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By Melyn Johnson
Oklahoma has always been tightly tied to the military. No matter what culture you consider yourself to descend from, there is probably a strong history with the military. The first time to see the Seminole color guard march in, present the colors, and then dance out of the arena, is a time you cannot help but reflect on the contrast and conflicting histories that have evolved to these strong, loyal and proud American soldiers.
The Buffalo Soldier is another American military hero that has come to represent historical significance for the African American. And no place has such a rich and profound Buffalo Soldier history as Oklahoma.
African Americans fought in every war in which the United States engaged (including the Revolutionary War fought for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). Their first major participation happened in the War Between the States. In recognition of their valuable service during this time, Congress enacted six regiments of Black regular army soldiers, four units as infantry and two as cavalry.
They came to the frontier plains and soon won the respect of the Cheyenne warriors who called them “Buffalo Soldiers.” The men of the cavalry accepted the name as an honor. These early soldiers assisted in the pursuit of outlaws, cattle thieves, built and renovated dozens of posts and camps, constructed thousands of miles of roads and telegraph lines, and their patrols yielded many maps, in addition to the fighting that was required.
Today you can still walk in the footsteps of these Buffalo Soldiers at many Oklahoma historical sites. Fort Gibson in northeastern Oklahoma saw the arrival of the Buffalo Soldier in April 1867. They served in Fort Gibson between 1867 and 1869 and from 1872 until 1873 with the post designated as the headquarters of the Tenth from 1868 until 1873.
Central Oklahoma had Buffalo Soldiers posted at Fort Reno, near El Reno. According to their website, “the cavalry and infantry stationed at Fort Reno played an important role in the transition of the area from Indian Territory status to Oklahoma statehood in 1907. United States Cavalry units, including the Buffalo Soldiers (Black soldiers of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry), and the Cheyenne & Arapaho Indian Scouts, along with the U.S. Marshal Service, maintained the peace on the central plains until the turn of the century.”
In southeastern Oklahoma they were present at Fort Arbuckle, built in 1850. The history of Fort Arbuckle tells that in the late fall of 1869, four companies of the Tenth Cavalry were sent to Fort Arbuckle under command of Major James E. Yard. It was thought to be more economical to bring the horses to Arbuckle to feed them rather than to transport the stores over the almost impassable trails. These troops remained until most of the supplies were consumed, when the fort was finally abandoned in the early spring of 1870.” Today, with the exception of a few chimneys, and portions of some of the old stone foundations that have been used in the construction of a barn and other outhouses of a modern Oklahoma farm, there is little left to show that so much busy life once pulsed and throbbed here.
The Buffalo soldiers were on site in January of 1869 as Sheridan staked out the site that is today known as Fort Sill, in southwestern Oklahoma. “The Buffalo Soldiers were there at the beginning as Fort Sill was established” says one Fort Sill brochure, “and their history is alive on Fort Sill.” A gallery in the Fort Sill Museum is dedicated in honor of the African American men called the Buffalo Soldiers. “Fort Sill will forever keep the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier alive and strong for future generations to experience.” Nearby Lawton recently dedicated a beautiful statue to the Buffalo Soldier that stands at the intersection of 2nd Street and Gore Road.
Fort Supply in northwestern Oklahoma, just a few miles west of Woodward, had the Tenth Cavalry in 1868 assigned to control Indians and to remove white trespassers, whiskey peddlers, and horse thieves. They furnished escorts for supply wagons, stages, and surveyors. Post fatigue duty consisted of constructing the buildings and maintaining the fort. The Tenth Cavalry left Fort Supply in 1873. The 24th Infantry was assigned to Indian Territory in 1880 with the regimental headquarters and band stationed at Fort Supply. Troops performed guard detail and constructed telegraph lines and roads, while also evicting timer thieves and Boomers from the Indian lands. The 24th had the lowest desertion rate of any regiment in the army from 1880 to 1886. In the spring of 1888 the 24th was transferred to Arizona, ending the Buffalo Soldier’s tenure at Fort Supply.
Another fascinating site is the Honey Springs Battlefield near Rentiesville, which is considered the first battle in which a racial mix of soldiers fought alongside one another. Here White, Black and Indian Union soldiers battled White and Indian Confederate soldiers.
Today African American soldier serve in every aspect of the American military. The heritage left by the Buffalo Soldiers is strong and proud and alive today. To learn more about these historic sites and this amazing part of Oklahoma’s heritage, visit www.TravelOK.com.