For more than two decades in the late 19th century, the 9th and 10th cavalries engaged in military
campaigns against hostile Native Americans on the Plains and across the Southwest. These buffalo
soldiers also captured horse and cattle thieves, built roads and protected the U.S. mail, stagecoaches
and wagon trains, all while contending with challenging terrain, inadequate supplies and
discrimination. It’s unclear exactly how the buffalo soldiers got their nickname. Archivist Walter
Hill of the National Archives has reported that, according to a member of the 10th Cavalry, in 1871
the Comanche bestowed the name of an animal they revered, the buffalo, on the men of the 10th
Cavalry because they were impressed with their toughness in battle. (The moniker later came to be
used for the 9th Cavalry as well.) Other sources theorize the name originated with the belief of some
Native Americans that the soldiers’ dark, curly, black hair resembled that of a buffalo. Whatever the
case, the soldiers viewed the nickname as one of respect, and the 10th Cavalry even used a figure of a
buffalo in its coat of arms.
When the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the buffalo
soldiers went on to fight in Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-
American War; participated in General John J. Pershing’s
1916-1917 hunt for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; and
even acted as rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia national
parks. In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive
order eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in
America’s armed forces; the last all-black units were
disbanded during the first half of the 1950s. The nation’s
oldest living buffalo soldier, Mark Matthews, died in at age
111 in Washington, D.C., in 2005.