Cathy Williams: From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldierby Stackpole Books
Few Americans today, black or white, know about the incredible life of Cathy Williams. From her beginnings as a slave in Independence, Missouri, to her enlistment with Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry, in November 1866, the story of this remarkable woman deserves to finally be told. By disguising herself as a man and assuming the name William Cathay, Williams became a 'buffalo soldier,' serving in one of the six black units formed following the Civil War. Her story tells us much about prevailing attitudes toward both race and gender in post-Civil War America.
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A Young Slave
Named Cathy Williams
The forgotten story of Cathy Williams's life first began in an ancient land across the wide breadth of the Atlantic Ocean, West Africa. Before enslavement, Cathy's ancestors probably hailed from the culturally rich, luxurious tropical lands of the Gold Coast, the Niger Delta, and Dahomey. Unlike the hunting and fishing tribes that were more nomadic and warlike, America's slaves came primarily from agricultural tribes of West Africa. The highly developed agrarian skills of these West Africans were needed to develop and exploit the plantations of the New World.
Consequently, on the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea, the Cold Coast, Niger Delta, and Dahomey region along the Atlantic Coasttoday's countries of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Guinea, Liberiaand the Ivory, Gold, and Slave Coasts from west to eastrespectively, Ghana and Nigeriawas most probably the native homeland of Cathy Williams's ancestors. Among the most dominant tribes of this coastal region were the Asante, Ibo, Kru, Ewe, Awikam, and Fanti.
From the lush area where the Niger, Sassandra, Nzi, Volta, and Komoe Rivers flowed through the rich, fertile lands to enter the blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea, Cathy Williams's ancestors were brought in chains to the shores of the New World at some unknown date. For huge profits unattainable in any other business venture, ruthless slave traders, both black and white, severed their unfortunate captives' bonds with the Africanhomeland to feed the hungry labor markets of America. The institution of slavery became essential for America's economic development from an early date. The invaluable labor supplied by slaves played a key role in conquering the untamed wilderness of the New World, resulting in civilization in America.
Without exaggeration, one concerned New Englander in 1645 spoke to the importance of the role of African Americans in the nation's early settlement along the Atlantic coast: "I doe not see how wee can thrive untill we gett into a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business, for our children's children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people."
Engaging in such a lucrative trade only fueled the sinister greed of slave traders both black and white, Christian and Islamic, to new heights. These flesh merchants were guilty of the atrocity known as the slave trade, selling thousands of human beings, who were viewed as nothing but "black gold," from West Africa to America.
The horrors of slavery had existed since Biblical times. But the curse had not originally been inflicted upon Africa by ruthless Europeans: not the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, or English. Instead, long before the Europeans' arrival, the warring tribes of West Africa had first turned captives into slaves, making it an established tradition. In this way, the powerful Asante tribe, wrote one African, gained prestige and influence from "the slave market, where the great wealth of the Asante was created."
Cathy Williams's ancestors left behind them in Africa a vibrant culture, far beyond the stereotypical view of a primitive tribe of debased heathens. These enslaved West Africans were fortunate if they survived the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic, a six-week journey in fair weather or up to a three-month trip in bad weather.
Thanks to strong-willed slaves bent on preserving what they cherished, this distinctive West African culture was destined to survive for generations within the institution of slavery. West African culture was destined to thrive in the New World, much like the slaves' hopes of returning one day to their faraway African homeland.
One surviving element of this resilient culture and agrarian tribal society was that women held not inferior but complementary, or equal, positions to men. This heritage of equality would be perpetuated by Cathy Williams as a Buffalo Soldier from 1866 to 1868. In this sense, she was destined to continue the noble tradition of her ancestors.
The various West African tribal cultures from which thousands of slaves were stolen were energetic and thriving. These complex maternal and agrarian societies were deeply rooted in the traditional values of the importance of the family, worship of the homeland, and ancestral ways of life.
Many West African peoples enjoyed a life "at least as sophisticated as that of Anglo-Saxon England." Once these unlucky people were transplanted across the Atlantic to American soil, the brutality of slavery caused them to more closely embrace the last remaining vestiges of their distant homeland, the rich cultural life of West Africa. In this way, the faraway cultural traditions of their lost homelands forged a sense of "togetherness" among the slave communities in America.
Trapped and isolated in a foreign land across the Atlantic and surrounded by unfamiliar white faces who spoke an unintelligible tongue, the most resilient of these enslaved blacks were determined that their cherished traditions would not die. If they allowed their culture to perish, then they themselves were finished. It was a survival mechanism that ensured that the cultural legacies of West Africa would survive for generations even amid the hell of slavery. Although the memory of the African homeland would be lost to the children of the first Africans on American soil, the enduring legacy of West Africa would continue to live on in the hearts and minds of the transplanted Africans in America.
How might the ancestors of Cathy Williams have looked? Then, as today, a wide variety in stature, color hues, and other physical characteristics marked the people of Africa. According to one writer, the men and women of West Africa were noted for distinctive physical features that distinguished people from this region: "The West African Negroes (sometimes called Guinea Coast or 'true' Negroes) are generally about five feet eight inches tall, with skin that ranges from dark brown to blue-black. They have very little body hair, and their head hair is dark and kinky [and] their noses are broad and more or less flattened." By all accounts, these people were robust, strong, and hardy.
Cathy Williams was destined to inherit the physical characteristics of her ancestors. As a mature adult, she would be described by a white journalist in 1875 as "tall and powerfully built, black as night, muscular looking."
Born of a slave mother who took her last name from her master, Williams, and a free black father whose name is unknown, a slave named Cathy Williams began her life in a slave cabin just outside the small western Missouri town of Independence, in September 1844.
In her own words: "[M]y father was a free man but my mother a slave [and] I was born near Independence, Jackson County, Missouri." Her start in life drew no special notice, other than the fact that her mother and friends might have celebrated her birth with a traditional West African ritual.
This infant slave girl would never see her ancestral homeland but its legacy would be passed down to her. Cathy would embrace this cultural legacy as she grew and matured into a young woman. Here, in a cabin just south of the Missouri River was anything but a promising beginning for the young slave girl. As powerless in the antebellum world as it was possible to be, she was born into the lowest social and economic level of American society. As fate would have it she would have to make the best of what little life would offer her.
Ironically, Cathy was born with no rights in a democratic nation that had been founded on equal rights. This infant girl who was born on the eastern edge of the Great Plains came into a world where she would have little, if any, hope of ever gaining her own personal freedom from bondage. Considered little more than chattel, she was a slave for life from the very moment she was born.
However, the odds for Cathy Williams's future survival in life were enhanced because she inherited qualities of strength of character, resiliency, and determination from her parents. Like her father's birthplace, the place of birth of Cathy's mother is unknown, but she was probably born in the 1820s. Her mother is likely to have come originally from an Upper South state, such as Tennessee or Kentucky, like most of Missouri's early settlers, before migrating west of the Mississippi River with a white family in a covered wagon to the promised land of Missouri.
As a free black, Cathy's father from an early date must have provided her with a symbolic example that nourished a deep longing for personal freedom. It is not known if she knew him personally as a young girl, but for the rest of her days the inspiration of her father's life would not be lost to the daughter. Cathy's father symbolized the freedom that an African American could enjoy outside of slavery.
The haunting irony of a black slave named Cathy Williams born near a western Missouri community called Independence in the world's largest democracy, was merely a hypocritical fact of life in America for tens of thousands of blacks for more than half a century.
This central tragedy of American history caused the black nationalist David Walker, in his famous 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, to lament of "our miseries and wretchedness in this Republican Land of Liberty!" This fertile land of the free along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers was blighted by the curse of slavery. That awful legacy had been successfully transplanted from the Old World to the New World to now become Cathy Williams's world.
The fact that Cathy Williams's father was a free black was an exception to the rule for African Americans on the Western frontier, especially in Missouri and the Upper South. In the largest city, prosperous St. Louis, within the most noted slave state west of the Mississippi River, Missouri, more than 500 free blacks worked in both skilled and unskilled positions in 1860. Meanwhile, more than 1,500 African Americans toiled as slaves in that bustling port city during the same year.
However, in general, the institution of slavery was less harsh in the western cities of the Mississippi Valley than in the South. Here, greater economic and social opportunities beckoned African Americans from the rural areas. In the more cosmopolitan and urban environment of the western cities, especially in the ports along the Mississippi, the line between slave and free was much more blurred than in the countryside. In overall terms, the free black community had the effect of gradually diminishing and then eventually undermining the overall strength of the institution of slavery during the antebellum period, especially in the West.
In the western Missouri town of Independence, Cathy Williams's father enjoyed life as a free black man, while her mother endured the brutal oppression of slavery. This difference of status meant that marriage between Cathy's parents was forbidden by law. Therefore, a long-term relationship between this free black man and slave woman was doomed from the start unless the master freed Cathy's mother, which he did not do. Most likely, Cathy's father lived in Independence while her mother lived on a nearby Jackson County farm outside the town, a situation that ensured a permanent separation.
Most of all, the last thing that a white master wanted was to have his slaves in close association with free blacks. Free African Americans were viewed by slave owners with suspicion and as potential threats undermining the stability of the institution of slavery. For slave owners, historical lessons supported the validity of this ever-present fear among whites, especially in the Deep South.
Slave revolts and less overt forms of resistance were common among slave communities, both in the cities and the rural areas across the South. Inspired by the successful slave revolt of Toussaint L'Ouverture on the French West Indies island of St. Domingue, or Haiti, during the early 1790s, Denmark Vesey, a free black from Charleston, South Carolina, organized the largest slave insurrection in American history in 1822. To liberate his long-suffering people in bondage, Vesey not only depended upon aid from Haiti but also from Africa.
For slaves in America, the shining example of the revolt on St. Domingue was an inspiration. However, Vesey's revolt was discovered, and white retaliation was swift. With fellow black revolutionaries who planned to strike back against the hated institution of slavery, Vesey was hanged on a hot July day in Charleston.
By 1840 Missouri was the most prosperous state west of the Mississippi. Less than two decades old, this frontier state benefitted from the soil's richness and the hard work of her people, both black and white. In 1840 and four years before Cathy's birth, 57,891 African Americans toiled in Missouri's fields, woodland, river bottoms, and prairies.
The total number of African Americans in bondage across Missouri was more than double the number of blacks found only ten years before, indicating the success of slavery in the Mississippi Valley. Most Missouri slaves, including Cathy Williams, were clustered not on vast plantations as in the Deep South, but on the small farmsteads in the fertile valleys of the state's two major river systems, the Missouri and the Mississippi.
In this land of plenty, the institution of slavery was destined to thrive for generations. The Missouri slave population doubled each decade from 1820 to 1840 until nearly 115,000 slaves were living and working in the state by 1860. The fertile agricultural lands of Missouri were the enduring dream of thousands of land-hungry white settlers on the Western frontier. Here, the small Western farmers could own their own land and reap the benefits of their hard work from tilling the soil.
Ironically, however, these early settlers also benefitted a great deal from the toil of a good many others who were legally denied the fruits of their labors: the African American people in bondage, including Cathy's mother. So great was the contribution of black slaves in helping to turn the wilderness of America into a nation that David Walker without exaggeration declared in his 1829 appeal that "America is more our country than it is the whites."
Throughout the antebellum period, most of Missouri's slave population lived in the counties bordering the Missouri River, which cut across Missouri's center, and along the Mississippi River that ran along the state's eastern boundary.
Cathy's native county of Jackson bordered the free state of Kansas to the west. In the early years of Cathy's life, therefore, Kansas was the closest land of freedom for her and her fellow slaves. Her Jackson homeland was the easternmost Missouri county south of the Missouri River, and by 1860 contained the fourth highest percentage of slaves21 percentof any of the state's 110 counties.
Cathy's birthplace near Independence served as the county seat for the agrarian society of yeoman farmers who dominated Jackson County. Busy Independence was the scene of bustling steamboat commerce from the Missouri River and wagon traffic from the Santa Fe Trail.
Jackson County was part of the culturally, economically, and socially distinctive region of Missouri known as "Little Dixie." The sobriquet was appropriate because this region's cultural influences were predominately Southern in nature. "Little Dixie" had been settled primarily by migrants from the Upper South, after they pushed west across the Mississippi River.
The fertile lands of "Little Dixie" consisted of the dissected till plains, lying mostly north of the Missouri, and the Osage Plains primarily located south of the Missouri. The southern part of Jackson County was covered in broad expanses of rolling prairie once traversed by buffalo herds. The northern section of the county, which bordered the Missouri River, was dominated by thick forests of bottomland hardwoods.
Both the Missouri and the Blue Rivers flowed through the rich farmlands of Cathy Williams's Jackson County, promising agricultural abundance and prosperity for the region. Here, in the promised land of the Western frontier, thousands of white settlers found their dreams in the fulfillment of the Jeffersonian vision of a free democracy of yeomen farmers. However, this idealistic and romantic dream of Mr. Jefferson that was fulfilled west of the Mississippi was in reality a nightmare for the slaves that made it possible.
While African Americans of western Missouri languished in bondage and reaped little, if anything, from their efforts in working this land, white settlers grew increasingly prosperous. So much prosperity came that "Little Dixie" became known as the "Canaan of America."
These anonymous black slaves, both men and women, who helped to carve a civilization out of a wilderness with sweat, blood, and toil have been all but forgotten by generations of American historians, especially in regard to the West's settlement. Along with her family members, one such "invisible" African American of "Little Dixie" was Cathy Williams. Only because her life was destined to take an unusual twist due to her own perseverance and determination to succeed would her story be preserved for all time.
Creating a civilization from an untamed wilderness imbued the American people with a sense of destiny, and a hunger for even more lands that would bring additional agricultural wealth and riches. Before Cathy Williams was two years old, Jackson County and all of the Missouri River country were intoxicated by the spirit of Manifest Destinyan imperialistic nationalismthat swept the West like a wildfire. The people of "Little Dixie" were consumed by a desire to spread what they saw as the benefits of democratic government southward by expanding the young republic's boundaries to lands owned by their neighbors to the south, the Mexican people.
Southerners and Westerners, especially, embraced this aggressive and imperialistic doctrine of expansionism with an unbridled enthusiasm. At this time, the American republic was seen as "the nation of progress," which was charged with a special mission. In the showdown with the Republic of Mexico in 1846-48, Americans felt that a divine sanction had presented them with an opportunity to spread republican ideals and the blessings of democracy to less fortunate peoplesin this case the Mexicansby expanding the nation's borders by any means possible, including military conquest.
Hence, Americans believed that they could uplift the Mexican people from centuries of autocratic government, corruption, anarchy, civil war, and economic underdevelopment. At this time, Americans felt that they were specially ordained to bring the vast lands of Mexico to the level of the booming American republic, ironically made prosperous by slave labor.
Consequently, for those Westerners infected by the intoxicating dream of Manifest Destiny, a blatant imperialism was seen as a beneficial gift to its victims in much the same way as slave owners rationalized slavery as a means of Christianizing "pagan" Africans and saving their souls while owning their bodies. In this sense, the American people felt more paternalism toward the Mexican people than their own African American slaves who were culturally more similar to them by the time of Cathy's birth than Hispanics south of the border.
Like Missouri and most of the West and the South, the populace of Jackson County was inspired by the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Fighting finally erupted in the spring of 1846 over the disputed border between Mexico and the United States. Consequently, hundreds of young Missourians from across "Little Dixie" rallied to Col. Alexander Doniphan's regiment of 1st Mounted Missouri Volunteers. These zealous men, primarily the officers, brought their own African American body servants into service to accompany them on their campaigns into northern Mexico, the nation's first foreign war.
During the hot summer of 1846, the Missouri Volunteers joined Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny's army as it pushed west along the dusty Santa Fe Trail with the goal of capturing the old Spanish city and commercial center of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The city was occupied without a fight in August, and in the autumn, leading his Missouri soldiers southward, Colonel Doniphan set out on the longest military expedition in American history. From Santa Fe the Missourians marched southward down the Rio Grande River and into the depths of northern Mexico. The soldiers, including men from Jackson County, pushed along the all-important commerce trail that led south to Chihuahua City, Mexico.
However, the farther that Colonel Doniphan's Missouri soldiers pushed southward from Santa Fe, the greater the distance they moved away from American forces, logistical support, and safety. When caught unprepared by the advance of a strong Mexican army defending El Paso del Norte or today's El Paso, Texas, Colonel Doniphan's lengthy column was vulnerable. The Missouri troops were strung out for miles along the line of march. Meanwhile, the regiment's lead elements were setting up the night's encampment in leisurely fashion along a wide bend of the Rio Grande called El Brazito. With the Mexicans' unexpected appearance, the "gringos" from Missouri, rallied in haste, falling into line as best they could amidst a growing crisis.
The African Americans with the regiment also came forward to stand in the front lines and assist the manpower-short Missouri soldiers. By this time eager for the chance to prove themselves as equal to the white soldiers on the battlefield, African Americans from "Little Dixie" were "fired with military ardor," wrote one veteran.
North of El Paso, the attacking Mexican army struck Colonel Doniphan's men on Christmas Day 1846. Both black and white Missourians rallied in time, and during the Mexican attack, the blacks stood side-by-side with the white soldiers to meet the challenge.
Missouri soldiers of both colors fought with their backs to the Rio Grande, standing firm before the Mexican onslaught. Despite having been caught by surprise deep in hostile territory, the black and white Missouri soldiers from "Little Dixie" and Jackson County repulsed the attackers with an accurate musketry. Shortly afterwards, the surprising victory at El Brazito cleared the way for Colonel Doniphan's triumphant march into El Paso del Notre.
Helping to hurl back the Mexican tide when every man was needed in the ranks, the African Americans exhibited what the whites called "Negro Valor" on the battlefield, when at last given the chance to fight for themselves and their country.
After Colonel Doniphan's improbable victory at the battle of El Brazito, the African Americans of Doniphan's Expedition were allowed to organize into a regular company because of their steadfast performance on Christmas Day. Inspired by Doniphan's order, those blacks without weapons armed themselves from rifles and pistols picked up from the bodies of dead Mexicans on the battlefield.
Excerpted from Cathy Williams by Phillip Thomas Tucker. Copyright © 2002 by Stackpole Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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