Buffalo Soldiers

Legend and Legacy

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As subjects of both historical study and popular legend, the African American servicemen known as “Buffalo Soldiers” continue to provoke conversations. The heroism of the soldiers has been celebrated by filmmakers, musicians, military reenactors, and descendants who want to preserve their legacy. Yet that legacy is a complex one, and raises challenging questions about the relationship of the soldiers to the government they served as well as to the native peoples they fought.

For museum curators, interpreting the Buffalo Soldiers legacy also means distinguishing facts from lore. Krewasky Salter and Lonnie G. Bunch (NMAAHC) venture to do just that as they explore the soldiers’ military contributions and cultural impact, while David Penney (NMAI) reexamines their combat against American Indians in the West, and Fath Davis Ruffins (NMAH) shines a light on the soldiers’ lives before and beyond the uniform.

 

The Buffalo Robe

Krewasky A. Salter, Museum Curator and Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, NMAAHC

The buffalo robe, a type of fur overcoat, is an iconic object linking African American soldiers with Native Americans and white explorers in the nineteenth century, in both fact and myth. Native Americans made buffalo robes from the skin and hair of buffaloes and some wrapped their dead in the robes before placing them on scaffolds. White explorers on the Lewis and Clark trail coveted the robes for the warmth provided and African American soldiers were known for wearing the buffalo robes on the western frontier.

Photograph shows a double-breasted coat with a notched collar and full-length sleeves made from hand-pieced American bison hide. The coat has eight dark brown buttons in two rows down the center front opening. The coat is on a dress form.

American bison hide coat, mid-19th to early 20th century: The Army first purchased American buffalo (bison) overcoats in 1869 but never officially adopted them. Because winter supplies were inadequate, many soldiers independently acquired buffalo robes to stay warm. See more.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Avis, Eugene, and Lowell Robinson, NMAAHC 2014.179.2

For scholars who have curated exhibitions on the African American military experience, coats like this one bring to mind images of the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries, known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” These all-black regiments were led mainly by white U.S. Army officers—the three black officer exceptions were West Point graduates Henry O. Flipper, John Hanks Alexander, and Charles Young

White explorers on the Lewis and Clark trail coveted the robes...

These black soldiers helped protect the nation’s westward expansion by building roads and participating in significant military actions, such as the Red River War (1874-1875) and the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War (1898). The brave men also served among the first national park rangers. Black soldiers used military service as a strategy to obtain equal rights as citizens. Paradoxically, they sought to achieve this by engaging in government-led wars meant to overtake the Southwest and Great Plains from Native Americans.

Photograph shows five soldiers on horseback with rifles slung over their shoulders. They are posing on sloping ground with giant Sequoia trees in the backdrop.

Buffalo Soldiers were among the first rangers in what became the National Park Service. Duties would have included protecting against the poaching of wildlife, preventing private livestock from grazing on federal lands, and building roads and trails. See more.

National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center for Media Service.

According to popular lore, Native Americans coined the term “Buffalo Soldiers” either because the soldiers’ dark curly hair resembled a buffalo mane or because the soldiers fought like the fierce Great Plains buffalo. Its origin notwithstanding, African American soldiers embraced the moniker by World War I when the 92nd Infantry Division adopted the buffalo as the symbol for its unit patch. The regiments have been immortalized in popular culture through songs like reggae giant Bob Marley's “Buffalo Soldier,” television productions like 1997's Buffalo Soldiers starring Danny Glover, and in films like Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, which chronicles the Buffalo Soldiers who served in the invasion of Italy in World War II.

 

 

Wars and Warriors

David Penney, Associate Director for Museum Research and Scholarship, NMAI

Eighteen African American “Buffalo Soldiers” earned Medals of Honor while engaged against American Indian combatants between 1870 and 1890.  We honor those warriors, but what of the wars?  

A photograph in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian offers a snapshot of the difficult story of the Ute Indians removal from Colorado, in which Buffalo Soldiers played a small yet ironically heroic part.  Pictured in this photo (below) are Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre band of Ute and the Colorado railroad developer Otto Mears.

Chief Ouray is pictured in traditional Ute clothing alongside Otto Mears. Both men are seated, elbows bent, with their arms resting on their laps.

Chief Ouray and Otto Mears, photographed by William Henry Jackson in Denver, CO, circa 1879: Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre band of Ute (left) and Colorado railroad developer Otto Mears (right) pose for this photo.

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. (DSI-AAA) 10601

Chief Ouray was the controversial negotiator for the Ute Treaty of 1868.  The treaty ceded Ute ownership of the eastern third of present-day Colorado to the United States but reserved for the Ute the western part of Colorado territory.  The 1868 treaty also created two Indian agencies deep within the Ute reservation to manage treaty payments and other obligations. In 1879, the Indian Agent at the White River Agency, Nathan Meeker, called for the U.S. army to enforce his authority. The Ute interpreted the army’s approach as a declaration of war.  Ute fighters intercepted the advancing soldiers and pinned them down with sniper fire.

This three-part photograph shows eight members of the 1868 Ute delegation standing alongside nine government officials.

Ute Delegation, photographed by Matthew Brady Studio: Eight members of the 1868 Ute delegation to Washington, D.C. stand alongside nine government officials. Chief Ouray, who the U.S. authorities regarded as the tribe's principal spokesman, is fourth from the right.  See more

Buffalo Soldiers in Company D of the 9th Cavalry rushed to provide relief. Twenty-nine-year-old African American Private Henry Johnson earned a Medal of Honor when he risked his life to bring water to the wounded.  More reinforcements arrived, and the Ute withdrew.  Later, the government called upon Chief Ouray and Otto Mears, as shown below, to help negotiate the peace.  Ouray addressed Congress to justify the Ute’s actions.  But it was no use. Mears was appointed to a commission that drafted the Ute Removal Act of 1880, signed by both men, resulting in the forced surrender of nearly all Ute lands in Colorado.

We honor those warriors, but what of the wars?

The photograph shows two of the same images, side-by-side for viewing in a stereo-scope. The image shows the bust of an American Indian man in profile. The man, Nicaagat (also known as Ute Jack), wears long straight hair in two loose braids, a vest and dark shirt, large ear hoops and a beaded necklace with a crescent-shaped pendant.

Nicaagat, also known as Ute Jack, photographed by George W. Kirkland, 1873: Nicaagat, also known as “Ute Jack,” led the war party that engaged the U.S. Army when it crossed the Milk River into Ute territory in 1879.  Later that year he traveled to Washington to defend his actions before Congress. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

National Anthropology Archives Collection, NAA INV 0983 1600.

The Ute today are divided among three federally recognized nations with reservations in Utah, southern Colorado, and northern New Mexico.  All three Ute nations continue to pursue sovereign rights and the protection of their lands through the legislature and courts.

In 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian worked with the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum to produce a short film about how Ute artists are preserving their history and culture in the 21st century.

A short film about the Ute and Ute artists produced by the National Museum of the American Indian’s Artist Leadership Program.

 
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Beyond The Uniform

Fath Davis Ruffins, Museum Curator, NMAH

African American men have fought in every American war, yet the Buffalo Soldiers, two cavalry and four infantry regiments, have a unique place in place in history and memory. They helped the United States become a vast continental nation and ultimately a world power. Facing discrimination in the Army and in the towns where they were stationed, Buffalo Soldiers persevered to be a credit to their people and the nation. 

The National Museum of American History acquired two collections documenting the Buffalo Soldiers and sometimes their families. As a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life, I see these collections as more than records of military service, but as an entry point into the lives and legacies of these remarkable men.

Cabinet card shows Bridgwater standing jauntily in his uniform. His left hand is on a chair and his right hand is on his hip. His legs are crossed at the feet.

Cabinet card of Samuel Bridgwater, prior to 1896: There are numerous copies of this photo of Samuel Bridgwater in his 24th Infantry uniform in the family’s collection, suggesting that he sent this card to many relatives and friends.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Janet Harrell-Campbell and Dr. Jules Harrell. Bridgewater Family Papers, Archives Center Collection #1385.

Samuel Bridgwater joined the 24th Infantry Regiment in the 1880s. In 1892, he married Mamie Anderson and brought her to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. After being wounded fighting in the Philippines, he served as a cook. Eventually, the Bridgwaters established themselves in Helena, Montana, buying property, raising their children, and becoming active in community affairs. In 2016, their great-grandchildren donated a collection documenting six generations of black family life in the West. 

Cabinet card shows a woman posed with three small children.

Cabinet card of Mamie Bridgwater, circa 1900: This formal portrait of Mamie Bridgwater and her three oldest children was displayed in a number of Bridgwater family homes over more than a hundred years. 

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Janet Harrell-Campbell and Dr. Jules Harrell. Bridgewater Family Papers, Archives Center Collection # 1385.

Born in the Indian territory of Oklahoma in 1897, Benjamin B. Blayton and his twin brother joined the 92nd Division in 1918. Having left their small town for Washington, D.C., both men were eager to see the world. Blayton fought in the 365th regiment which saw combat in the decisive Meuse-Argonne battle in France. For his heroic service, Blayton garnered two battle clasps on his World War I Victory Medal.

Photo of Benjamin B. Blayton from the chest up in his military uniform.

Benjamin B. Blayton in his 365th Regiment uniform: Since “over there” is handwritten on the bottom of this photograph, it is likely that Blayton posed for it either in Washington, D.C. where he joined the service or somewhere in France. He probably sent this image back to loved ones in Oklahoma. “Over There” was a popular song written by George M. Cohan. The second verse especially captures the spirit of the time: 

“Over there, over there/Send the word, send the word over there/That the Yanks are coming/The Yanks are coming/The drums rum-tumming/Everywhere/So prepare, say a prayer/Send the word, send the word to beware/We'll be over, we're coming over/And we won't come back till it's over/Over there!”

Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Gwendolyn B. Robinson.

Following the war, Blayton married Oletha Brown who had come to the capital to help the war effort by sewing uniforms. Blayton went on to work in the Patent Office and Postal Service. In 1994, his daughter donated his uniform, medals, and record of service.

An image of the left side profile of a military jacket that belonged to Benjamin B. Blayton.

Benjamin B. Blayton’s World War I uniform jacket - Blayton’s jacket bears the red and white Buffalo Soldier patch of the 92nd Division on the left shoulder. The red chevron on the upper left sleeve indicates an honorable discharge. The two gold chevrons on the lower left sleeve indicated one year of service overseas. See more.

Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Gwendolyn B. Robinson.

…even their sacrifices for the war had not yet made them equal citizens.

(left)  A medal with a woman in a halo carrying a sword and a shield with rainbow colored ribbon.  (right) A medal in the shape of a cross with a green and white ribbon.

Benjamin Blayton’s World War I Victory Medal with Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector battle clasps (left) and his District of Columbia World War Service Medal (right). See more.

Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Gwendolyn B. Robinson.

Because of their heroism, some Buffalo Soldiers were able to get better jobs, own property, and gain access to higher education. At the same time, some returning Buffalo Soldiers were lynched. African Americans realized that even their sacrifices for the war had not yet made them equal citizens.

 

Discussion Questions

  • Throughout American history, how did African Americans utilize military service as a strategy for fighting injustice and an opportunity for gaining equality?
  • How do the ideas about the “Buffalo Soldier” enhance African American military service while simultaneously symbolizing the destruction of the Native American communities in the west?

Visit our Learning Lab on the Buffalo Soldiers to explore resources and images about this story.  The Learning Lab also allows you to create and share your own personalized collection of Smithsonian assets. 


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