The Wild West of Yester-Year

Buffalo Soldiers

By Rachel Kovaciny


The term “Buffalo Soldier” wasn’t a nickname for a soldier who hunted buffalo, who was tasked with protecting or herding buffalo, or even a nickname for a soldier with broad shoulders and a deep chest who might remind you of a buffalo. So, who were the Buffalo Soldiers? They were black American soldiers, all members of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments, who helped tame the western frontier after the Civil War. And they weren’t given the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” by their buddies or their allies, but by their enemies. It also wasn’t a term of derision, but of great respect.


The Plains Indian tribes who battled these regiments for decades saw the buffalo as sacred, a symbol of strength, dignity, and courage. If they described someone as being like an animal, they meant that person embodied that animal’s attributes. And, yes, sometimes they might call attention to a person’s physical resemblance to an animal. To the Plains Indians, the darker brown skin and short, curling hair of the black cavalrymen gave them a resemblance to the great buffalo. But their courage and endurance earned these cavalrymen that nickname.


Colonel Edward Hatch organized the Ninth Regiment Cavalry in Louisiana in 1866. And Colonel Benjamin Grierson commanded the Tenth Regiment Cavalry in Kansas that same year. While the segregationist policies of the US Army at the time dictated only white men could serve as commissioned officers, the military still offered black men a dignified, useful career with a pension, and the chance to be respected by those around them. During the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, particularly during the Post-Reconstruction Era of 1875 to 1900, such jobs were rare. It’s no wonder the Ninth and Tenth regiments never lacked willing troops. These two regiments made up about a fifth of the total U. S. Cavalry stationed on the frontier. They quickly earned a reputation for tackling even the toughest assignments and the most dangerous enemies. The Ninth Cavalry became well known for arriving just in time to save beleaguered pioneers or ambushed soldiers, which may be what inspired the Hollywood trope of the Cavalry arriving to save the day at the last minute in so many cowboy movies.


Between them, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry served in Arizona, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. They also made forays into Mexico, Canada, and Cuba. The Ninth Cavalry rode to the rescue of the Seventh Cavalry and General Custer at one point, though they were not on hand to help Custer and his men out during the ambush at Little Big Horn. The Tenth Cavalry helped capture both Geronimo and Billy the Kid. Eleven Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor during the second half of the nineteenth century. For ten years, John J. Pershing led the Tenth Cavalry, who joined the regiment as a lieutenant and earned his nickname “Black Jack” while serving with them. Pershing led the Tenth not only against Indians and outlaws in the American West but also up San Juan Hill against the Spanish, and even in a long chase after the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. 


The Buffalo Soldiers earned respect and honor with their dignity and courage. Military scouts such as Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok were glad to work with them, and General Pershing remembered the men he led in the Tenth Cavalry with great respect. In 1921, after he returned from serving as the commander of all the American troops during World War One, Pershing wrote of his time serving with the Buffalo Soldiers, “It has been an honor which I am proud to claim to have been at one time a member of that intrepid organization of the Army which has always added glory to the military history of America—the 10th Cavalry.” Like the great herds of buffalo that once covered the plains, the Buffalo Soldiers are now part of our nation’s past. But we can remember and revere them for their honorable service, their courage, and their willingness to defend and protect their fellow Americans. ♦