Buffalo Soldiers: Black Americans on the Frontier

Buffalo Soldiers
MPI / Getty Images

People of African descent have served in the American military since the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, as the frontier expanded westward, elite unites of Black soldiers were sent out to fight on the Plains. They became known as the Buffalo Soldiers and helped to change the way America and the military looked at race.

Did You Know?

  • There is some question about where the term "Buffalo soldiers" came from; some say it was because of the texture of the Black soldiers' hair, and others believe it came from the woolly buffalo hide coats they wore in cold weather.
  • In 1866, six all-Black regiments were created to help maintain peace with Indigenous peoples on the Plains, protect settlers, railroad crews, and wagon trains in the West.
  • Buffalo Soldiers participated in many other military campaigns including the Spanish American War and both World Wars.

History and Service

During the Civil War, numerous Black regiments were created by the Union, including the legendary 54th Massachusetts. Once the war ended in 1865, most of these units disbanded, and their men returned to civilian life. However, the following year, Congress decided to focus on some problems with westward expansion; as the frontier spread further out, there were more and more conflicts with Indigenous peoples on the Plains. It was decided that even though America was no longer at war, military regiments needed to be mustered up and sent out west.

Buffalo Soldiers
Archive Photos / Getty Images

Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act in 1866, and with it, created six brand-new all-Black regiments, with both infantry and cavalry. They were tasked to protect settlers and wagon trains, as well as stagecoaches and railroad crews. In addition, they were assigned to help control the increasingly volatile conflict between White settlers and the local population of Indigenous peoples. It is estimated that 20% of the cavalry troops that fought in the Indian Wars were Black Americans; the all-Black regiments fought in at least 175 skirmishes in the two decades following the Civil War.

At some point, these troops earned the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers," although there is some question about the etymology of the name. One story is that one of the Indigenous tribes—either the Cheyenne or the Apache—coined the phrase because of the texture of the Black American soldiers' hair, saying that it was similar to the wooly coat of the buffalo. Others say that it was bestowed upon them to mark their fighting ability, in honor of "the buffalo's fierce bravery." Although originally the term was used to designate these post-Civil War western units, it soon became a catch-all phrase representing all Black troops.

Soldiers At Camp Wikoff
The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

There were two cavalry units, the 9th and 10th, and four infantry regiments that were eventually consolidated into just two, the 24th and 25th. The 9th Cavalry began mustering recruits in August and September 1866, training in New Orleans and was then sent to Texas to watch over the road from San Antonio to El Paso. Indigenous tribes in the area were restless and angry about being forcibly sent to reservations, and there had been attacks on settlers and cattle drives.

Meanwhile, the 10th Cavalry mustered at Fort Leavenworth, but it took longer to build than the 9th. Historians agree that this is because while the 9th took any man who could ride a horse, the commander of the 10th, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, wanted educated men in his unit. During the summer of 1867, coming right on the heels of a cholera outbreak, the 10th began working to secure the construction of the Pacific Railroad, which was under near-constant attack from the Cheyenne.

Both cavalry units were heavily involved with skirmishes against Indigenous peoples. Near the Red River in Texas, the 9th fought against the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, and the Arapahoe before the 10th was finally ordered in from Kansas to help. Buffalo Soldiers soon distinguished themselves for bravery. Troops from the 10th rescued a stranded officer and his scouts who were trapped during a skirmish and the infantry fought so bravely that they were formally thanked in a field order from General Philip Sheridan.

By the 1880s, the Buffalo Soldiers had helped quash much of the Indigenous resistance, and the 9th was sent to Oklahoma. In an odd reversal, their job there was to keep White settlers from making their homes on Indigenous land. The 10th made their way to Montana, to round up Cree tribes. When the Spanish-American War began in the 1890s, both cavalry units and the two consolidated infantry regiments relocated to Florida.

Over the next several decades, Buffalo Soldiers served in conflicts all over the world, although in many cases, they were prohibited from engaging in actual combat, because racial discrimination continued. Still, in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, an estimated 25,000 Black men served, making up around 10% of the total army personnel.

Prejudice in the Military

Up through World War II, racial discrimination was still standard operating procedure in the United States military. Buffalo soldiers stationed in White communities were often met with violence, to which they were forbidden to respond. Often, Black soldiers on the frontier encountered White settlers who still carried with them the pro-slavery sentiments of the pre-Civil War South. Because of this, they were often ordered to remain west of the Mississippi.

Portrait Of A Buffalo Soldier
Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Despite all of this, the men known as the Buffalo Soldiers had a far lower rate of desertion and court-martial than their White contemporaries. A number of Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of their bravery in combat.

Regiments in the army were still separated by skin color during the early part of the twentieth century, and during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that Black regiments should be excluded from the American Expeditionary Force and placed under French command for the duration of the war. This was the first time in history that any American troops had been placed in the command of a foreign power.

It wasn't until 1948 that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which eliminated racial segregation in the armed forces. The last of the all-Black units were disbanded in the 1950s, and when the Korean War began, Black and White soldiers served together in integrated units.

Today, there are monuments and museums celebrating the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers throughout the American West. Mark Matthews, the last living buffalo soldier in the United States, died in 2005 at 111 years old.


  • Bemoses. “Who Are The Buffalo Soldiers.” Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, buffalosoldiermuseum.com/who-are-the-buffalo-soldiers/.
  • Editors, History.com. “Buffalo Soldiers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers.
  • Hill, Walter. “The Record - March 1998.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/publications/record/1998/03/buffalo-soldiers.html.
  • Leckie, William H., and Shirley A. Leckie. Buffalo Soldiers A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West. University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  • “The Proud Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 8 Feb. 2018, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/proud-legacy-buffalo-soldiers.
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Wigington, Patti. "Buffalo Soldiers: Black Americans on the Frontier." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/buffalo-soldiers-4691471. Wigington, Patti. (2021, December 6). Buffalo Soldiers: Black Americans on the Frontier. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/buffalo-soldiers-4691471 Wigington, Patti. "Buffalo Soldiers: Black Americans on the Frontier." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/buffalo-soldiers-4691471 (accessed June 6, 2023).