While tracing your roots, you may have come across family stories about Buffalo Soldiers—African American soldiers who served in the U.S. military. These all-Black regiments, first established in 1866 by Congress after the Civil War, were primarily made up of veterans who had fought during the Civil War—the U.S. Colored Troops—as well as those formerly enslaved.
Buffalo Soldiers were entrusted with important roles during the post-Civil War era—peacetime work as well as active combat to protect U.S. interests. While their duties originally supported government-sanctioned expansion across the United States, all-Black regiments later served in major military actions across the globe:
- Spanish-American War
- World War I
- World War II
- Korean War
Buffalo Soldiers’ regiments saw active duty—and served with distinction—for almost nine decades. In 1948, when President Harry Truman formally eliminated racial segregation in the armed forces, Black soldiers were integrated into other units. The last Buffalo Soldier regiment was disbanded in 1951, during the Korean War.
Why Were They Called Buffalo Soldiers?
Members of the 10th Cavalry were given the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” by Native Americans on what was considered the Western frontier. Indigenous Plains tribes believed the soldiers' dark, curly hair resembled that of the sacred buffalo. They also compared the soldiers' fighting style with the ferocity of a bull, and the moniker was considered an honorific.
The 92nd Infantry Division’s regimental unit patch, adopted during World War I, featured a buffalo.
Buffalo Soldier Regiments
In 1866, Congress authorized the formation of four all-Black infantry regiments and two all-Black cavalry regiments to augment the capabilities of the U.S. Army. Eventually, these six regiments were consolidated into four—two cavalry and two infantry. Black troops were paid the same as white troops—about $13 a month—but were prohibited from serving East of the Mississippi.
The main Buffalo Soldier regiments:
- The 9th Cavalry, originally formed near New Orleans, Louisiana, later moved their base to the San Antonio area in Texas. After the Spanish-American War, members of the 9th Cavalry went to San Francisco to serve as part of President Theodore Roosevelt's Honor Guard, in recognition of their service alongside his Rough Riders. This was the first time Black American soldiers had ever taken on this important role.
- The 10th Cavalry, formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was later stationed in places as diverse as the Philippines, Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont, Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and Camp Lockett in San Diego. The 10th also participated in the 1916 cross-border pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, after he had attacked U.S. citizens and soldiers.
- The 24th Infantry was established in 1869 by combining the 38th and 41st Infantry Regiments. After 10 years in Texas, they were stationed in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). This regiment of Buffalo Soldiers, more active in civil and labor disputes than others, protected mine property, guarded arrested strikers, and worked to keep the peace in states such as Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and New Mexico.
- The 25th Infantry, also initially stationed in New Orleans, was created when the 39th and 40th were consolidated. They saw stints in Texas, Montana, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. This regiment was merged into the 93rd Division during World War II. In the 1890s, a test of bicycles as a means of troop transport had Company B riding 1,900 miles from Fort Missoula in Montana to St. Louis, Missouri.
Buffalo Soldiers’ regiments were mostly led by white officers, although a few Black men, like Henry Ossian Flipper and Charles Young, became commanding officers.
Buffalo Soldiers, Westward Expansion, and the Indian Wars
Starting in 1866, Buffalo Soldiers served the U.S. Army in order to fulfill the promise of manifest destiny—the ideology that the United States should spread its ideals across the entire continent. However, the government-sanctioned westward expansion also presumed that the United States was entitled to Indigenous lands, setting the stage for serious conflicts.
Buffalo Soldiers’ peacetime duties included:
- Establishing and guarding infrastructure projects like roads and telegraph lines, and locating water supplies
- Protecting settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains, and mail routes
- Guarding Native American reservations against settlers who wanted to take that land
- Tracking and capturing Native Americans who left reservations
- Protecting the Western frontier against bandits and cattle rustlers
- Suppressing riots and guarding property against strikers
During this period, tensions increased between the U.S. government and Native American nations perceived as a barrier to U.S. interests, and as more Indigenous people were forced off their ancestral lands or killed.
This resulted in the Indian Wars in the Plains and Southwest, also known as the Plains Wars, which saw over 170 serious conflicts between U.S. troops and the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kickapoo, Apache, Lakota, Nez Perce, Cree, and others. Buffalo Soldiers were involved in the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Apache Wars, for example.
Black Seminoles also participated in the Plains Wars as U.S. Army scouts, tracking people from Native American tribes. During Indian Removal, Black Seminoles remained vulnerable to re-enslavement, and some took refuge in Mexico, where they were guaranteed freedom. Those who returned to the United States in order to enlist had hoped military service would help them regain their rights and land lost decades earlier.
It’s important to note that one historically disenfranchised population, represented by Buffalo Soldiers, fought against another one, Native Americans, at the behest of the U.S. government during these wars of the 1860s-1890s.
Buffalo Soldiers in the Spanish-American War
1898, when the United States declared war against Spain, Buffalo Soldier regiments were among those who departed for Cuba. All-Black troops were in the middle of the action, fighting battles at Tayabacoa, San Juan Hill, and El Caney, for example, making it one of the most integrated military forces to exist at this point in American history.
At the Battle of San Juan Hill, Buffalo Soldiers fought alongside the famous Rough Riders. Shortly after the war, Theodore Roosevelt praised the Buffalo Soldiers for their service and bravery.
In the Battle of El Caney, Private Thomas Butler of the 25th Infantry captured the Spanish flag, a symbol of victory for U.S. troops.
Buffalo Soldiers during World War I
As World War I raged, the 25th Infantry were stationed in Hawaii, the 9th Cavalry fought in the Philippines, and the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry patrolled the border between Mexico and the United States.
Some Buffalo Soldiers were sent to France to fight as segregated units, the 92nd Division and 93rd Division. But while overseas, the U.S. Army maintained segregationist policies, leaving most Buffalo Soldiers to fight with the French, who welcomed their service. This was the first time American troops had fought under a foreign country’s flag.
Buffalo Soldiers in World War II
When the U.S. military engaged in World War II, segregation remained the general rule. Still, more than a million Black Americans—men and women—served during this war in different capacities.
While there were fewer Buffalo Soldier regiments, some remained. The 92nd Infantry served overseas in the Italian Campaign, while the 93rd Infantry and 24th Infantry saw combat in the Pacific Theater. There was even a weekly newspaper, The Buffalo, to keep these soldiers entertained and informed during their training. It included notes from the chaplain, cartoons, and other features.
Famous Buffalo Soldiers
From the Plains Wars through the Korean War, more than 90 Buffalo Soldiers were formally recognized for their exemplary valor. They were granted decorations like the U.S. Medal of Honor, the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Award, the French Croix de Guerre. The exceptional bravery of Buffalo Soldiers was also recognized through other military awards like the Purple Heart.
In addition to those given formal awards, several Buffalo Soldiers became famous for their achievements in and beyond their military service.
- Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African American to graduate from West Point and he served as a second lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry regiment—major accomplishments for a man born into slavery. Initially, Flipper was stationed at Fort Sill, but he later served at several army bases in Texas.
- John Hanks Alexander also graduated from West Point, where he roomed for a time with fellow cadet Charles Young. In 1887, he reported to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where he joined the 9th Cavalry. He eventually was appointed to teach military science and tactics at Wilberforce University, the first private college for African Americans.
- Charles Young, a West Point graduate, achieved several firsts during his career. He was the first African American to earn the rank of colonel and he was the first Black American to serve as a superintendent of national parks.
- Cathay Williams is the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Born into slavery, she was taken on in 1861 by the Union Army as a cook and laundress. She later voluntarily enlisted in 1866—while disguised as a man, “William Cathay”—and joined the 39th Infantry.
Protecting National Parks and Their Resources
As national parks were established across the United States, the government realized it needed to protect these resources—at risk of damage by farm animals grazing, timber theft, and wildlife poaching—so Buffalo Soldiers were asked to become some of the nation’s first park rangers. During the park system’s early days, between 1899 and 1904, about 500 Buffalo Soldiers protected and built infrastructure for parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, and what is now known as Kings Canyon National Park.
Buffalo Soldiers, Racism, and Paving the Way for the Future
Despite their exemplary service, Buffalo Soldiers still faced widespread discrimination. All-Black regiments were initially limited to fighting on the Western frontier, because former enslavers and other white Americans didn't want to see armed Black soldiers in their area. Even so, Buffalo Soldiers charged with protecting towns, for example, were subject to insults and abuse by those same townspeople. Within the military ranks, they received unequal treatment, and faced racial slurs and violence from white officers and soldiers.
The service of the famed Buffalo Soldiers eventually paved the way for Black officers to lead troops and for Black soldiers to gain acceptance in the U.S. Army and other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Black veterans also played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement upon their return from war in the 1940s.
Buffalo Soldiers Day, celebrated on July 28th each year, honors their heroism and recognizes the struggles Black soldiers faced due to racism.
Discovering Your Buffalo Soldier Ancestors
Ancestry® record collections like the following ones can be used to help you learn about potential Buffalo Soldiers in your family’s history.
- Buffalo Soldiers, Returns From Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1866-1916 is the main collection that focuses on the early years of the all-Black regiments.
- In the Returns from Military Posts, 1806-1916, you can browse by state and then by post.
- Search on “Spanish-American War” in Ancestry® to explore state-specific records.
- Army Transport Service Passenger Lists for 1910-1939 could show how your Buffalo Soldier reached overseas destinations during World War I.
- Draft registration cards for World War I and World War II include descriptions of physical features and signatures.
In addition to what you can discover on Ancestry®, you might also find Buffalo Soldiers-related records on Fold3®.
Buffalo Soldiers References (All sites accessed February 13, 2023)
“9th Cavalry History.” 1st Cavalry Division Association. https://1cda.org/history/history-9cav/.
“African American Medal of Honor Recipients.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/chyo/learn/historyculture/medal-of-honor.htm.
“Black Seminole Indian Scouts.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/black-seminole-indian-scouts.htm.
“Buffalo Soldiers.” History.com. January 25, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/buffalo-soldiers.
“Buffalo Soldiers.” Iowa Department of Human Rights. https://humanrights.iowa.gov/cas/saa/african-american-culture-history/buffalo-soldiers.
“Buffalo Soldiers.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/buffalo-soldiers.
“Buffalo Soldiers At Fort Ethan Allen.” Vermont History.” https://vermonthistory.org/buffalo-soldiers-at-fort-ethan-allen.
“Buffalo Soldiers During the Plains Wars.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/chyo/learn/historyculture/busoplainswars.htm.
“Buffalo Soldiers, Geronimo, and Wounded Knee.” National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/price-of-freedom/western-indian-wars/buffalo-soldiers-geronimo-and-wounded-knee.
“The Buffalo Soldiers In World War One.” National Park Service. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-buffalo-soldiers-in-wwi.htm.
“Buffalo Soldiers In World War Two.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/chyo/learn/historyculture/busoww2.htm.
“Buffalo Soldiers in the Spanish-American War.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/busospanamwar.htm.
“Buffalo Soldiers and Indian Wars.” Ferris State University. November 2015. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2015/november.htm.
“Camp Lockett.” Office of Historic Preservation, http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/listedresources/Detail/1045.
“Cathay Williams.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/cwilliams.htm.
“Charles Young - Buffalo Soldier.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/prsf/learn/historyculture/charles-young-buffalo-soldier.htm.
Clark, Alexis. “Why Buffalo Soldiers Served Among the Nation's First Park Rangers.” History.com. January 28, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/buffalo-soldiers-national-parks-rangers.
Djossa, Christina Ayele. “The First (Documented) Black Woman to Serve in the U.S. Army.” Atlas Obscura. February 28, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/cathay-williams-buffalo-soldier.
“Fort Huachuca History, 1877 to 1945.” Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers. https://swabuffalosoldiers.org/history/fort-huachuca-history-1877-to-1945/.
“Fort Leavenworth and the Establishment of the 10th Cavalry.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/fort-leavenworth-and-the-establishment-of-the-10th-cavalry.htm.
Greene, Bryan. “After Victory in World War II, Black Veterans Continued the Fight for Freedom at Home.” Smithsonian Magazine. August 30, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/summer-1946-saw-black-wwii-vets-fight-freedom-home-180978538/.
Jefferson, Robert. “93rd Infantry Division (1942-1946).” BlackPast. July 11, 2008. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/u-s-ninety-third-infantry-division-1942-1946/.
“John Hanks Alexander.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/john-hanks-alexander.htm.
Lange, Katie. “'Buffalo Soldier' earned his Medal of Honor in Korea.” April 18, 2017. U.S. Army. https://www.army.mil/article/186190/buffalo_soldier_earned_his_medal_of_honor_in_korea.
“Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper.” U.S. Army Center of Military History. https://history.army.mil/html/topics/afam/flipper.html.
“The Proud Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/proud-legacy-buffalo-soldiers.
“Pursuing Pancho Villa.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/prsf/learn/historyculture/pursuing-pancho-villa.htm.
Roman, Ivan. “The Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill: What Really Happened?” History.com. May 12, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/buffalo-soldiers-spanish-american-war-san-juan-hill-rough-riders.
Schubert, Frank. “ 24th Infantry Regiment (1866-1951).”BlackPast. April 10, 2011. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/24th-infantry-regiment-1866-1951/.
Schubert, Frank. “25th Infantry Regiment (1866-1947).” BlackPast. October 9, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/25th-infantry-regiment-1866-1947/.
Tomlin, Chase. “The Buffalo: 92nd Infantry Division’s Weekly Newspaper during World War II.” The National WWII Museum. February 23, 2022. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/buffalo-newspaper-92nd-infantry-world-war-ii.
Waters, Tiana. “Honoring National Buffalo Soldiers Day.” https://www.army.mil/article/248832/honoring_national_buffalo_soldiers_day.