By Kyle Serzen
Photo by Leon Thompson
June 11, 2009 (El Cajon)--Cowboys and Indians crowded the streets of El Cajon last weekend during the Olaf Wieghorst Museum’s 7th Annual Western Heritage Days, a festival celebrating American history and the expansion of the western frontier. Western Days showcased gun fight reenactments, blacksmiths at work, cowboy storytellers, and Native American dancers. However, a troop of warriors clad in navy and gold stood out from the sea of six shooters and spurs; they were the Buffalo Soldiers.
The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry units were created on July 28, 1866, consisting of Caucasian officers and African American troops. In 1867, the 10th Cavalry engaged in several battles with the Cheyenne Nation. The name “Buffalo Soldier” originates from these battles. “Captain” Les Keown, the chapter historian for the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry of San Diego, explains that “the Cheyenne called them wild buffalo because of coarseness of the hair and the dark skin color, plus buffalo were pretty tough to kill. They gave them that name out of respect.” The name eventually made its way back to the American public, where it was applied to all African American soldiers.
Aside from being the topic of a Bob Marley song, the Buffalo Soldiers played a role in over 100 American battles. Perhaps the most famous of these was the battle of San Juan Hill, where they fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.
“Roosevelt and the Rough Riders got all the glory, but it [victory] didn’t happen ‘till the 9th and 10th showed up,” commented Keown. The Buffalo Soldiers also faced numerous infamous foes, such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, and Poncho Villa.
The Buffalo Soldiers made their way to Southern California during World War II, when the War Department noticed that the San Diego area had inadequate defenses in the case of a Japanese invasion. The 10th Cavalry began its occupation of Camp Lockett near Campo in 1942 to help protect the US-Mexico border. Their duties here would be short-lived, however. “In 1944, the government decided the horse soldier is obsolete, so the last Buffalo Soldiers unsaddled here in the San Diego area,” said Keown.
Today the San Diego chapter of Buffalo Soldiers seeks to educate people on the history of the 9th and 10th Cavalries. Their goal is to create an interest and appreciation for the contributions these Americans made to our country, and they welcome anyone regardless of sex or race. The San Diego chapter functions as an affiliate of the National Office to the Ninth and Tenth (Horse) Cavalry Association.
The Western Heritage Days event was sponsored by the Olaf Wieghorst Museum Foundation, honoring the late Olaf Wieghorst, famed Western artist and El Cajon resident.
For more information on the Buffalo Soldiers, visit: http://www.buffalosoldiers-lawtonftsill.org/history.htm and http://www.ushist.com/buffalo-soldiers.htm
For more information on the Olaf Wieghorst Museum, Foundation, or Western Heritage Days, visit: http://www.wieghorstmuseum.org/
Kyle Serzen is a political science major at San Diego State University and an intern with East County Magazine.