by Herman J. Viola, indiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas (p.53-55).
Plains Indians coined the nickname “buffalo soldiers” to identify the Black troopers who manned several of the military garrisons in the American West after the Civil War. It is believed the term originated with the Cheyenne Indians—others say it was the Comanche—who saw a similarity between the curly, black hair and dark skin of the soldiers and the shoulder hair and coloration of the bison, the cultural heart of the Plains people. Since tribes admired the stamina, strength, and courage of the bison, identifying the Black troopers as “buffalo soldiers was in no way meant to be derogatory.
A bison is the dominant feature of the regimental crest of the 10th Cavalry, one of the six all-Black regiments formed in the regular U.S Army after the Civil War. The others were the 9th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st regiments—each containing about 1,000 soldiers, most of them Civil War veterans. In 1869, the Army reorganized the four Black infantry regiments into two: the 24th and 25th infantries. The term “buffalo soldiers” eventually came to identity all African American soldiers, who continued to serve in segregated units until the Korean War.
The original Black regiments—usually commanded by white officers—served at variety of posts across the American West and earned an exemplary record for bravery and devotion to duty. Whereas desertion was endemic in the peacetime army, it was almost unknown in the Black units, despite their serving in some of the most inhospitable parts of the country and enduring discrimination and racism both within the military and in nearby white communities.
Often divided into small detachments stationed at isolated posts, including Fort Sill (Oklahoma), Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), and Fort Clark (Texas), the lives of the buffalo soldiers were far from romantic. They performed routine garrison chores, patrolled empty wastelands, built roads, mapped vast areas of the Southwest, strung hundreds of miles of telegraph lines, escorted mail coaches, and handled a variety of other often mundane and thankless civil and military tasks. One such little-known was to serve as the nation’s first “park rangers.” At the turn of the twentieth century buffalo soldiers stationed in California patrolled and protected the newly established Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. But they also participated in most of the major frontier military campaigns of the period and distinguished themselves in battle against the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Lakota Indians. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from these four regiments earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during these bitter engagements.
The irony, of course, is that one abused minority helped crush another, and both were victims of racism in America. Romantic legend prefers that the Black soldiers sympathized with their dark-skinned adversaries and exercised restraint in combat, but little evidence supports the reality. The buffalo soldiers wore their uniforms with pride. As veterans of the Civil War, they were soldiers first and showed little mercy to their enemies of the battlefield. On the other hand, many of the Black soldiers remained in the West after completing their tours of duty. Given that both groups were racially excluded from socializing with their predominately white neighbors, intermarriage between buffalo soldiers and their former Indian adversaries became commonplace. Many of the Black soldiers—some of whom were descendants of slaves owned by members of the Five Civilized Tribes—already shared Indian blood and so were often welcomed into nearby tribal communities. Today, in fact, many Native Americans boast of having a “buffalo soldier” in their ancestry.