The new Buffalo Soldiers' appearance at the Festival of the American West this month was a welcome reminder of the role black troops played in Utah's past. The 9th Cavalry joined four companies of the 21st Infantry in 1886 to found Fort Duchesne in the Uinta Valley. They were sent to keep an eye on the Ouray and Uinta reservations, a fact not appreciated by the Utes, some of who probably remembered fighting the Buffalo Soldiers at Milk River in 1879.
Not surprisingly, the black troops faced much prejudice. Their first commanding officer, Major Frederick Benteen, did not hesitate to express his contempt for his men. Benteen, a hard-drinking survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, did not confine his prejudice to blacks. "Some think I came here to fight Indians," he said, "but I came here to fight Mormons." Other soldiers did not share Benteen's bigotry. One visitor to the post said the "white infantrymen and the black cavalrymen at the fort fraternize without any fine discrimination as to color." The men ate together, played in the post band and even fought "the festive bedbug together."
Many of the Utes were not pleased to find the "black white man" at the fort, but the Buffalo Soldiers did the Ute Nation much good service. Every year many tribal members returned to their former hunting grounds. In the summer of 1887, Chief Colorow's band jumped the reservation and went hunting in eastern Colorado, where hatred of the tribe was rampant. The governor called out the state militia to punish the Utes, probably calculating that if they were all killed, they would cease to be a problem.
Lt. George R. Burnett left Fort Duchesne with ten Buffalo Soldiers to keep the peace. The militia chased Colorow's band back into Utah and prepared to attack the reservation, but Burnett and his badly outnumbered men stopped them. Indian Agent T. A. Byrnes commended the Buffalo Soldiers for their exceptional courage, and Colorow and his people gained a new respect for the black cavalrymen who had saved their lives.
Except for six months during the Spanish-American War, the 9th Cavalry and its Buffalo Soldiers garrisoned the fort from September 1892 until March 1901. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., an officer who served at Fort Duchesne, became the first black general in U.S. military history. Buffalo Soldiers escorted Indian agents when the annual government payment to the Utes arrived on the railroad. Rumors spread in March 1898 that Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch was going to rob the $30,000 annuity between Price and Helper. Forty Buffalo Soldiers accompanied the Indian agent from Price to Fort Duchesne. The boys from Robbers Roost kept their distance.
Off-duty time was sometimes spent drinking, gambling and socializing with the "soiled doves" who worked in "The Strip," a lawless triangular of land located between reservations. Others engaged in sports, particularly baseball, boxing, swimming and fishing. On July 4, 1888, at one of Utah's first rodeos, eighty-five Buffalo Soldiers mounted on matching black horses put on a sham battle that captivated the citizens of Vernal. During the Pioneer Jubilee of 1897, a troop of Buffalo Soldiers gave a "thrilling exhibition of horsemanship" on the parade ground at Fort Douglas.
When the black troopers left for Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War, children from Wellington and Price sang "Rally Round the Flag, Boys" and local citizens sent them off with cheers and best wishes. The last Buffalo Soldiers left the fort in 1901, ending another surprising chapter in Utah's history.
For more on Utah's Buffalo Soldiers, see Ronald G. Coleman's article in the Fall 1979 Utah Historical Quarterly.