On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldiers

Take a road trip following in the footsteps of the Civil War's black enlisted men.

Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

(The Root) — On July 28, 1866, Congress passed a measure establishing the ninth and 10th cavalries and four infantry regiments (38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st) to be comprised of African-American enlisted men. Three years later, the four infantry regiments were consolidated into two regiments, the 24th and 25th.

“The troops were paid $13 a month, plus room, board and clothing,” according to the National Park Service. “Enlistment was for five years. Almost immediately these new regiments were transferred to the Western states and territories for service on the American frontier.”

They became known as “buffalo soldiers,” and the origin of the name is up for debate. One story says it was given to them by Native Americans, who reportedly saw a resemblance between the black man’s hair and the mane of a buffalo, according to the Buffalo Soldiers website. Another story relates the name to the ferocious fighting spirit of the buffalo, who display unusual stamina and courage when wounded. The men were former slaves, freemen and black Civil War soldiers, who went on to fight in the “Indian Wars.” They also served as U.S. park rangers out West.

“They did a lot of military work, but they also established towns, some of which were all black, that are no longer in existence,” McCoy told The Root.  “Sometimes the only way to find their history is to get off the beaten path and look for the footprints of the old buildings. They aren’t always there because a lot have disappeared.”

Unfortunately, there are no formal historic buffalo soldier trails, but tourists can take a road trip that traces part of their migration westward, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the 10th Calvary was activated, to Texas and California, where they were among the first rangers in the Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks. (The ninth Cavalry Regiment was activated at Greenville, La.)

Such a road trip all at once would likely be quite educational, according to McCoy, who would love to see a buffalo soldier national historic trail. “This is an important part of our history that really should be preserved,” he said.