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The Role of "Buffalo Soldiers" in the Native-American Wars

Updated on October 26, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years of success in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana; 1890.
Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana; 1890. | Source

An Honorable Name for Black Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers received their nickname as an honor from Native Americans for several reasons. The easy reason is that African American hair and coloring resembled that of the American bison (Scientific name: Bison bison ); these similarities likely indicated a relationship.

The soldiers in question also wore buffalo robes over their uniforms in the winter while on horseback patrol. Further, both the bison and the African American soldier showed bravery and fought fiercely with honor, especially when cornered. Any regiment of these Black soldiers was known to be as powerful as a herd of buffalo.

The Buffalo Soldiers were not all men, either. One Buffalo Soldier was a woman in disguise, Cathay Williams. A few American women have disguised themselves as men to go to war, to drive stagecoaches, and to tackle other all-male occupations up to about the middle of the 20th Century.

Escaped slaves, freemen, and freedmen served with the American Union Army during the Civil War and sometimes lived among Native American Nations as tribal members before, during and afterward. More Blacks fought for the North than for the South, but groups of Cherokees fought for the South, while Seminoles (who had adopted Blacks) fought for the North.

In the buildup to the war, throughout the war, and afterward, Blacks found themselves fighting whites, Chinese on both sides, Native Americans (some of whom had been friends) on both sides, and other Blacks. The period from 1838 - 1900 was hard to survive, but hardships obstructed them and their descendants for over a century past that time as well, even to today.

Buildup to the Indian Wars

At times, African Americans found themselves fighting against Native Americans in the "Indian Wars" that spanned a period of time extending from the Indian Removals circa 1838 before the War Between the States through Reconstruction to the end of the 19th Century, when they reached their highest frequency. The Buffalo Soldiers' military units existed specifically as all-Black regiments from 1866 - 1951, but some texts refer to all Black military people in the US and the 13 Colonies as Buffalo Soldiers.

Serving in 177 battles and skirmishes, Buffalo Soldiers earned the respect of our Native Americans, who placed them in esteem equal to that of their revered American bison herds.

Although highly respected and honored by North American Indigenous Peoples, racism and extensive hardships confronted the Buffalo Soldiers in their work after the Civil War in the newly specialized all-Black 9th and 10th US Cavalries. The 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st US Infantries were also all-Black, and combined to later form the 24th and 25th Infantries, who also worked hard in difficult positions.

The final four all-Black post-Civil War regimental units, the 9th and 10th Calvary's and 24th and 25th Infantries, were employed in peacetime, but were required to fight Native Americans.

Indian Removals: Routes Through the Trail of Tears

Simplified map of the Indian Removal routes.
Simplified map of the Indian Removal routes. | Source

Buffalo Soldiers Fought Native Americans In and Between Montana,Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona

Montana, USA

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Texas, USA

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New Mexico:
New Mexico, USA

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Arizona, USA

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Fighting the Indians 1838 - 1924

At the start of the Civil War, the American government had been fighting Native Americans in the Western Territories and states for several years, beginning around 1838. After the war, the Black soldiers were sent west in order to preserve the post-war labor market in the South, North, and East for whites, and the Native Americans that had married some of them.

African American soldiers were glad to have the opportunity of military work with its promises of pay, education, medical services, and military pension.

During the Indian Wars, the Black soldiers fought for and protected telegraph lines, railroad lines and depots, Stagecoaches and their stations, the US mail, hotels and saloons, other town businesses, arms and ammunition deliveries, homesteads, frontier towns, white settlers, civilian Blacks (e.g. cowboys and railroad workers), and allied Native American groups. They fought hostile Native American groups as well as cattle rustlers, bandits, bootleggers, Mexican soldiers, gun runners, horse theives, and any number of other foes, including some of the people they were to protect. At times, battle was confusing, because of the different native groups involved and some white men that disguised themselves as "Indians." The identity of the enemy was not always clear.

Building Forts

The Buffalo Soldiers were also put to work building frontier forts in the American West and the 10th Cavalry built and rebuilt four forts total. However, they were not usually permitted to use the structures for shelter - these forts were for white soldiers. However, at Fort Concho, separate education rooms were maintained for whites and Blacks and the color line began to blur.

The Buffalo Soldiers fought dozens of groups from different Native American Nations. Some of the natives were attacking forts, farms, and other settlements in the West; but, different nations fought each other as well. The soldiers were fighting any group of natives that their commanding officers assigned to their Troops. Some of the fighting lasted until 1924 (see link to list of battle engagements above). Overall, 20 soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries received the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.

"Indian Wars" 1860–1890: army posts, battles, Native territories


Black Cowboys

Mexicans and South American Natives in America and some escaped slaves became cowboys in the Old West. Evidence in my family history and related stories indicates that relatives who headed West from NYC after landing in America in the early 1800s saw these and white cowboys as they traveled to Arizona and California. They saw Blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans working on the railroads headed west and some of my ancestors likely worked on them as well.

The Buffalo Soldier Troops of the 9th and 10th Calvaries guarded all of these workers from robbers and hostile natives, plus the rail offices, trains, and passengers from 1866 - forward; and, as "colored Troops" in the earlier 1800s. The success of the American Railroad owes much to the Buffalo Soldiers.

A wave of my ancestors that arrived in the New World in the 1600s saw Native Americans - largely Iroquois - some of whom married the British and some Colonists. Some of these intermarried "Indians" were good at running businesses and even owned slaves, complicating the Civil War Era even further for the Buffalo Soldiers and for everyone.

Buffalo Soldiers Day

November 30 is Buffalo Soldiers Day in Houston

Motto of the 9th US Calvary:

We Can. We Will.

Motto of the 10th US Cavalry:

Ready and Forward.

Buffalo Park Rangers

Before the United States had a National Parks Service and systems of National parks, forests, monuments, scenic byways, waterways, beaches, wildlife refuges, wetlands, and other installations, the Buffalo Soldiers served as park rangers in California parks.

Wars Served by Buffalo Soldiers

  • American Civil War: 1861 - 1865 - This war was a major step toward forming the all-Black US regiments that would be called Buffalo Soldiers . Eventually, all Black soldiers became Buffalo Soldiers, even to this day. 180,000 African-Americans fought in uniform for the Union Army. At least 30,000 more served in the US Navy. Another 200,000 aided the war effort by working on engineering, hospital, and other military projects. Over 33,000 died in the war and others fought for the Confederacy. The term "Buffalo Soldier" was not yet used.
  • Fort Leavenworth Kansas: September 1866 - The Buffalo Soldiers were formed as the 9th and 10th US Calvary Regiments.
  • American Indian Wars: 1622 - 1890. No Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1621. Rather, the arrivals were the poorest class of British citizens that the government shipped away (much like the Highland Clearances and the Irish and Scottish Potato Famine Refuges). The self-named "saints" took kegs of beer with them to the New World, but no crop seeds and few skills. They wore colorful cheap materials, but not black and white, which was an invention of an retail advertising campaign in 1840. Natives supplied most of the food as well as almost 100 univited guests to a shared meal, but bloodshed occurred within a few months and the war was activated.
  • Western Expansion and the Indian Wars: 1866 - 1924 - After the Civil War, African American soldiers were sent west to help settle that part of the country. They were assigned to escort white settlers, cattle, and railroad crews in order to protect them from highway bandits, gun smugglers, Spanish troops, some Mexican groups, hostile Native Americans, and other dangers. They even found themselves fighting against some of the whites they were sent to protect, but who attacked them. The 9th and 10th US Cavalry Regiments, all African Americans, fought native tribes on the American western frontier from Montana to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
  • The Spanish American War of 1898 and additional battles that comprised the Banana Wars.
  • The Philippine Insurrection (1899 - 1902)
  • The Mexican Expedition (1910 - 1918) - Also called the Border War.
  • World War I - America entered in 1917.
  • World War II: 1939 - 1945 - In particular, the Tuskegee Airmen escorted white-crewed bombers and never lost a mission in the early half of their participation in the war. This reminds us of the 9th and 10th Calvaries and their escort work for wagons and cattle instead of airplanes.
  • Korean Police Action: 1950 - 1953 - The Buffalo Soldier regiments were disbanded during the Korean Conflict in 1951, having existed for nearly 100 years.However, many Black soldiers still call themselves Buffalo Soldiers and may organizations honor these military people (see links below).
  • September 6, 2005: Buffalo Soldier Mark Matthews died at age 111, the last of his peers, the original cavalry and infantrymen whose regiments were founded in 1861. He is at Arlington National Cemetery.

Noel Williams and Bob Marley - Buffalo Soldier

Buffalo Soldiers Guarding Concord Type Stagecoach 1869, National Archives
Buffalo Soldiers Guarding Concord Type Stagecoach 1869, National Archives | Source

© 2013 Patty Inglish MS


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      6 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks very much! There is probably still a lot untold.

    • svenster profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow, I just wrote a hub about buffalo soldiers and bob marley and also the maroon people but didn't have as much in depth info as this and didn't know about the women fighting disguised either. Great hub!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hi rebeccamealey - I remember hearing romantic songs of the Civil War about women going to war disguised as men in order to be near their husbands, but have found out that some women really did do that. Bonnie Tsui wrote about 400 women that disguised themselves as men in the Civil War in "She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War,"

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Interesting reading full of interesting facts. I never new women had disguised themselves as men in the past to go to war. Love the hub dividers. Very cool!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks very much! I hope everyone enoys this material:)

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      7 years ago

      Up and interesting. This is an incredible hub, really well researched and full of information.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I bet that fort in West Texas draws a lot of visitors! I would love to see a painting of a Buffalo Soldier on horseback and wearing a bison robe in the winter snow. I do so hope someone will paint one.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 

      7 years ago from Central Texas

      Excellent work, Patty. My brother lives in West Texas close to Ft. McKavett (sp?) which was occupied by Buffalo Soldiers and is quite a tourist attraction in that area. I've just published a Hub (part of a series) about Black Confederate Soldiers who fought in the Civil War -- they've received little recognition up until now. Again, thanks for a most enjoyable and informtive read. Best/Sis

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hi Fossillady - I'm fortunate that the motorcycle club that honors these soldiers is in my area and full of information, much like the group that honors the Tuskegee Airmen. It would be interesting to have heard this in high school.

    • Fossillady profile image


      7 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Such an important part of history that doesn't get talked about enough. Very interesting Patty!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Omnicient Nomad - Thanks very much for all your uplifting sentiments! I'm learning more about writing every single day!

    • Omniscient Nomad profile image


      7 years ago from Miami

      Thanks again Patty! I was fishing for that bit of helpful info. I find you to be an exceptionally diversely talented writer. Great hubs, and internet articles. The HubPages FB interview was awesome, too. Lots of helpful info.

      Best Regards.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Authors - If you have books about the Buffalo Soldiers and would like a review to appear on HubPages, Goodreads, and Amazon, please click on my name at the top right of this page, click on "Fanmail" in the right sidebar, and click on "Send Patty Inglish, MS an email" which appears in blue type. You can arrange to send me a copy and I'll be glad to review it. Thanks!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      pstraubie48 - In my mind, when the Native Americans saw the Black soldiers in buffalo robes in winter atop their horses, they were seeing buffaloes on top of those horses. The sight must have been spell binding. I was impressed by the Columbus cycle club that honors their memory - they do a lot of charity work as well as to actively seek military members and veterans.

      I wonder how Cathay Williams felt amongst the soldiers? It must have been thrilling, even though life was hard. I've read accounts of the soldiers being made to sleep outside the forts on the ground in winter, with little to eat.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Omniscient Nomad - I think that some organization out there is helping people research the Dawes Rolls. seems to be buying up rights to access a lot of such historic records, but they can be pretty expensive. I'm thinking someone at the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian might be able to help you -- (202) 633-6644

      The Tuskegee Syphilis Project was horrid, imo. It is uncalled for to treat people in this manner, by giving them a dreaded disease. And the Airmen are unquestionable heroes, as are the Buffalo Soldiers. American history is incredible in good and bad ways.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      7 years ago from North Central Florida

      This was so interesting...I learned so much...and a woman too among them...of course there was. I had no idea of the origin of the Buffalo Soldiers name. Thank you for sharing this with us.

      Sending you Angels on this ninth day of our new year. :) ps

    • Omniscient Nomad profile image


      7 years ago from Miami

      I appreciate the article. I've been told by a few of my family members that we are a mix of Creek, Choctaw, African American, and European. I once found my great grandfather's name in the Dawes Rolls born in 1901 on a Southern Alabama reservation, but now I can't find it.

      Most of my family still lives in Tuskegee... and growing up, we used to hear about Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Syphilis project (grandmother was a nurse), and the Tuskegee Airmen all the time.


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