Visiting the world of Buffalo Soldiers History: Tour package recalls the 10,000 black men who served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of the late 19th century.

April 21, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The black cavalrymen seemed perfect, as if they had come fresh from a dream.

They sat tall and proud in the saddle, unfazed by the stinging rain or the wind whipping through the hills outside Denver, Colo. It didn't matter that they were re-enactors carrying on the legacy of the black warriors the Cheyenne called Buffalo Soldiers.

What mattered was that they had reclaimed a long-neglected history.

Interest in Buffalo Soldiers has grown in recent years. They have made it onto a postage stamp; Gen. Colin L. Powell refers to them as a source of strength and inspiration; a statue in their honor stands in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

About 10,000 black men served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. The 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry shed blood from South Dakota to Arizona. Eighteen soldiers received the Medal of Honor between 1870 and 1890.

"These were men who wanted to be seen as Americans without a hyphen," said Bill Gwaltney, superintendent of Fort Laramie and descendant of a Buffalo Soldier.

You could write a treatise on their absence from the old histories and scores of Hollywood westerns. You could get angry, or you could pack your bags and go see for yourself.

HistoryAmerica Tours, a 4-year-old company in Dallas, offers an excellent hotel-travel package to discover the world of the Buffalo Soldiers. Pete Brown, an ex-Marine, formed the company to indulge his love of history and capitalize on the ever-growing interest in things American.

More than a dozen men and women joined him last summer for his first Buffalo Soldier tour. The travelers included a judge from North Carolina, a historian from Michigan, a genealogist from Washington.

Though most of the notable Buffalo Soldier engagements were against the Apaches in the Southwest, the plains north and east of Colorado were also Buffalo Soldier country. Mr. Brown's tour, guided by historian and author Frank Schubert, focuses on places like Fort Robinson, Neb., Fort D.A. Russell outside Cheyenne, Wyo., Drexel Mission near Wounded Knee, S.D.

If you opt to go it alone, steal a page from Mr. Brown's book and start in Denver. There you'll find the Colorado Historical Society's exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers.

Paul Stewart's Black American West Museum and Heritage Center also is in Denver, housed in the home of Dr. Justina Ford. She was the first black woman doctor in Colorado. The museum is a testament to Mr. Stewart's unrelenting search. His treasures, gathered during more than 30 years of mining the West, put to rest the childhood lie that there weren't any black cowboys. In fact, about one out of every four men on the great cattle drives was black.

After Denver, head for the plains. The land is vast. You feel small here, dwarfed by immense, empty space. You quickly understand the phrase "Big Sky Country." The great dome of blue goes on forever; and beneath that sky, the tan prairie interspersed by clumps of cottonwood and ridges of pine. In some places you could scan 360 degrees, take in miles of horizon, without seeing any sign of human life. though you'll probably see a cattle herd.

Be prepared to put on some miles. My week with HistoryAmerica covered 1,472 miles. The tour bus was comfortable, and the driver, John Olsen, knew the terrain and the stories. Yet, toward week's end, no rest stop, no matter how frequent, long or interesting, seemed satisfying.

We crossed the Oregon Trail, a Pony Express route, the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line. Along the way we stayed at nice hotels, where the fare always included steak, big steak.

We passed through improbably small towns Medicine Bow, Wyo., pop. 389, home of the Virginian Hotel, and little else; Lingle, Wyo., pop. 475, where the young people found a McDonald's, mall and movie house in nearby Torrington, pop. 5,441; Harrison, Neb., pop. 290, where the Village Barn restaurant served Rocky Mountain oysters; Crawford, Neb., pop. a short drive from Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse, the great Oglala Sioux chief, was killed. Mr. Brown has addressed the travel fatigue problem by shortening this year's route and the number of days spent on the road. The highlights, such as Fort Robinson, remain. Eight of the men who won the Medal of Honor were stationed at the fort.

Sgt. Barney McKay also served here. He is remembered for possessing a threatening broadside published after the people of Crawford almost lynched a comrade.

In part, the broadside read: "You lynch, you torture and you burn Negroes in the South, but WE SWEAR BY ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY that you shall not outrage us and our people right here under the shadow of 'Old Glory.'" It was signed: "500 men with the bullet or the torch."

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