The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877

The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877

The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877

The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877


In the middle of the arid summer of 1877, a drought year in West Texas, a troop of some forty buffalo soldiers (African American cavalry led by white officers) struck out into the Llano Estacado from Double Lakes , south of modern Lubbock , pursuing a band of Kwahada Comanches who had been raiding homesteads and hunting parties. A group of twenty-two buffalo hunters accompanied the soldiers as guides and allies.

Several days later three black soldiers rode into Fort Concho at modern San Angelo and reported that the men and officers of Troop A were missing and presumed dead from thirst. The "Staked Plains Horror," as the Galveston Daily News called it, quickly captured national attention. Although most of the soldiers eventually straggled back into camp, four had died, and others eventually faced court-martial for desertion. The buffalo hunters had ridden off on their own to find water, and the surviving soldiers had lived by drinking the blood of their dead horses and their own urine. A routine army scout had turned into disaster of the worst kind.

Although the failed expedition was widely reported at the time, its sparse treatments since then have relied exclusively on the white officers' accounts. Paul Carlson has mined the courts-martial records for testimony of the enlisted men, memories of a white boy who rode with the Indians, and other buried sources to provide the first multifaceted narrative ever published. His gripping account provides not only a fuller version of what happened over those grim eighty-six hours but also a nuanced view of the interaction of soldiers, hunters, settlers, and Indians on the Staked Plains at this poignant moment before the final settling of the Comanches on their reservation in Indian Territory.


In a general way many of us are acquainted with Captain Nicholas M. Nolan’s “lost troop expedition,” even if we are not familiar with its painful details. The raw brutality of the 1877 tragedy will not allow us to forget its basic outline, for here were nearly forty African American troopers—buffalo soldiers—who with their twenty-two bison-hunting companions survived by drinking their urine and the urine of their horses, by sucking on the moist internal organs of their dead mounts, and by their own grim, voiceless determination to struggle forward through the heat and dust of the desertlike Texas High Plains. “The Staked Plains Horror” people called it at the time. Four men died, many deserted, one went mad, leadership failed, and the whole company broke up.

So, if we are acquainted with the failed expedition, why a book? There are several reasons: the oft-cited articles on the black troop tragedy in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly are more than sixty years old. The articles, moreover, represent little more than edited versions of the white officers’ official reports. The best of the popular articles dates to thirty years ago. One of the most thoughtful books on the black regulars, also published more than thirty years ago, treats the expedition in just six pages, and a more recent one covers it in even less detail. Another book, one that contains a brief chapter on the expedition, dates to nearly a half century ago, and some of its interpretations are not sensitive to modern scholarship. As no book exists aimed solely on the black troop tragedy, the time has come for a new appraisal, one that will cover in some depth the context and multidimensional experiences of those who participated.

My purposes, then, were to reexamine the lost troop expedition and to place it in a broad perspective. I also wanted to assess it from more than the white officer and bison hunter viewpoints that dominate most discussions of the dramatic military operation. Testimony from the black soldiers of Troop A, Tenth Cavalry, at the court-martial afterward, for example, provides different opinions than what have been available, and several recent Comanche studies, influenced by newer approaches to American Indian . . .

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