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AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive

Re: Buffalo Soldier Units Serve the West

Origins of a name:

My gut tells me to stay out of this--but parts of recent exchanges re a published item on Buffalo Soldiers has forced me out of my cave.
It seems that some myths/urban legends just will not go down. I can well imagine Sharon nodding in full agreement on this.

For what it is worth--here's what I've learned/what I know about the origin of the term "buffalo soldiers." Some, but not all of what follows, is in print.

The first PUBLISHED [note my emphasis here] use of the term is found in the October, l873 issue of the up-scale periodical Nation (Vol. l7, No. 435, p. 287). The term is in a letter from a correrspondent writing from Fort Sill, Indian Terriroty on October 5. Nation introduced the letter as follows:

"The following extracts from a private letter from an exceptionally well qualified observer seem to merit a wider audience than the writer intended."

The observer, who is not identified, wrote this about the troops at Ft. Sill:

"All are kept in fine order by a garrison just now of five companies of colored cavalry of the Tenth Regiment, and two companies (colored) and one (white) of infantry. The colored troops (called by the Comanches the "buffalo soldiers" because like the buffalo, they are wolly) are in excellent drill and condition."

Note: According to the Nov 8, l873 issue of the Army and Navy Journal, "Stations of the Regiments of the U.S. Army by Companies (as of October 4)" Ft Sill was manned by the regimental headquarters and companies G. K and M of the l0th Cavalry, C and I of the 25th Infantry, and C and K of the llth Infantry.

The Nation "observer" continued with the following comments about black troops:

"The Indians at first treated them with utter contempt when they chanced to kill one would not take his scalp. After a while, when they had a taste of their fighting qualities. they began to respect them, and to show their respect by scalping a few they managed to kill. These "buffalo soldiers" are active, intelligent, and resolute men; and are perfectly willing to fight the Indians whenever they may be called upon to do so, and appear to me to be rather superior to the average white men recruited in time of peace. Their officers explain this by saying that the best colored young men can be recruited in time of peace, while under the same condition, only indifferent or inferior whites can in general by induced to enlist."

. the writer attributed the name buffalo soldiers to the Comanche
. it strike me that the writer is saying thatthe Indians called all black troops--both infantry and cavalry--buffalo soldiers
. that the name buffalo soldiers was a logical link to the appearance--without their hats, I presume--of black soldiers.

Also--unfortunately this "observer" never identified the source of the information: from an officer, soldier, civilian, or Indian. This is a real pity.

This "in print" tale continues. In the issue of Nov 8, l873, the Army and Navy Journal (hereafter ANJ)printed--but without editoral introduction or comment-most of the letter to the Nation--including the comments about both black and white troops.

Although privaterly published, the ANJ was considered the semi-official organ of the military establishment. It was widely read in both military and political circles, and nearrly all, if not all, post libraries subscribed. This Nov 8 item is therefore very significant because it is the first time that the name buffalo soldier received an army-wide--and porobably much wider audience.

The ANJ's printing of the Ft Sill letter generated some angry letters to the editor of this military journal.On Dec 20, l873 the ANJ editors responded with this:

"In the Journal of Novevber 8 we copied an article from the Nation for the sake of the description it gave of this post [Ft. Sill]. It contained also, unfortunately for us, a comparison between the "Buffalo soldiers" and ther white soldiers, which seems to have unnecessarily distrubed some of the later. We do not publish their letters, for we think we can find better use for our space."

Comment: The content of these "disturbed" letters to the ANJ aside--and I'd sure like the find these documents in some dusty file--this editorial respresents the second time within less than two months that "buffalo soldiers" received army-wide publication.

Exit comment: if anyone out there wants my "take" on Mrs Roe's claimed-by-some earlier use of the term buffalo soldiers--just ask and I'll be glad to fire off another screed.

Tom Phillips

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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