Born into slavery at Carters Bridge, Virginia, on February 16, 1858, Mays grew up to join the Army in Columbus, Ohio. By 1889, he was serving in Arizona Territory as a Corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry.
On May 11, 1889, he and several others in his regiment were asked to escort Army Paymaster Major Joseph Washington Wham and a strongbox carrying more than $28,000 in gold and silver coins from Fort Grant to Fort Thomas. However, when the caravan was about 15 miles from Pima, Arizona, they were ambushed by bandits, and a gun battle ensued in what is known as the Wham Paymaster Robbery. Eight escort members were wounded in the bitter engagement, including Sergeant Benjamin Brown, Mays’ superior, and the bandits made off with the payroll.
Though shot in both legs, Corporal Isaiah Mays walked and crawled two miles to a nearby ranch for help. A year later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor on February 19, 1890. The money from the robbery was never recovered, and no one was ever convicted of the robbery or the shootings.
Thirty-three years after receiving the Medal of Honor, in 1923, he applied to the United States Government for a pension and was denied. Eventually, he became indigent and was committed to the Arizona State Hospital, which at the time housed not only ill and injured, but also indigents with nowhere else to go. He died at age 67 in 1925 and was buried in the Arizona State Hospital Cemetery in Phoenix.