Buffalo Soldiers in The Guadalupe Mountains

Costumed interpreters recreate a scene of Buffalo Soldiers in the desert
Living history demonstration recreating scenes of Buffalo Soldiers camped at the Guadalupe Mountains in the late 1870s

NPS Photo

While the story of the Buffalo Soldiers is one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of the Guadalupe Mountains, it is also the most tragic. Immediately following the Civil War, the Guadalupe Mountains witnessed a clash of cultures as recently freed African Americans serving in the U.S. Army engaged the Mescalero Apaches in an effort to bring about settlement of the West. It was a fight for freedom on both sides. The African American soldiers known as the "Buffalo Soldiers" were fighting to obtain a freedom they had never known, while the Apaches were fighting to hold on to a freedom they had always had.

African Americans fought and died with Washington's troops in the American Revolution, and again to repel British invasion in the war of 1812. During the Civil War nearly 180,000 African Americans served in the Union Army, with over 33,000 giving their lives for the Union and their freedom.

On July 28, 1866, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Congress provided legislation for African Americans to serve in the regular peacetime military. Six segregated units were created, two cavalry (the Ninth and Tenth), and four infantry (the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first). The infantry regiments were later consolidated into two units, the Twenty-forth and Twenty-fifth. These black regiments were all commanded by white officers, who often resented their duty.

Although the war against slavery was over, African Americans were far from free. Post Civil War America offered few opportunities and little acceptance. The military provided $13 a month and a chance at building a new life in the aftermath of the war. Many young African American men enlisted in the U.S. Army searching for freedom and an opportunity to make a decent living. What they found was more discrimination and persecution. Ironically, these men were put into service helping the Army to oppress a race of people who had always known freedom.

African American regiments in the U.S. Army consistently received some of the worst duties the Army had to offer. For over two decades the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry campaigned on the Great Plains, along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, West Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and the Dakotas. The Plains Indians described these dark-skinned, curly-haired warriors as the "Buffalo Soldiers," also referring to the fierce fighting spirit of the buffalo. The black soldiers accepted this title as a badge of honor, even incorporating it into the regimental crest of the Tenth Cavalry.

The Buffalo Soldiers endured unimaginable hardships from the overwhelming heat of the desert to the subfreezing temperatures of winter on the plains. Disease resulting from unsanitary conditions and inadequate provisions claimed the lives of many black soldiers. They fought fierce Indian tribes, Mexican revolutionaries, cattle thieves, and outlaws while constantly receiving inferior horses, supplies, and equipment. They endured long, arduous expeditions over some of the roughest terrain in the country, searching for water sources, and mapping unknown terrain. The only obstacles the Buffalo Soldiers could not overcome were those of prejudice and discrimination.

While black soldiers were fighting Native Americans in the West, African American men, women, and children were still being lynched, segregated, and persecuted in the East. In the West, the Buffalo Soldiers were often viewed with hostility, even by the people of the frontier settlements that their regiments were protecting. This hostility often erupted in violence. Efforts at protecting settlements in hostile territory often went unrewarded and unappreciated.

In the late 1860's, the Guadalupe Mountains were one of the last strongholds of the Mescalero Apache who had been fighting for nearly three centuries to preserve their lands and their way of life, first from the Spanish, later from the Mexicans, and now from the U.S. Army. The Army, in order to promote "peaceful" settlement of the West, was engaged in subduing Native Americans and placing them on reservations within lands over which they once roamed freely. Lack of food and provisions often caused them to flee the reservations and once again take up raiding for food and equipment.

To the Buffalo Soldiers, the Apache proved to be a formidable enemy. Lieutenant Colonel George Crook of the 23rd Infantry stated: "The character of these Indians is such as might be expected under such surroundings. The constant struggle with adverse conditions, with hunger, with exposure to extremes of heat and cold, and to danger of every kind kills in infancy the weak and sickly children; only the strong, perfectly developed child survives. Consequently the adult Apache is an embodiment of physical endurance - lean, well proportioned, medium sized, with sinews like steel, insensible to hunger, fatigue, or physical pains."

Several skirmishes between the Buffalo Soldiers and the Mescalero Apaches took place in what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The exact locations of the skirmishes are still debated by historians. Archeological surveys have told us that both the Buffalo Soldiers and the Mescaleros frequently camped around Pine Springs and nearby Choza Springs. In 1869, Colonel Edward Hatch ordered three separate expeditions from Fort Davis against the Mescalero Apaches in the Guadalupes. Expeditions to the Guadalupe Mountains were long and arduous. The terrain was extremely rugged and water and food were in short supply. Many patrols through the Guadalupes were in fact just mapping expeditions to locate water sources. Later, in the late 1870's Fort Davis established a sub post at Pine Springs.

In 1879, a Warm Springs Apache named Victorio fled the reservation in southeastern New Mexico with a number of his followers. Numerous bloody conflicts with settlers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border ensued. On August 6, 1880, the last skirmish between the Buffalo Soldiers and Victorio's warriors occurred at Rattlesnake Springs, located about 40 miles south of the Guadalupe Mountains. The Tenth Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, traveled 65 miles in about 21 hours to beat Victorio to this critical water source. Victorio and approximately 60 warriors were ambushed as they attempted to gain water from the spring. Ultimately Victorio escaped into Mexico, where he was later killed by Mexican troops. Not long after Victorio's death the last free Apaches surrendered, and the Indian Wars in West Texas came to an end.

While enduring unimaginable hardships and racial prejudice, the Buffalo Soldiers proved to be competent soldiers and invaluable to the U.S. Army. These African-American regiments spent over 25 years engaged in fighting Native Americans, mapping unexplored lands, and opening the West for settlement. Unfortunately, the Buffalo Soldiers received little recognition for their service on the frontier. While over 400 veterans of the Indian Wars received Congressional Medals of Honor, only eighteen African American enlisted men received the award despite being on the forefront of the fighting throughout the quarter century long conflict.

Black regiments later served in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. In the mid-1950s the Army desegregated the last all black units.

Article by Park Ranger Dave Bieri

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Last updated: November 8, 2021