The so-called Buffalo Soldiers were several African American cavalry and infantry regiments that operated in the American West during the late nineteenth century. While there is no evidence that the black troops themselves adopted it, the nickname Buffalo Soldiers is widely believed to have come from western Native Americans, their principal adversaries. The Buffalo Soldiers, most of whom were Civil War veterans, served with distinction and bravery during a time of widespread anti-black racism and violence, but their assistance in the US Army’s greater mission of defeating and disenfranchising Native Americans casts a shadow over their legacy. In Colorado, Buffalo Soldiers manned military posts such as Fort Garland and participated in several battles, including Beecher Island and Milk Creek.
Many of the Union Army’s 186,000 black soldiers remained in the military following the Civil War. Prevailing racist attitudes prevented most from joining the military until 1863, and their three-year enlistments ran until 1866. Many of these soldiers were assigned to Texas and what is now New Mexico, while others were deployed to the Colorado Territory. In 1866 Congress authorized six regiments of black troops commanded by white officers—the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the Thirty-Eighth, Fortieth, and Forty-First Infantries. The latter four units were consolidated in 1869 into the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantries.
Some of these African American soldiers found themselves assigned to Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. Close to the commercial corridor of the Santa Fé Trail and stage and mail routes, Fort Lyon was important in early military actions against the Cheyenne. They were also stationed at Fort Lewis and Fort Garland in southwestern Colorado.
Life for the Buffalo Soldiers stationed in the Colorado Territory was anything but easy. Stern discipline, complex drills, shoddy surplus equipment, isolation, and the very real chance for armed conflict conspired to negate any charm attached to life on the frontier. As was the case across the West, racism toward black troopers often resurfaced as soon as dangers had passed. Perhaps the two most significant military events involving Buffalo Soldiers in Colorado occurred in opposite corners of the territory: the Battle of Beecher Island occurred on the Arikaree River on the far northeast plains, and the Battle of Milk Creek took place in northwest Colorado between present-day Craig and Meeker.
Battle of Beecher Island
The Tenth Cavalry achieved a victory over nearly 100 Cheyenne near Sand Creek in September 1868, but later that year a party of civilian scouts under Major George A. Forsyth was surrounded and besieged by Cheyenne warriors on the Arikaree. Digging in on Beecher Island, the citizen-soldiers held off numerous charges from the Cheyenne. With many of their comrades dead or wounded, the survivors hid behind the carcasses of their horses for protection against Cheyenne arrows and sent a party of volunteers to get help. When nearby settlements received word of the standoff, Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry’s H and I companies were dispatched on a forced march to relieve Forsyth’s men. Led by Captain Louis Carpenter, the Tenth helped drive off the Cheyenne and relieve the men at Beecher Island.
Over seventy years later, Private Reuben Waller of H Company vividly remembered the action at Beecher Island. He described the “great sensation” that the incident caused among the white soldiers as they greeted their black rescuers. “There went up a cheer that made the valley ring, and strong men grasped hands and flung arms around each other, laughing and crying,” Waller recalled. Perhaps as telling as the emotional welcome given the Buffalo Soldiers was a subsequent party organized by the Beecher Island scouts to honor their black comrades. Because of the era’s prevalent racism, the get-together was kept largely secret. By hosting the Buffalo Soldiers, the white scouts had broken with the unofficial policy of social segregation—a policy that would become law across the country before the nineteenth century ended.
Between 1875 and 1879, black soldiers from the Ninth Cavalry were stationed at Fort Garland in southwestern Colorado. Built to protect residents of the San Luis Valley, Fort Garland was made from baked adobe bricks. Daily activity at the post revolved around the endless cycle of drill, post construction, and repair. Soldiers took shifts cooking, baking, and standing guard.
The grueling, twenty-four-hour schedule meant that Buffalo Soldiers served as the post’s police force, fire department, and alarm system. Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Garland spent time away from the post engaged in unpopular duties such as removing white settlers from Ute lands and providing security during disputes over treaty violations committed by the miners and settlers flocking to the Colorado Territory.
Clashes with Utes
Under a treaty signed in 1868, Colorado’s Ute Indians were granted a reservation that encompassed most of the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. In 1873, with prodding from Colorado Territory residents, Chief Ouray of the Utes surrendered nearly 4 million additional acres to the United States. Soon, however, white Coloradans were blaming everything from wildfires to missing stock on the Utes, usually without evidence. In 1877, for instance, citizens near the Ute reservation in southern Colorado complained to the commissioner of Indian affairs that bands of Utes deliberately left the reservation to slaughter their game.
By the summer of 1879, Utes at the White River Agency near present-day Meeker were growing frustrated with Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, who was attempting to force the Utes away from their traditional hunting way of life and to become farmers. Meeker planned to cultivate land where the Utes had historically held their pony races, but did not consult the Utes about his grand plans for their future. With tensions increasing, Meeker wrote to Major Thomas Thornburgh—commanding officer at Fort Fred Steele in south-central Wyoming—confiding that he felt the agency might be threatened.
Battle of Milk Creek
At the same time, Buffalo Soldiers from D Company of the Ninth Cavalry rode northward from Fort Garland to Middle Park to determine the source of the wildfires plaguing local residents. In response to Meeker’s letter, a company of the Fourth Infantry under Thornburgh, accompanied by a white cavalry unit, embarked southward for the White River Agency. They were joined by other white cavalrymen near Rawlins, Wyoming, and the group numbered more than 200. When the White River Utes learned that two columns of soldiers were converging on their location, they sent noncombatants away with most of their belongings and prepared to fight.
Thornburgh’s command arrived near the White River Agency and remained at the border as a conciliatory gesture toward the Utes. Meeker sent word that he wanted Thornburgh and five soldiers to meet with the chiefs, but Thornburgh decided to move the troops past a point where a Ute ambush might be likely, at Milk Creek, and make camp before attending the parley. On September 29 the troops crossed Milk Creek several times, in violation of his agreements with the Utes.
At about 11:30 a.m. on September 29, a shot was fired and the battle of Milk Creek began. The Utes poured fire onto Thornburgh’s troops, who retreated a mile and a half before setting up a makeshift barricade of wagons. Thornburgh himself died after being shot in the head, and the picture looked bleak for the cavalry: three soldiers and most of the horses lay dead. Many of the surviving troops were wounded, and by nightfall many of the wounded had died as well. With the soldiers boxed in, the Utes turned their sights to the object of their torment, killing Meeker and all male employees at the White River Agency and taking all women and children captive. Meanwhile, the soldiers’ lot became increasingly desperate, as Ute marksmen steadily picked off the troops one by one and cover became increasingly difficult to find. Captain John Payne, now in command of the troops, sent messengers to alert the Ninth Cavalry.
The messengers did not immediately find the black troops, and instead left a note that read: “Hurry Up. The troops have been defeated.” Soon after finding the note, Ninth Cavalry Captain Francis Dodge pushed his men toward Milk Creek. They arrived the next day, early and undetected. Although there was comfort in numbers, the Buffalo Soldiers at Milk Creek soon found themselves in much the same predicament as the men they tried to rescue. The black troops asked permission to charge the Ute positions, but Dodge declined. As both sides dug rifle pits in preparation for a weeklong shootout, Colonel Wesley Merritt organized a backup force of 1,500 troops in Rawlins and began the trek southward. The arrival of Merritt’s troops on October 5 forced the Utes to withdraw, ending the Battle of Milk Creek. The battle and massacre at the agency prompted efforts by the US government to remove the Northern Ute bands from Colorado by 1881.
The Buffalo Soldiers of Colorado served at numerous posts over the ensuing decades, bolstering the image of the black male in an era marked by virulent racism. But the soldiers’ legacy remains clouded by the fact that they killed and helped disenfranchise another nonwhite people on behalf of a nation that still did not consider African Americans to be full citizens. The name “Buffalo Soldiers” was later applied to African American units serving in the Spanish-American War (1898), the Mexican Revolution (1916), and in both World Wars. For better or worse, the operations of the Buffalo Soldiers of the nineteenth century left an indelible mark on the United States military, Native Americans, and the development of the territory and state of Colorado.
Adapted from William W. Gwaltney and Thomas Welle, “By Force of Arms: The Buffalo Soldiers of Colorado,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 16, no. 2 (1996).