was no one else around them.
Al Melton: It's so harsh to live out in the middle of nowhere that, you know, they tend to, like, accept the diversity a little bit differently than more populated areas.
Noel: This is Al Melton. He’s the director of the Trinidad History Museum.
Al Melton: When I think about what it would take to not only join the Army, but having to hide who you are for years at a time, that takes tenacity and that takes bravery that I don't think a lot of us fully grasp.
John Bell: Soldiers in the infantry slept two to a bed, head to foot. Now I sometimes ask the guys: “If you're a bed mate with someone of the opposite sex, could you tell? Or would you tell?” We think that somebody knew that she was female.
Noel: We have reason to believe that Cathay Williams had a cousin and a quote “special friend,” a lover perhaps.
Jan MacKell Collins: I don't doubt that she discussed the idea with them before she did it, and enlisted as a man. And perhaps helped her keep that secret.
Noel: This is Jan MacKell Collins, an author and historical researcher who’s written about Cathay Williams. Both Collins and DeAnne Blanton agree that it wouldn't have been that hard to pass as a man in the Army.
DeAnne Blanton: So, as long as a woman soldier was living outdoors with the rest of her comrades, it was pretty easy to maintain the male persona. And, soldiers are living outside, they're not taking their clothes off at night. If anything, they're putting all the clothes they have on, at night, to stay warm.
Noel: Regardless, as Al Melton said earlier, it’s hard to fully grasp the level of determination, wits and tenacity that it would take to maintain the façade.
Maria: As for William Cathay's military record, it wasn't remarkable. He was never disciplined or praised for his courage.
Jan MacKell Collins: She performed her duties. She did them to the best of her ability.
Noel: Until her health began to falter.
Maria: The life of a soldier in the West was hard on your body and your health, no matter who you were.
Jan MacKell Collins: One of her biographers said she did not suffer her health issues because she was a woman. She suffered them because she was a soldier. The amount of toil and work and harsh elements that she was subjected to, including walking a thousand miles with the Army troops, really took its toll on her health.
Noel: And Cathay Williams, like all soldiers, was vulnerable to infections.
Maria: This is pre-germ theory.
DeAnne Blanton: If you study disease in the Army, it's astonishing that any soldier survived, because doctors didn't know that close, dirty quarters was why everybody got sick.
Jan MacKell Collins: She contracted smallpox twice. They made her swim the Rio Grande river one time. And the Rio Grande is quite wide, so you can imagine what that was like. But she developed rheumatism, neuralgia. She had itch, which was a very common malady among the soldiers. It was basically skin irritation from wearing dirty clothes. She said after swimming across the Rio Grande caused deafness, and it was probably quite cold.
Noel: Rebecca Atkinson:
Rebecca Atkinson: And then there was a winter campaign in 1867, and the thinking was they were going to sneak up on the Apache, the local Apache. And it was the dead of winter and these soldiers had to walk and they weren't allowed to have any fire. They waded icy streams and froze and quite a few of them got frostbite. And I believe Cathay Williams also got frostbite because she was in the hospital a number of times after that.
Noel: Plus, she would have had the added stress of passing and the elevated levels of cortisol that come with it.
Jan MacKell Collins: And it was only when she really got sick enough and realized that she was in the military hospital more than she was out of it, that she realized she needed to get out of it, out of the Army for her own well-being.
Rebecca Atkinson: It's coming on the third winter, three year enlistment. And she just, I don't think she felt physically able to go through another freezing cold winter out trying to kill people. So she decided to reveal herself. So she went to the doctor – same doctor that said she was feeble minded and feeble physically. He had examined her. He'd been her doctor four or five times and never realized she was a woman.
DeAnne Blanton: And even by the standards of 19th century medical care, I find that astonishing. That she was in the hospital and no one figured out that William Cathay was a female.
Noel: In her book They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, DeAnne Blanton documents the numerous examples of women passing themselves as men to serve in the Army.
DeAnne Blanton: I personally was able to document about 250. I think that number is quite low. Other people who have picked up this research, have added to the body of knowledge. And so, I want to say probably numbered in the thousands.
Noel: Without medical records, says DeAnne Blanton, we might not have any documentation of female soldiers.
DeAnne Blanton: No woman was found out because she was a bad soldier. We don't have any record of women being court-martialed. Typically they were found out because they were gravely injured. One soldier, Frances Hook, who had been serving as Frank Miller, was shot in the thigh. And when the surgeon cut open her pants, that gave her femininity away.
Maria: Women who were captured or sent to prisoner of war camps were also found out.
DeAnne Blanton: They no longer had the freedom to attend to their sanitary needs in private. They are in prisons. They are in barracks with their comrades. And, as a general rule, military authorities did not like keeping women in prison. If they found out that there was a woman among their P.O.W.s. they were going to send her back as quickly as possible.
Noel: Towards the end of the Civil War, as desperation set in, Army recruiters on the Confederate side got lenient when it came to their examinations.
DeAnne Blanton: By 1864, the Confederate Army was not necessarily sending their women home. We have more than one example of Confederate women soldiers being captured who were not attempting to pass. Sarah Jane Perkins, who was with an artillery unit, she had started to grow her hair out, to the point where she had it in a braid, and the Union soldiers who captured her knew immediately that they had captured a woman.
Maria: It's important to note that not all women who disguised themselves as men in the 19th Century did so for practical reasons. Some individuals were likely transgender.
Noel: Albert Cashier, born in 1843, was named Jenny Rodgers at birth. However, he embraced a male identity and presented himself as a man from a very young age. And he went on to become a well-liked Civil War veteran, praised for his bravery.
Maria: As for Cathay Williams, after receiving an honorable discharge from the Army, she chose to live in Colorado. Out of all the places she knew.
Rebecca Atkinson: From there, she ended up in Pueblo and opened her own laundry business. In the 1870s she was definitely here. And she married a man, but we don't know who he is. I haven't been able to confirm that. And then the husband stole her team, $100, her gold watch, and took off and she had him arrested. And the next thing, she's in Trinidad.
Noel: Jan MacKell Collins:
Jan: It took her a while to get settled, but she finally landed in Trinidad and she really liked Trinidad. She said that the people there were very good to her.
Noel: Al Melton:
Al Melton: Trinidad is a unique area. Part of it is the isolation. Like we're very Wild West, so there's the option to be innovative or to be progressive in I guess nonconforming ways. You know, we had Drop City here, with hippies, I guess is the best way to describe it. But counterculture artists around the same time. You had Dr. Biber here performing gender confirmation surgeries. I think that speaks to a lot about the culture in Trinidad.
Maria: The relative tolerance of frontier towns like Trinidad was probably appealing to Cathay Williams. And apparently she was very popular.
Rebecca Atkinson: She was… told jokes. She was always full of stories and people just liked her. And so did well in Trinidad, very well and was very happy, she was interviewed and this is the only time we ever hear her story. Came out in January 1876. A St. Louis reporter was looking for stories for the upcoming centennial on military heroes or anything like that. And the people in Trinidad said, “Well, you got to meet our Buffalo Soldier, Kate Williams. She's fascinating.” And so he did!
Noel: Williams apparently told him, quote: “I know all the good people here, and I expect to get rich yet.”
Maria: Part of her plan to get rich included hopes of finding land and becoming a homesteader.
Noel: But before she even got a chance to look for a land claim, her feet were crippled by what could have been poor circulation from frostbite.
Rebecca Atkinson: She was taken into the Catholic hospital there, and they amputated the fronts of her feet – put under, and wakes up with half of one foot gone, and all the toes on the other. So she was totally crippled from that. It took her a year in the hospital to get so she could walk again.
Noel: Unable to walk without a cane, Cathay Williams was no longer able to do physical labor. So she filed for a military pension based on her experience with the Buffalo Soldiers in June 1891.
Maria: However, she didn't mention her missing toes.
Noel: She claimed to suffer deafness, which would’ve been a direct result of her years in service.
Maria: But the lawyers she hired to represent her military disability claim in Washington, D.C., failed to secure her pension.
Rebecca Atkinson: And so she was denied not once, but I believe three times.
Those lawyers said that her main complaint was being deaf. And so the doctor came out and said, well, "She can hear, and she's strong, and tough." Of course, she's got no fronts to her feet! But they didn't say that was the reason.
Maria: In February 1892, Cathay Williams filed again, this time citing her frosted feet. The result was the same: the pension bureau declared no disability existed.
Noel: It would've been simple for them to say: “She's a woman, she lied about being a man, therefore, pension denied.” But they didn't, which is interesting. Instead, they said they couldn't find any disability linked to her years in the Army.
Jan MacKell Collins: I do believe that maybe some prejudice was exercised against her in that case because three male physicians, white men, examined her, and said, “Oh, she's just your typical, you know, large, well-fed Black woman, and she's fine.” And how could they say that when she was walking with the help of her cane, because she had no toes?
Noel: Until recently, biographers presumed that Cathay Williams died sometime shortly after her third pension was denied in the early 1890s.
Rebecca Atkinson: Here she is, a laborer, poor, illiterate woman, health broken with no feet almost to stand on. So everybody assumes that she had to have died then, because how could she possibly have survived?
Noel: But in the early 2010’s Rebecca Atkinson was working at the Pueblo Library when a box of donations came in from the historic Vail Hotel…
Rebecca Atkinson: In that box was a journal, a medical journal with the name of the patients. And one of those patients was a Kathryn Williams. But over that name was written William Cathay, that patient was a Black male named Katherine, who had lost all the toes of both feet, as did Cathay Williams, who was a veteran of the Indian Wars and who matches our Cathay Williams exactly. This is this is about six or seven years after everyone thinks she died in Trinidad, Colorado. Nobody knows that she ended up in Pueblo, in a hospital, and another hospital, and then the state hospital.
Maria: Jan MacKell Collins.
Jan MacKell Collins: She also was able to finally verify when she died. And that was in September of 1911 in Pueblo.
Noel: But there’s still much about Williams we don’t know, says John Bell.
John Bell: Some say she was sent to the insane asylum at Pueblo, Colorado. Some say she died up there, and she's buried up there in Pueblo, in the cemetery. Some said she went back to Trinidad. But no one knows where she's buried, and everybody keeps trying to find out where she is buried. No one knows where. And that's Cathay Williams' story. But we also know that there are a lot of things that have been written about her, but a lot of them are a lot of fictional things, people don’t know for sure.
Noel: Trinidad, Colorado, has been toying with the idea of immortalizing Cathay Williams and claiming her as one of their own. And thanks to the tireless efforts of locals like Buffalo Soldier reenactor Haskell Hooks, erecting her statue might someday become a reality.
Haskell Hooks: I believe she is a legend. I'm going to let Trinidad, Colorado, know that she's a legend.
Noel: Here’s former Trinidad City Councilman, Carlos López:
Carlos López: Her information was brought forward to me from Mr. Haskell Hooks, and I was really intrigued with the notion of showcasing a Joan of Arc-esque scenario in my mind, a woman who was a former slave who was freed and then had to hide her gender to fight as a male, so that way she could have a better option for life and opportunities… When statues in this country have been coming down, I felt it was the right time for a new one to come up.
Maria: Al Melton:
Al Melton: We do have a marker for her here. But, the museum is gated, so it's not accessible on Sundays and Mondays. Haskell's idea for getting a statue is to have it on Main Street in public. I think we can have more statues of people who came from slavery and still managed to make a really interesting life for themselves.
Haskell Hooks: During the COVID, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I just studied as much as I could. And I decided, well, I mean, what else can I do but try and make a memorial statue, in her honor?
Noel: Dexter Nelson II is careful not to mythologize Cathay Williams’ story. He acknowledges the importance of bringing her life and time with the Buffalo Soldiers' to light, but also cautions not to overly romanticize any of their lives.
Dexter: It’s easy just to say we'll throw up a statue of her in her warrior pose ‘cause we like to think she was this brilliant warrior.
Noel: But, he says, while we know she was well-regarded as a cook, her military record gives no indication that she excelled in the Army.
Dexter: It's hero worship. We've taken a little formation we know, and then we've taken to the nth degree where we draw her like we want to see her. So instead of her being portrayed sickly and in a bed, you know, laying down, she's portrayed as, you know, the strong female soldier.
Maria: At the end of the day, says Dexter, regardless of our backgrounds, we all love a good myth.
Dexter: I think the Buffalo Soldiers fit really well into that, where we know it was a relatively small group. It wasn't a whole lot of people. It was this small, elite Black group that paved the way, right? We love our trailblazers. They were Black, they were soldiers. They were doing this in this romanticized West that was adventure. And, you know, all the Western motifs and trends that we associate with pop culture.
Noel: But again, we have to be careful not to gloss over their multi-layered reality.
Dexter: These are some heroes in the American West, but they're also associated with this terrible treatment of the Indigenous community. And the truth is gray, right? The truth lives in that area.
Maria: ¿Y tú sabes si el Pío tenía ganas de venir a Estados Unidos o no?
Carmen Luz: Ah yo creo que le hubiera encantado.
Maria: ¿Y por qué no lo trajimos a Arizona?
Carmen Luz: Porque... no lo sé por qué, porque no viajaba mucho…
Maria: At the end of my conversation with my mom, I am reminded that my grandpa never visited the United States. She thinks he would have loved it, but I'm not so sure.
Living in Colorado as an immigrant and a woman on my own for much of the past 13 years, it's become clear how far from reality my grandpa’s idea of the idea of the West really was.
Yes. The Western landscapes etched in my mind from the movies I saw on his black and white television are even more stunning in color.
But being in this messy, often unforgiving country can feel at times like carrying a low-key grief around, like a hand-worn stone in your pocket; unobtrusive maybe, but always there.
At the end of the day, though, it’s HOME. And I like it here in what the singer Bill Callahan called “This wild, wild country.”
Yeah one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
And anything less, anything less
makes me feel like I'm wasting my time
[Theme Post & Credits]
Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.
If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: Tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Many thanks to our Producer, Dustin Hodge, and Associate Producer, María José Maddox.
Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Dexter Nelson II, who graciously helped us flesh out some of the ideas of this episode, to Ann Sneesby-Koch for newspaper and periodical research; to Tyler Hill, our story editor; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.
Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Devin James Fry composed the music for
Many thanks to our editorial team:
and Zach Werkowitch
And to our Advisory Group:
and Cara DeGette
Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.