The Tale of Two Boarding Houses

This is the tale of two boarding houses in Raton, New Mexico. I had gone to this town in northeastern New Mexico to traverse the territory that Sally Porter lived in 1898. Who is Sally Porter, you may ask? She is the protagonist of my current work-in-progress (WIP).

While in Raton, I learned about two boarding houses that were in operation in the 1890s. The first is now a bed & breakfast called Heart’s Desire, where I stayed for several days. Situated near the heart of the town, it’s location was perfect. The historic district, quaint shops, a museum, and the library were all within walking distance.

The house, painted sweetheart pink, was built in 1895 by the first U.S. Marshall of Raton and served as a boarding house run by his wife. She not only fed the residents but also cooked the meals for the occupants of the jail. The footpath between the house and where the jail once stood is still visible. One story is that when the jailhouse was full, the sheriff would lock prisoners in the house’s carriage house.


The hostess, Barbara Riley, has restored the house and decorated each room with a delightful theme, showing off the place in Victorian splendor. Upon my arrival, she greeted me with a warm slice of apple pie and cup of tea. After the refreshments and conversation, I was shown my room, the Blue Willow Room. It had a lovely view over the town’s historic buildings and the fall foliage.

Each morning, I was treated to some of the best cooking I have ever had while traveling. Barbara put a lot of love into each breakfast she served. It fortified me as I headed out on my adventures for the day. On my return in the evening, I was greeted by the official welcome committee, Guinness, a sweet-tempered Yorkshire terrier. I would settle into one of the couches in the sitting room with a cup of tea and write up my notes for the day listening to Barbara play the piano.

I felt very spoiled.

I would recommend stopping for a night or two at the Heart’s Desire Bed & Breakfast. Barbara’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the area, the comfortable environment she created, and the location made this pleasant stay. It is also pet-friendly and has wi-fi.

Let me introduce you to proprietress of the second boarding house, Cathay Williams –slave, domestic worker, soldier, and businesswoman.

Cathay was born a slave in 1844. At the start the Civil War, she was on a plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. When Union soldiers marched in she was considered “contraband,” and like many slaves, she was pressed into service as a cook and laundress. At one point, she was transferred to Washington D.C., where she served as a cook for General Philip Sheridan.

After the war, Cathay found herself unemployed, and with no money and few opportunities, the tall, lanky woman made a drastic decision. She posed as a man and joined the army, using the name William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th Infantry Regiment, one of six all African-American regiments that would become known as the Buffalo Soldiers. She was hospitalized several times during the nearly two years she served and was never examined closely enough to discover her secret until she let it slip. She was given a medical discharge in 1868.

After her discharge, Cathay joined family members in Colorado, where her mother was a matron at the Lincoln Home for orphaned and abandoned black children. The one known photograph of her was taken during this time in Pueblo. Then she moved to Trinidad where she worked as a seamstress. While there a reporter from Saint Louis came to visit her, after hearing rumors of a black woman soldier. Her story was published in The St. Louis Daily Times in 1876. Shortly after her story was published, she became ill, suffering from neuralgia and complications from diabetes. In 1893, she applied for an army pension, as had Deborah Sampson, who served as a man during the American Revolutionary War. Her claim was denied, despite her having to walk with a crutch (her toes had been amputated.)

Many biographies of Cathay Williams report that she must have died shortly after her 1893 pension claim was denied as her absent from the Trinidad census rolls of 1900. But according to two sources I spoke with in Raton, this is not the case. Both the historian at the Raton Chamber of Commerce and the curator of The Raton  Museum reported that she moved from Trinidad to Raton, where she lived the last three decades of her life. According to them, she ran a boarding house. However, it’s location is not identified on any period maps. She offered room and board to the local railroad workers, and when General Sheridan’s son passed through the area, he stopped and stayed with her a few days.

Williams died in Raton in 1926 at the age of 82. Her body is thought to have been returned to Colorado to be buried with her family, in either Pueblo or Trinidad, but the location of the grave has been lost.

Cathay Williams’ story is a tale of resilience. She rose from being a slave to a businesswoman. It is also a story of racism. As evidenced in the medical care African-American soldiers received. It must have been minimal as she was “examined” multiple times and the doctors didn’t realize she was a woman. Also when she applied for her pension, she wasn’t a white woman represented by John Adams like Deborah, but a poor black woman with a lawyer who did little to push her claim through. In spite of these, she left her mark. In 2016, Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas dedicated a bust of Cathay Williams (AKA Private William Cathay), recognizing her place in history as the first African-American female soldier.



Cathay Williams (AKA Private William Cathay)  Willam Allan Cultural Center & Museum, Leavenworth, Kansas

This veteran salutes you, Private Williams.


In the late 1800’s, Raton was a bustling railroad town with many boarding houses and hotels. These were just two them.

Until next time, remember . . .

The door is always open, and the Kettle is always on.

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