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BUFFALO SOLDIERS

Plains Indians named the black cavalry stationed on the Great Plains after the Civil War the "Buffalo Soldiers," which eventually referred to both the black cavalry and infantry in the West. Following the Civil War, in 1866 Congress authorized six regiments of the regular U.S. Army to be staffed by blacks two cavalry and four infantry. By 1869, in an overall troop reduction, Congress cut the number of black infantry units to two, and potential black soldiers enlisted in either the Ninth or Tenth Cavalry or the Twenty-fourth or Twenty-fifth Infantry. During the latter nineteenth century these black regiments represented 10 percent of the army's effective strength, and in many western commands black soldiers made up more than one-half the available military force. Although their contributions were significant, their varied experiences were always tempered because they were black soldiers in "white" and "red" territory. The Buffalo Soldiers played a vital role in Oklahoma and Indian Territory as well as in other regions of the West. Both the Ninth and the Tenth cavalries and the Twenty-fourth Infantry served in Indian Territory during the latter nineteenth century.

Black predecessors of the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Indian Territory during the Civil War and were largely responsible for the Union victory over the Confederate forces in that region. Stationed at Fort Gibson, the First Kansas Colored Volunteers Infantry Regiment (later supplemented with the Second Kansas) fought at Cabin Creek and at the pivotal engagement of Honey Springs in July 1863. Although the Union victory at Honey Springs marked the twilight of Southern dominance in Indian Territory, black troops continued fighting Confederate forces through the victorious second engagement at Cabin Creek in September 1864. These were well-disciplined and effective men, but certain Confederate practices provided an additional stimulus to the black soldiers. At Honey Springs Confederate forces brought with them large numbers of shackles to take captured blacks back to slavery, and at the 1864 engagement at Cabin Creek talk circulated that Confederate forces would leave neither black nor white opponents alive.

After its establishment in 1866 the Tenth Cavalry, organized and commanded by Col. Benjamin Grierson, were headquartered in Kansas, but by August 1867 three of its companies were stationed across the border in Indian Territory, or the area that would become Oklahoma, for the purpose of protecting the Five Civilized Tribes and maintaining peace. Early in 1869 the remaining companies of the Tenth Cavalry also moved to the territory. There they remained until the close of the Red River War in 1875, when most companies of the black cavalry regiment were transferred to West Texas.

Among the soldiers attached to the Tenth Cavalry was Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point. Flipper graduated in 1877 from West Point and was assigned as an officer to the Tenth Cavalry stationed at Fort Sill in Indian Territory. He was transferred to the Tenth headquarters at Fort Davis, Texas, where he served until 1881, when he faced court-martial and was summarily dismissed from the army. In 1879 while on temporary assignment at Fort Sill, Flipper's remarkable engineering skills were demonstrated with his design and construction of a drainage channel system, which eliminated a malaria scourge at that post. Flipper's system, known as "Flipper's Ditch," continued to serve Fort Sill and community for nearly a century.

Between 1866 and 1869 all four of the army's black infantry regiments served on the western frontier. When those regiments were reduced to two, they also remained in the west. In 1870 the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth regiments began their tours of duty in Texas and remained there protecting settlers and fighting Indian tribes for a decade. When the Twenty-fourth moved out of Texas in 1880, it transferred to Forts Reno, Sill, and Supply in the Indian Territory and Fort Elliott in the Texas Panhandle. There they remained until 1888, when they were sent to Arizona.

Most black soldiers were unable to read and write, and part of the duties of chaplains assigned to each regiment was to instruct these black soldiers. In July 1886 black Chaplain Allen Allensworth arrived with his assignment to the Twenty-fourth Infantry. Allensworth especially was convinced that black soldiers needed a basic education to perform efficiently. While stationed at Fort Supply for a year and one-half, he instructed black soldiers in the history of the United States and in English at the post school. Allensworth later developed a booklet on teaching practices and curriculum for black soldiers. Allensworth and Flipper were the only black commissioned officers to serve in Indian Territory, and only two additional West Point graduates and four other black chaplains served any place in the West during the latter nineteenth century.

The black troops had little to do, and boredom was continual while the men were on the posts for any duration. They occupied themselves with the social life often characteristic of frontier society and developed other activities to defray the tedium of frontier existence. The Tenth Cavalry enjoyed music performances, and Troop K of the Ninth Cavalry established an elite "Diamond Club," whose gala balls became the envy of the service. They periodically gave lavish parties and musicals for the black troops.

While stationed in Indian Territory, Buffalo Soldiers had a number of responsibilities: they kept out unwanted intruders from the Indian lands, they watched over the Indians on the reservations, and they maintained general law and order throughout the territory. The infantry built and maintained roads, telegraph lines, and forts. They also assisted the cavalry in military actions. Among their duties, black soldiers removed the "Boomers" from Indian Territory.

As early as 1870 Tenth Cavalry officers found it necessary to keep patrols on the lookout for intruders and two years later moved the headquarters from Fort Sill to Fort Gibson, partly in response to growing intruder activity in that vicinity. In the spring of 1878 three companies of the Tenth were sent back to Fort Sill, where they watched the reservation Indians, skirmished verbally with Texas Rangers, and removed Boomers. By 1879 the intruders crossed the Kansas line in sufficient numbers to occupy virtually the full attention of a battalion of Buffalo Soldiers. Among the 1879 Boomers were one to two hundred African Americans, thus further magnifying the problems and responsibilities of the black troops. In June 1880 the Tenth Cavalry was sent to West Texas; however, increased Boomer actions later in the summer (1880) led six companies of the Tenth to be transferred temporarily to Indian Territory.

After warfare and work in New Mexico (1881), the army transferred the Ninth Cavalry to Indian Territory and assigned them the job of preventing Boomers from illegally moving from Kansas to Oklahoma. In the mid-1880s more than two thousand Boomers filtered in from various points along the border, requiring the constant attention of six companies of black cavalrymen. Black soldiers drove out the majority of those already in Oklahoma, but as a result racism exploded. One officer was referred to as "one of a litter of mud turtles born of a Negro woman." The imposing and thankless task of driving Boomers from Indian Territory ended for the Ninth Cavalry in June 1885 when it was transferred to Wyoming.

Among other feats, Buffalo Soldiers in Indian Territory assisted local authorities and federal marshals, escorted civilians, stagecoaches, and freighters, guarded railroad construction workers and mail carriers, forestalled Boomers, chased robbers, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers, attempted pacification of Indians, and provided protection for Indians in Indian Territory.

SEE ALSO: AFRICAN AMERICANS, BOOMERS, LAND RUN OF 1889, OKLAHOMA TERRITORY, RED RIVER WAR, TERRITORIAL ERA.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Arlen L. Fowler, The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971). Bruce A. Glasrud, "Western Black Soldiers Since The Buffalo Soldiers: A Review of the Literature," Social Science Journal 36 (April 1999). Donald A. Grinde and Quintard Taylor, "Red vs. Black: Conflict and Accommodation in the Post Civil War Indian Territory, 1865-1907," American Indian Quarterly 8 (Summer 1984). Theodore D. Harris ed. and comp., Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black Graduate of West Point (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997). Charles L. Kenner, Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867-1898 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). Lary C. Rampp, "Negro Troop Activity in Indian Territory, 1863-1865," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 47 (Spring 1969). W. Sherman Savage, "The Role of Negro Soldiers in Protecting the Indian Territory from Intruders," Journal of Negro History 36 (January 1951). Quintard Taylor, "Comrades of Color: Buffalo Soldiers in the West: 1866-1917," Colorado Heritage (Spring 1996).

Bruce A. Glasrud

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