In 1866, Congress permitted the creation of six new regiments in the United States Army: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry. These regiments were unique, especially for the time, because they were entirely composed of African American men.
This was less than a year after the end of the Civil War, in which many African Americans- both those born free and former slaves- had served in the United States Army in semi-official capacities. Following the end of the war, the military was reorganized to permit African American citizens of the United States to serve in the army, though in a segregated fashion. These six regiments consisted entirely of African American men (except for commissioned officers, who were typically- but not always- Caucasian), and for generations were the only regiments in which African Americans could serve.
Because racial tensions at the time, the Buffalo Soldiers- as they came to be called- were often given “less visible” assignments and posts. In the latter half of the 1800s, this usually meant being sent West, where there were fewer cities and fewer citizens to take offense at a black infantryman. One of the earliest places they were sent was the newly-designated Colorado Territory.
“When they started off, [the Army] didn’t want them east of the Mississippi,” explained Dennis Moore, a self-taught scholar of Buffalo Soldier history native to Colorado Springs.
Moore is a founding member of the Colorado Springs Buffalo Soldiers Memorial Committee, a group dedicated to the preservation and commemoration of the role that the Buffalo Soldiers had in the development of Colorado. Their original purpose was to erect a memorial in Colorado Springs to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Buffalo Soldiers, but has evolved into an educational group. Moore now frequently travels around the state- and even to other states- giving presentations and lectures on the history of the original six regiments in Colorado.
The Buffalo Soldiers were an important factor in the early history of the American West.
“I was just a man with an interest in history, and a lot of books,” explained Moore, when asked about the foundation of the Memorial Committee.
“They were in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma- they were all over,” said Moore. ‘They could have companies all over the place- sometimes the headquarters could be in Kansas, but they’d have infantrymen in Texas or Colorado or any other states. They were moved around quite a bit- they rode with stagecoaches and surveyors, and guarded trading posts and telegraph lines.”
Because of how frequently the Buffalo Soldiers traveled, it’s often difficult to determine where exactly they were located.
“Everybody asks me where in Colorado they were stationed, and there’s no way in the world you can do that!” said Moore. “We know they were guarding the Ute Pass for a time... and later, the Milk Creek Pass.”
One of the few places we know for certain they were stationed for any length of time was Fort Garland, in the San Luis Valley. Many of the old fort buildings still stands, and the site is now one of History Colorado’s many museums.
“It was about a three- or four-year span that they were at Fort Garland,” said Moore. “This is one of the few still-standing forts where they were stationed. Part of the barracks is still there- you can visit and see how about 120 men lived in those very tight quarters.”
During the time they were stationed at Fort Garland, as well as at other forts (such as Fort Lion and Fort Lewis) or in the various mountain passes, the Buffalo Soldiers were a key factor in the settlement of Colorado, for better or for worse. They participated in many of the conflicts between settlers and the Native Americans of the area. They were not involved in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, but they did participate in the following expeditions against the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples in Southern Colorado.
They were also key in the protection of the early roads west, such as the Santa Fe trail and the various stagecoach and mail coach trails that crisscrossed the country- and later on, they helped to guide and protect the workers who erected the telegram lines and the railroads, which helped connect Colorado cities to the rest of the nation.
As time went on, the American West changed and evolved- and so did the Buffalo Soldiers.
In later years, the regiments had trouble maintaining their numbers. Each one was authorized to have up to one thousand soldiers. “However,” said Moore, “that was more often the goal than the reality of the situation.”
The four original infantry regiments were eventually collapsed into just two, which helped alleviate the situation. But as time went on, there were fewer and fewer conflicts in the West which required army intervention.
Though the last of the conflicts with the Native Americans wasn’t until 1918, after the 1890s they had become significantly less common. The Buffalo Soldiers found themselves with a new task- helping to organize the very first national parks. Many of the first “park rangers” in United States history were in fact Buffalo Soldier infantrymen reassigned to Yosemite National Park in the 1890s.
The role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the history of the American West is important, but also often subtle- which is why Dennis Moore is so passionate about educating people about their stories.
“I wanted people to be interested in history, to go out and read about it,” he explained. “And to be interested in all the history of the United States.”
Dennis Moore will be at Fort Garland Museum on Saturday, September 7, where he will be giving special lectures and assisted tours as part of the History and Heritage Festival being held there that day. He will be in the Buffalo Soldiers West exhibit, assisting and educating anyone interested in hearing about these important, but too often forgotten, American soldiers.