Big Bend National Park Feature

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Buffalo Soldiers

During the Indian Wars of 1866 through 1892, the U.S. government enlisted vast numbers of black soldiers to serve in its cavalry. Those who entered the Army were confined to all-black regiments led by white officers, and were treated as third-rate citizens. Despite many hardships—including poor rations, little respect, and cavalry mounts sometimes described as "old and half-dead"—soldiers in two Texas all-black regiments persevered and became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. (Yep, the same Buffalo Soldiers immortalized in the popular Bob Marley song.)

Explanations diverge for how these brave men (and one barely documented woman) of the 9th and 10th cavalry units received their unique name. Some say it was because their thick, curly hair resembled buffalo hair. Others contend that the Native Americans they fought—and also protected—gave them this name out of respect for their courage and fortitude, traits their culture associated with that animal.

These units were given the toughest, most inhospitable terrain to guard—including the severe, cactus-covered desert plains that comprise modern-day Big Bend National Park. They protected this land, fought the natives, wrestled rustlers, and even strung telegraph lines. In West Texas, the government put them to work rounding up the intractable Apache and Comanche Indians that inhabited the region.

Despite adversity from the natives, the weather, the terrain, and racist attitudes, the Buffalo Soldiers' units are said to have had the lowest desertion rates in the Army. They were eventually rewarded for their contribution in the late 1880s, when several became the first African-Americans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor—only 30-plus years after the Civil War, and nearly a century before the civil rights movement.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the 19th and early 20th centuries segued into all-black units that finally were dissolved in the 1950s. The last living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died in 2005 at the age of 111 and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

While there are no longer any living soldiers to recall the wild, harsh time of the Indian Wars, Texas strives to keep their memory alive through events, plaques, signs, and demonstrations at the forts where they served. Visitors to West Texas can explore this history through events at Fort Concho in San Angelo, Fort Lancaster near Sheffield, Fort Stockton in the city of Fort Stockton, and in displays at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine and the Frontier Texas! museum in Abilene. Visitor centers in Big Bend National Park are also a great source of information.

Updated: 2014-03-07

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