I already know the Austin writer Sarah Bird, I think, 25 or 30 years. What I did not know until recently is that my friend has been trying for years and longer to tell the lifelike story of a remarkable woman who has almost lost history.
Now, after publishing 10 novels whose characters are air force-brats in Japan, flamenco dancers in Albuquerque, society women in Austin and no-rodeo rodeo artists in Texas and New Mexico and after 40 years of contemplation, ruminating and research, she found out how she can introduce her readers to the only woman known to have served with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers while disguising herself as a man. Sarah's new novel about lifelike Cathy Williams is mentioned Daughter of a daughter of a queen, published by St. Martin & # 39; s Press.
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Making phone calls from the car while her husband George Jones drove to Houston a few days ago – she had lectures at Blue Willow Bookshop and Brazos Bookstore this week – Sarah said she first heard of Cathy (sometimes spelled as Cathay) Williams in the late 1970s. She was doing research in Houston on African-American rodeos, especially the Diamond L Riding & Roping Club by Mollie Stevenson, a few miles south of today's NRG stadium. .
"Since the first moment I heard about her existence," Sarah said, "I was a bit haunted by why she only made this choice" – both to be a soldier in the American Southwest during the Indian wars and to disguising a man. She fictionalized the life of Williams, mainly because she was a novelist, but also because the historical record is scarce.
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In the pre-internet days she had research assistance from her friend Pam Black, an Austin kindergarten teacher who was looking for role models that resembled her predominantly African-American students. What the two women discovered was that Williams was born around 1844 as a enslaved mother and as a free father on a plantation near Independence, Mo. During her adolescence, she worked as a house slave on a plantation near the Missouri state chapel, Jefferson City, a city occupied by the Union's troops during the early days of the Civil War.
Trapped slaves were classified as "contraband" and forced to serve the army in supporting roles. As a cook and washerwoman with troops under the command of General Philip Sheridan, Williams witnessed the Battle of Pea Ridge, the Battle of Cedar Creek and other major missions as he drove the army through much of the southeastern United States.
As a woman, Cathy Williams was forbidden to serve in the army, but "William Cathay" did. In one way or another he / she managed to undergo a medical examination and to take up employment in 1866. During the Civil War, more than 400 women are known who have served as male soldiers, but Williams was the first documented woman to serve in the army after the war. She is the only documented African-American woman who served before the 1948 Act that gave women a permanent status in the regular and reserve troops of the army.
She was assigned to the 38th US Infantry Regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers. Although we know little about her service, we know that she had a hard time during a winter campaign against the Apache in the southwest of New Mexico.
Williams managed to keep her secret for almost two years until she fell ill while stationed in New Mexico. The post-surgeon did the surprise detection and informed the post commander. On 14 October 1868, Private Bill Cathay once again was Cathy Williams. She received honorable discharge.
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So how did she get away with it? How did this ambitious young woman become private Cathay and why did she decide that the army was the life for her? What did she achieve when she was in the ranks? And what has become of her after her life as a soldier?
By taking the fragments we have from history and coming up with answers to those basic questions, Sarah brings a flesh-and-blood man to life who, in the words of Dallas-writer Ben Fountain, "fears and loves and wants and hurt does just like fiercely as one of us. "It's a great achievement.
She claims her license as a novelist occasionally deviates from recorded history. For example, she gives Williams a sense of her noble African descent ("daughter of a daughter of a queen"). She has stationed Williams and her regiment in the fictional version of Fort Davis, in West Texas, because the fort in New Mexico, where the actual regiment was stationed, was made of adobe and resolved in the earth. Fort Davis is of course a reconstructed national historical site, making it easier to investigate the Buffalo Soldier era.
She also put Williams on top of a horse, in the cavalry, a more romantic undertaking than eating dust with the infantry. And she took on a fictional love interest (fitting, it seems to me, since Sarah has published five novel novels under a pseudonym.)
After her dismissal, the real Cathy Williams worked as a cook at Fort Union, N.M., and later moved to Pueblo, Colo. She married, although her husband stole her money and a team of horses, and Williams had him arrested. On the run from the unfortunate trade union she moved to Trinidad, Colo, where she worked as a seamstress and perhaps ran a pension. In 1876, the St. Louis Daily Times published a report of her military service.
Around 1889 or 1890, Williams went to a local hospital and applied for a disability pension on the basis of her military service. The government denied her request, although she suffered from diabetes and walked with a stool because all her toes had been amputated. She is believed to have died in 1893.
A few days ago, Kiesha Lewis, a Southwest Airlines employee in Omaha, Neb., Studied the Cathy Williams exhibition at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston. Lewis was introduced to Williams the day before when she ran into an exhibition during a tour of the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi Bay.
"They enchanted me," said Lewis, standing in front of a mannequin dressed to represent Williams during her Buffalo Soldier days. "I went through that whole ship and I kept thinking about her."
After all her years of research and her struggle to tell the story, Sarah Bird can not ignore Cathy Williams either. "I miss her," she said. Now that the book is out, she is making new friends in the world and she has left me behind. It is a kind of post-partum depression. "