The last excerpt from my book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Journey Across America brings Miles Dean to New Mexico where he honored the Buffalo Soldiers.
From Ch. 19: Retracing the Steps of the Buffalo Soldiers
Using the sun as his compass, Miles employed the techniques his ancestors relied on to forge these formidable mountains. He thought about the Buffalo Soldiers, the post-Civil War African American units legislated by Congress in 1866. Named Buffalo Soldiers by a Native American tribe, legend says, because their short, dark, curly hair resembled the mane of the buffalo, the six regiments comprised soldiers who had served in volunteer units during the Civil War or were emancipated slaves from southern states.
Charged with escorting white settlers moving west, building forts and roads, installing telegraph lines, protecting water sources, railroad construction workers, farmers, miners and cattlemen, mapping uncharted territories and generally maintaining law and order, these soldiers faced hostile attacks from Indian tribes, stagecoach robbers, horse and cattle thieves, corrupt politicians, an often skeptical press and public, and prejudice from superior officers. Always commanded by whites, the black units received second-hand weapons, aged horses, and rancid food.
Yet despite these conditions, the Buffalo Soldiers recorded the lowest desertion rates in the army. Serving in early battles in West Texas before 1870 through the final massacre of Sitting Bull’s Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890, some units then fought alongside President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba and later served during the Mexican Expedition. Many joined the National Park Service, serving among the first park rangers. With the integration of the military in the 1950’s, all Buffalo Soldier regiments disbanded.
Miles recalled his reading about Cathy Williams, a former slave , who at 16, disguised herself as a man to enlist in the US Army as a Buffalo Soldier. She lied about her age, saying she was 22, told recruiting officers she was a cook, and that her name was William Cathey. While army regulations forbade the enlisting of women, Williams managed to hide her identity, and served as a soldier for nearly three years. Illiterate, her prospects for work nothing more than low-paying jobs, Williams could earn more by becoming a black man in the army than as a black female cook. …
…Revered for their skills, often acquired through their mixed African- Native American ancestry, their skin color barred them from patronizing local establishments as they traveled through small towns throughout the West…
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America combines Dean’s memoir- his dreams of becoming a cowboy, his years as a high school and college athlete, and his cross-country journey, with the historical figures, many unsung, he visited as he traveled.
It’s non-fiction and a perfect book for book group reading or to share with middle school and high school students or to read aloud to younger children. The Educators’ Guide includes cross-disciplinary activities in writing, art, drama, geography, math and a character education platform, “The Horseman’s Creed.” The book is available as a paperback or ebook.
Read last week’s excerpt here.