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