(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.
Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
One of the first stops on the trail should be at the historic fort, which was one of the first homes of the buffalo soldiers, in 1866. A 13-foot bronze monument of a buffalo soldier astride his horse and a smaller bust nearby was dedicated in 1992 by Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was the first African American to serve in that role, according to the Leavenworth Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Fort Sill, Lawton, Okla.
From Kansas, you can travel southwest to Fort Sill Historic Landmark & Museum in Lawton, Okla., which was home to some buffalo soldiers in the 1870s, according to the museum. The soldiers provided assistance in the construction of the post, 46 structures of which are still in use and in mint condition, the museum's website says. Tours of the fort are available. Click here for more information.
Fort Concho, San Angelo, Texas
From Fort Sill, you can travel southwest to Fort Concho National Historic Landmark in San Angelo, Texas, where elements of both cavalries and both regiments of the buffalo soldiers served during its active years. The fort, which was comprised of 40 buildings and covered more than 1600 acres, was shuttered in 1889 after playing a role for nearly 22 years in settling the Texas frontier. Today it is a historic landmark. Click here for more information.
The fort is worth visiting for another reason, according to the Texas Almanac: "Lt. Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, served with the 10th Cavalry in West Texas and was stationed for a time at Fort Concho in the late 1870s and Fort Davis."
Fort Naco, Tucson, Ariz.
From Texas, some of the soldiers migrated west to Fort Naco. It served as home to the ninth and 10th Cavalries for a number of years. The Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association website reports that it "is the last of twelve border forts that extended from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California. These forts guarded the U.S. and Mexico border in the early 1900s. Pancho Villa, Black Jack Pershing, Geronimo, Charles Young … Henry Flipper and the Buffalo Soldiers all roamed the border. These forts were established to bring order to the U.S.- Mexico border." Click here for more information.
Fort McCrae and Fort Selden, N.M.
Next door in New Mexico, where, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian, buffalo soldiers were a mainstay at Fort McCrae and Fort Selden for a number of years. The National Park Service's website reports the following: "At Fort McCrae, for instance, Black soldiers built several new buildings, put a new roof on the hospital, and made 25,000 adobe bricks for new officers' quarters, which they also built. They along with other workers constructed the mostly adobe Fort Selden, no doubt under the guidance of Hispanic adobe masons." Unfortunately, only foundation traces remain of Fort McCrae, and it is submerged under a reservoir. Click above for more information about Fort Selden.
Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Buffalo soldiers are perhaps best known for the conflicts in what eventually became known as Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks, where they spent their time patrolling challenging terrain, providing sentinels and security for the settlers, building roads and installing telegraph lines, according to the National Park Service.
"They also spent endless hours on the necessary military tasks of drills, inspections, parades, and the care and maintenance of their horses and equipment," according to the park service website. "The troopers faced a mix of danger and boredom accentuated by rigid military discipline. They fought in more than 125 engagements in campaigns against the Cheyenne, Apache, Kiowa, Ute, Comanche, and Sioux. The Black regiments were frequently ordered to return hostile tribes to their appointed reservations. A large percentage of the troops had been born into slavery. Some soldiers were Seminole Negroes, whose ancestors had fled slavery and joined Seminole tribes in Florida. These activities involving Native Americans created feelings of moral dilemma and a sense of irony for many of the Black troops."
Lynette Holloway is The Root's Chicago bureau chief.