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First black female Buffalo Soldier posed as a man
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Monday, 16 May 2011 17:00

Buffalo Soldiers, the black cavalry soldiers who served in the U.S. Army in the second half of the 19th century, have long been iconic symbols of the American West. At one point, companies of Buffalo Soldiers even served at Fort Verde.

One particular historical fact from Buffalo Soldier history caught the attention of author Rebecca Hayes, who recently wrote a book “Private Cathay’s Secret.”

Rebecca Hayes, a former Arizona resident, recently wrote a  historical, fictional book based on a real woman who pretended to be a man to join the Buffalo Soldiers.Hayes lives in Newtown Square, Penn., where she works as a substitute teacher, but she used to be an Arizona resident where she worked teaching on American Indian reservations.

Hayes was in Camp Verde recently to talk about her book and the inspiration behind it.

Hayes came across the story of Cathay Williams, a Missouri slave girl who was impressed into service during the Civil War as a cook by the Union Army.

After the war, Williams decided the life of a cook wasn’t for her, but a life in the military was.

Women weren’t allowed to serve as soldiers back then, but Williams was undeterred.

She disguised herself as a man, took the name “William Cathay” and signed up with the U.S. Army in 1866, becoming the first African-American woman to enlist.

For the next two years, Williams travelled throughout the West with her fellow soldiers, until an Army doctor eventually discovered she was a woman, thus ending her military career.

The book has been a labor of love for Hayes, who has been researching and writing it for the last 13 years. Hayes said she was encouraged to write this story by her husband, Roland, an active historical Buffalo Soldier reenactor.

While Williams is an actual historical figure, Hayes is quick to point out that her book is a work of fiction.

Hayes said that while she tried to stick to the historical details of when and where Williams travelled with the Army, she used that history as a framework to tell stories about what someone in her situation may have experienced.

“Not really a lot of details were know about her life,” Hayes said. “I tried to explore what her relationship with other soldiers may have been like.”

Still, a lot of research went into the book. Hayes said she traveled to museums to glean information about her subject and researched the American Indians that Williams fought against.

She also relied on the only know interview Williams gave to a journalist in the later years of her life.

“It’s fiction,” Hayes said. “But I wanted to make the book as legitimate as possible.”

Between illness and prejudice, Hayes said she wanted to explore what woman could handle, a woman who clearly was determined to blaze her own trail in life.

After her military discharge, Williams settled in Colorado and a life of relative obscurity as a seamstress. Facing illness, Williams applied for and was denied a pension from the government before dying in the early 1890s.

Hayes’ book stands as a tribute to Williams’ life and the unique circumstances that earned her a place in history.

The book, which is targeted at middle school-age children, is now on sale.

Excepts from this compelling story are available online on Hayes’ website, RebeccaWords4All.com.

 

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