Colorado Buffalo Soldiers: An Overview of the Vail Public Library Exhibit
Buffalo Soldiers: Origin of Name
Scholars generally concur that the name, Buffalo Soldier, originated with indigenous peoples. A few indigenous names include:
- Lakota wasichu sapa black white man
- Comanche tu esku pana black red front
- Ute to-maricat’z black white man
There are several early references to the term Buffalo Soldier. In 1867, an early report occurred equating an African American cavalryman with a buffalo. Although severely wounded and armed only with a pistol, Pvt. John Randall of Troop G, 10th Cavalry, “fought like a cornered buffalo against 70 Cheyenne” until help arrived. It is possible that the term Buffalo Soldier emerged from this event as a gesture of respect. The Cheyenne name for post-Civil War era African American cavalrymen of the American West reportedly means “wild buffalo.”
In 1886, Eugene E. White, a Fort Duchesne (Utah) Northern Ute Indian Agent, noted another historically significant Buffalo Soldier reference. When Major Frederick W. Benteen arrived with the 9th Cavalry, an old Ute headman purportedly proclaimed: “Buffalo Soldiers … all over black … woolly head … black white man!” In 1929 – 1930, a retired 9th cavalryman, Reuben Waller, used the term in his autobiography. Waller’s reference is the first known instance of an African American veteran using the term to describe himself.
There are other hypotheses regarding the term’s specific origination. One hypothesis refers to the use of buffalo robes during winter by African American soldiers. Another hypothesis holds that the unit of African American cavalryman and his horse resembled a buffalo at a distance.
Buffalo Soldier segregated units were commanded by white commissioned officers. Some white officers, including Captain (later General) George Armstrong Custer, refused to command Buffalo Soldier regiments and declined promotions. Noncommissioned officers were African American. The first three African American West Point graduates were also the first three African Americans to command Buffalo Soldier regiments.
In 1877, African American West Point graduate Lt. Henry Flipper began his service in the 10th Cavalry. In 1887, Lt. John Alexander, who was the second African American West Point graduate, also served in the 10th Cavalry. Alexander’s initial posting was at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. In 1889, Lt. Charles Young graduated from West Point and subsequently served at Fort Robinson. Young’s second post was at Fort Duchesne which was adjacent to the Northern Ute and Uintah Ute reservations in northeast Utah.
FIRST OF MANY
In 1896, the US Army Bicycle Corps made its debut. The Buffalo Soldiers 25th Infantry “Iron Riders” trekked 1900 miles from Fort Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri as a test of the bicycle’s practicality in difficult terrain.
Between 1899 and 1904, Buffalo Soldiers served as the first National Park Service rangers and trail crew. In 1903, Buffalo Soldier Captain Charles Young was stationed at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Young became the first U.S. National Park Superintendent.
BUFFALO SOLDIER DUTIES
In Colorado, Buffalo Soldiers safe-guarded major trails, mountain parks, water holes and mountain passes. Buffalo Soldiers constructed forts, roadways and telegraphy lines and served as armed security for surveyors, trains, railroad construction, stagecoaches, mail carriers and supply lines. Additionally, Colorado Buffalo Soldiers created maps and assisted in survey projects.
Colorado Buffalo Soldiers also subdued a variety of prejudicial hostilities arising from revenge killings or other quarrels. In this capacity, they patrolled indigenous people’s reservations and settled skirmishes with settlers arising from treaty violations.
RECREATION AND ACTIVITIES
Hard labor, isolation and grave circumstances characterized Buffalo Soldier life on the American West frontier. Free time was sorely earned. Pastime activities included playing music and enjoying band performances. Other diversions included games of dominoes, dice and playing cards. Some garrisons held monthly “Field Day” competitions which featured horsemanship, marksmanship skills, track and running events, and “gymnasium contests.” Other activities included “trumpeter revere” contests, military band competitions and inter-post baseball and football games.
Some African American officers, such as Lt. Charles Young, served as both music instructors, concert performers and teachers. African American officers also participated in educational lyceum lectures and select social events. Additionally, officers of the 9th and 10th cavalries comprised polo teams that participated in matches held in Glenwood Springs, Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado.
RACISM AND RECOGNITION
Racism abounded in the late 1800s. An unwritten military policy held that fair complexions served in white units, while dark complexions served in “colored” units. Hispanic, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Filipino and African American peoples were lumped into this racial profiling. Despite rampant prejudice, Buffalo Soldiers gradually earned recognition from the dominant culture. The first African American to earn the Medal of Honor during the American Indian Wars was Buffalo Soldier Sgt. Emanuel Stance; the last was Cpl. Williams O. Wilson. Both men served in the 9th Cavalry on the American West frontier.
DISCUSSION AND CONTROVERSY
Buffalo Soldiers dutifully participated in the disenfranchisement of Native Americans in the American West. Some communities considered this action a blight on their otherwise exemplary record. The Buffalo Soldier commemorative stamp, issued on 22 April 1994, was protested by some American Indigenous groups.
Buffalo Soldiers In Colorado
From 1867 to 1887, African American Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th cavalries served Colorado. Although primarily garrisoned out of Fort Garland in southern Colorado, Buffalo Soldier units were also based at Fort Lyon in southeast Colorado and Fort Lewis in southwest Colorado. In addition, Buffalo Soldier regiments from Fort Hays, Kansas served Colorado’s eastern plains, regiments from Fort Duchesne, Utah served northwest Colorado, and regiments from Fort Union, New Mexico served southern Colorado.
FORT GARLAND in SAN LUIS VALLEY CO
In 1858, Fort Garland was built within San Luis Valley, the large mountain park of southcentral Colorado. Fort Garland was an important base for frontier expansion in the American West. It was also a base for military actions during the Civil War and American Indian campaigns. Between 1876 and 1879, Fort Garland was garrisoned by African American Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, Company D which was commanded by Captain Francis S. Dodge.
BUFFALO SOLDIER BATTLES
Buffalo Soldiers fought in over two hundred engagements in thirty years of service in the American West. Two major engagements occurred in Colorado Territory or the State of Colorado (after 01 August 1876).
- The 1868 Battle of Beecher Island on the Colorado eastern plains pitted the 10th Cavalry against a Cheyenne Dog Soldier alliance.
- In northwest Colorado, the 1879 Battle of Milk Creek pitted the 9th Cavalry against the Northern Utes.
Many smaller, yet deadly, skirmishes occurred between Buffalo Soldiers and indigenous peoples in Colorado. Several of these are noted on the Buffalo Soldier Engagements in Colorado map. During the 1865 to 1899 American Indian Wars, twenty-three Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor. (This number varies depending on the source of the information.)
Buffalo Soldiers Facts and Stats
In May 1863, the US Army established Corps d’Afrique (US Colored Volunteers).
- In 1864 the same regiments were renamed US Colored Troops (USCT).
In 1866, US Congress reorganized the US Army:
- 2 segregated cavalry units were formed: the 9th Cavalry and the 10th Cavalry.
- 4 segregated infantry units were formed: 38th INF, 39th INF, 40th INF and 41st INF.
- These 4 infantry regiments were eventually reorganized into the 24th INF and 25th INF.
By 1867, most segregated troops were known as Buffalo Soldiers.
- Buffalo Soldiers constituted 20% of the US Cavalry until the 1890s.
Descriptive narratives for the Colorado Buffalo Soldiers exhibit were researched and written by Lynn Albers, VPL Local History Specialist. Sandy Rivera, VPL Programming Associate, created the exhibit graphic design.