Commemorating Colorado Buffalo Soldiers

Library’s Galleria Display


Buffalo Soldier 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

29c Buffalo Soldiers Single. Smithsonian: US Postal Museum. Object 1995.2025.10. Commemorative stamp issued: 22 April 1994.

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, the term was noted by Fort Duchesne Indian Agent, Eugene E. White. Major Frederick W. Benteen arrived with the 9th Cavalry and 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. A few include:

  • African American soldiers wrapped themselves in buffalo robes during winter.
  • At a distance, the unit of African American cavalrymen and horses resembled a buffalo.
  • There is a similarity between African American soldiers’ hair and the crown of the buffalo.
  • There is also a similarity between the color of the buffalo and African American skin tone.

Early History

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, West Point graduate Lt. Henry Flipper began his service in the 10th Cavalry. In 1887, Lt. John Alexander graduated and he was posted at Fort Robinson Nebraska with the 10th Cavalry. In 1889, Lt. Charles Young graduated and also served at Fort Robinson Nebraska. Young’s second post was Fort Duchesne, Utah adjacent to the Northern Ute and Uintah Ute Reservations.


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.



Hard labor, desperate circumstances and isolation characterized Buffalo Soldier life on the American West frontier. Diversions were rare and free time was sorely earned. Pastime activities included playing music, regimental band performances, and games of dominoes, playing cards and dice. African American officers also participated in educational lyceum lectures. In addition, these officers served as music instructors and concert performers. Some garrisons held monthly “Field Day” contests featuring horsemanship and marksmanship skills, track and running events, and “gymnasium contests.” Other diversions included “trumpeter revere” and military band competitions, and even baseball, football and polo matches.


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, Indian, Filipino and African American peoples were lumped into this racial profiling. Buffalo Soldiers were slow to earn 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.


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

Buffalo Soldier Engagements in Colorado GIS map created by: Albers, Lynn. Vail Public Library: Local History Specialist And Koenig, Sean. Town of Vail: GIS Coordinator.

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.


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.


Colorado Buffalo Soldiers engaged in two major conflicts with indigenous peoples. The 1868 Battle of Beecher Island on the Colorado eastern plains pitted a Cheyenne Dog Soldier alliance against the 10th Cavalry. The 1879 Battle of Milk Creek in northwest Colorado pitted Northern Utes against the 9th Cavalry. There were also numerous smaller, but deadly, skirmishes throughout the Colorado Territory prior to 1876 and state of Colorado after 1876.


Colorado Buffalo soldiers patrolled major trails, mountain parks and indigenous people’s reservations.  They constructed forts, roadways and telegraph lines, guarded water holes and mountain passes, created maps, and served as armed security for surveyors, trains, railroad construction, stagecoaches, mail carriers and supply lines. Buffalo Soilders also subdued hostilities and settled skirmishes arising from treaty violations,  revenge killings, prejudice and misunderstanding.

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.

Buffalo Soldiers fought in 200 major and minor engagements in thirty years of service in the American West. In the Colorado Territory or State of Colorado (statehood 01 Aug 1876), many skirmishes occurred. There were also two major engagements: The 1868 Battle of Beecher Island and the 1875 Battle of Milk Creek. During the 1865 – 1899 American Indian Wars, 23 Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor. (Scholarship varies on the number).

Comments are closed.