Isaiah Mays (1858-1925) was one of only two African American soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor during the "Indian Wars" of the late 19th century.
Mays was born into slavery in Carters Bridge, Virginia, moving to Ohio after he was emancipated in 1865. He joined the U.S. Army in 1881, and by 1889 had attained the rank of corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry Regiment, stationed in the Arizona Territory. The 24th was one of the famous "Buffalo Soldier" all-African American units that served on the western frontier of the United States and fought in numerous conflicts against Native American tribes who were resisting U.S. encroachment onto their lands. (Sources offer different explanations of the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers,” but it was likely the name that Native American warriors gave to the black soldiers they fought or encountered in the West.)
On May 11, 1889, Mays and nine other men from his regiment were ambushed by bandits as they were escorting the Army Paymaster, Major Joseph Washington Wham, and over $28,000 (almost $800,000 today) in gold and silver coins. After the group's commander, Sergeant Benjamin Brown, was wounded, Mays assumed command and ordered soldiers to defend the gold and silver. When the fighting ended, almost every man in the regiment was wounded, and the bandits had escaped with the money. However, despite having been shot in both legs, Mays managed (according to his Medal of Honor citation) to walk and crawl two miles to a ranch for help.
Although local authorities arrested suspects days after the so-called “Wham Paymaster Robbery,” and Mays and his men testified against them in court, a jury acquitted every suspect. No one was ever held accountable for the robbery, and the money was never recovered.
Mays, however, received a Medal of Honor for the decisive actions he took during the Wham Paymaster Robbery. He and Sgt. Brown were the only black infantry soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor during the frontier Indian Wars.
Mays served in the Army until 1893, and then found work as a laborer in Arizona and New Mexico. In 1922, he applied for a federal pension, but was denied. With nowhere else to go, he ended up at Arizona Territorial Insane Asylum, where he died three years later.
For decades after his death, Mays’ gravesite in Arizona was marked only by a brick with a number etched onto it. In 2001, the marker was replaced with an official Medal of Honor headstone, and in 2009, his remains were reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Medal of Honor citation:
"Gallantry in the fight between Paymaster Wham's escort and robbers. Mays walked and crawled two miles to a ranch for help."