a group of horsemen called "the buffalo soldiers of seattle" honor the role african americans played in settling the west.
Western Horseman Magazine
Story and Photographs by Ryan T. Bell
A man dressed in the gray uniform of a Confederate Army officer strolled down a sidewalk in Auburn, Wash. The street was being used as a staging area for historical reenactors scheduled to march in the 52nd Annual Veterans Day Parade. The long-running event is one of the largest of its kind in the United States.
The crowd looked like a group of time travelers: reenactors wearing the beige fatigues of soldiers from WWII, the olive green trench coats of the Great War, even a few redcoat uniforms from the Revolutionary War. Finally, the Confederate officer came to a halt in front of a group of African American men sitting on horseback. They wore the blue uniforms of the 10th Cavalry, a segregated regiment of the U.S. Army created in 1866 that has become known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
In a gesture that was far from historically accurate, the Confederate officer extended his hand to shake those of the Buffalo Soldiers. “I want to pay my respects,” the man said. “You guys look better and better every year.” The men struck up an easy conversation on the topic favored by amateur military historians everywhere: paraphernalia.
The Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle base their dress on archival photographs from the late-1800s. They wear navy blue jackets, light blue trousers tucked into black boots, and Bowie knives snugged into their belts. They ride McClellan saddles and carry a number of replica firearms true to that era, including the .45-70 Springfield rifle, the Sharps Carbine rifle and Colt .45 single action revolvers. In full regalia, they look every bit as formidable as the 10th Cavalry soldiers whom the Cherokee dubbed “buffalo soldiers” during the Indian Wars because of their curly-hair, dark skin and fierceness in battle.
To a trained observer, there are a few aspects of the Buffalo Soldiers parade dress that veer from historical accuracy. The men ride Friesian horses because the flowing manes, tails and feathered fetlocks are eye-catching and help pronounce the movements of the group’s synchronized parade drills. Also, a member carries a bullwhip that he cracks to fire up the crowd.
“We don’t mind upping the entertainment level a bit,” says Geordan Newbill, the group’s president. “That’s why we consider ourselves living historians, not ‘historical reenactors.’”
The Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle was formed in 1993 by three men – Clyde Robinson, Al Wilcher and Lenard Howze Sr. – who noticed that the history of the Buffalo Soldiers was being forgotten. Two of them had personal connections to the Buffalo Soldiers: Robinson served as one during World War II, as did Howze Sr.’s dad during World War I. The men decided to wear replica Buffalo Soldier uniforms and ride a segment of the Oregon Trail to honor not just the Buffalo Soldiers, but the contribution of all African Americans who helped settle the West.
Realizing that history can’t survive without being passed on to younger generations, the men started a cadet program to teach inner-city youngsters horsemanship, outdoorsmanship and the history of the Buffalo Soldiers. Howze, Sr.’s son, Lenard Howze, Jr., and nephew, Geordan Newbill, were in the first cadet class. Three decades later, they are now the leaders of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, teaching a new generation of inner-city youth about their heritage and ancestral legacy as African-Americans in the West.
In the Pacific Northwest, the history of African American settlers dates at least to 1845 when a free black man named George W. Bush became one the first settlers to reach the Puget Sound. Bush had traveled West on the Oregon Trail in order to leave the oppressive laws in Missouri, a slave state. However, while Oregon was technically a free territory, it had discriminatory land ownership laws that forced Bush to cross the Columbia River, a waterway that marked the U.S. boundary at the time. Bush was familiar with the region thanks to an earlier stint working as a fur trapper for the Hudson Bay Company (he’d returned to Missouri to marry and bring his wife West).
Bush broke ground on a 640-acre farm and built a sawmill, becoming a central figure in a community of settlers, most of whom were white. The region became known as Bush’s Prairie, located today in Tumwater, Washington. In 1853, Washington became a U.S. Territory and the same discriminatory laws that had forced Bush out of Oregon now ruled the land he helped settled. Many of Bush’s white neighbors held positions in the newly-formed territorial government and they successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. to grant an exception for Bush’s land claim.
A decade later, in 1863, the abolition of slavery opened a new chapter in the history of African- Americans in the West. About 180,000 black men fought for the Union during the Civil War. Recognizing their contributions, the U.S. Government created two segregated cavalry units, the 9th and 10th Regiments, and two segregated infantry units, the 24th and 25th Regiments. The soldiers
were guaranteed pay equal to that of their white counterparts: $13 a month. There were limits, however, to their equal treatment. Each Buffalo Soldier unit had to be led by a white officer. White units were given first pick of the uniforms, boots and rations, leaving the black soldiers with the leftovers. And while Buffalo Soldiers took pride in their regimental rifle, the .45-70 Springfield, it required a three-step firing process capable of only eight to 14 rounds per minute. White soldiers equipped with lever-action Henry repeating rifles could fire 24 rounds per minute.
Then there was the poor quality of their horses.
“The Buffalo Soldiers were given hand-me-down horses that the other soldiers didn’t want,” says Newbill. “They took these horses and became known as the best light cavalry of their time. They had to. Their lives were on the line.”
Having just emerged from slavery, African- Americans were well-suited to the command structure of military life. And having worked with horses and livestock on southern plantations, Buffalo Soldiers were adept cavalrymen.
“In The Black Majority, the historian Peter Wood posited the argument that the term ‘cowboy’ has a connection to the slave experience in South Carolina where blacks were involved in the cattle business,” says Michael “Cowboy Mike” Searles, professor emeritus at Augusta University in Georgia, where he specializes in the history of African-Americans in the West. “Workers were given a title based on their jobs. There was a ‘house-boy,’ a ‘cow-boy,’ and so on. This was happening at the same time, and maybe even before, ‘cowboy’ was starting to be used in Texas as a derivation of the Spanish word vaquero.”
Read the full story in the February 2018 issue of Western Horseman Magazine