I’m late to the party, but you didn’t think I would forget Black History Month, did you? Given how we’re big fans of history and trivia around here in Left Coast Cowboy Land, these special history months are a great opportunity for us. We can research less common events and people in history and present them for your reading pleasure. Always with that Left Coast twist. Of course, African Americans were in every battle America has fought. Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Wampanoag Indian heritage was the first casualty at the first “battle” of the American Revolution, the Boston Massacre. But let’s fast forward a hundred years or so to the West and start off strong.
The Buffalo Soldiers
You’ll find varying explanation for the name. Some sources claim the troops were paid in buffalo meat or that they wore buffalo robes in the winter. But I prefer the story that says the Sioux named these African Americans Buffalo Soldiers either because of their fearless fighting style or their perceived resemblance to buffalo. Given the almost mystical place that the buffalo held in Plains Indian life, you can be sure it was a term of respect.
The Buffalo Soldiers came about when the U.S. Government had to withdraw thousands of troops from the West to fight the Civil War, leaving vast stretches of territory vulnerable. On June 28, 1866, an Act of Congress authorized the creation of six regiments of black troops, two of cavalry and four of infantry. Although commonly thought of as Indian fighters, the Buffalo Soldiers had a wide variety of missions. They also built fords and roads, strung telegraph lines, protected railroad crews, escorted stages and trains, protected settlers and cattle drives. It was interesting for me to read, during my research, that despite facing prejudice and often being poorly supplied, the Buffalo Soldiers always fought with distinction. They had the lowest desertion rate in the army, and the alcoholism rate among the troops was far below the average for white troops. By the time the regiments were disbanded, twenty members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry had been awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest award given for outstanding performance under enemy fire.
Various iterations of all Black units continued to serve in every war until President Truman officially desegregated the military. One American President, in particular, had good reason to be grateful to the Buffalo Soldiers, although Teddy Roosevelt ended up garnering all the acclaim for the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War. An eyewitness recounted:
“If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated. The 10th Cavalry fought for 48 hours under fire from Spaniards who were in brick forts on the hill.
If you are out Houston way, visit the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum.
“Stagecoach Mary” Fields
If this woman hadn’t existed, fiction would have had to invent her. I’m not sure how reliable were all the bios I read on-line (Google “Stagecoach Mary” and you’ll find a dozen of them!), but she was undeniably a character. Even the most conservative accounts of her describe how this former slave relocated to Montana and became a rootin’, tootin’, gunslinging stage coach driver and the first African American and only the second woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. Some of the more colorful accounts tell how she held off a pack of wolves in the night, was one of the few women allowed to drink with the men in local saloons (and could drink them under the table) and came out the winner in numerous gun fights. In last year’s tribute to Black History Month, I wrote about famous Black cowboys Nat Love and Bill Pickett. I think Stagecoach Mary could give them a fair fight. Read more about her here and here.
William Leidesdorff wasn’t really a cowboy. But as a San Franciscan, I have to include him here. (In fact, a street in the Financial District is named after him.) He was born of mixed race in the Virgin Islands in 1810 to a Danish planter and his African slave wife. In 1841, he sailed into the port of Yerba Buena a small, dusty town of 200 residents that he was instrumental in transforming into San Francisco. He purchased key parcels of land in town as well as 35,000 acres just to the east of John Sutter’s sawmill. As his power and fortune grew, he
became interested in businessmen seeking to make California part of the United States. His financing and advice as the first African American diplomat helped the U.S. win their victory against Mexico. Under the new American administration, Leidesdorff increased his fortune and power. In 1847, he constructed the famous City Hotel, which was San Francisco’s first hotel and he financed San Francisco’s first steamboat. In 1848, he organized the city’s first horse races, and as treasurer of the City Council, he built the first public school. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Leidesdorff’s enormous acreage, but unfortunately, later that year, at the height of his fortune and fame, Leidesdorff fell ill with Typhus and died. His funeral was attended by the entire city, as residents closed their businesses for the day and flew their flags at half-mast.
So hats off to all our real African American cowboys and those who were cowboys in spirit!
Note: I found the above image of Buffalo Soldiers charging from The Robinson Library.