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Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877

By Paul H. Carlson

Publication Year: 2003

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.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Illustrations

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pp. ix-

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Preface

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pp. xi-xiv

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...

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1. Land of Sunshine and Space

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pp. 3-20

It can be a brutal country, the Llano Estacado. A huge level, treeless plain that stretches across West Texas and eastern New Mexico, the region is a high tableland whose relentless winds, semi-arid climate, monotonous terrain, and mercurial temperatures mystified early visitors. Indeed, its unending distances coupled with its sometimes...

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2. Bison Hunters and Rath City in 1877

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pp. 21-37

Buffalo hunting,” said J. Wright Mooar, “was a business and not a sport; it required capital, management and work, lots of hard work, more work than anything else.” Speaking in 1928, a half-century after the great Southern Plains bison hunt had come to a close, the seventy-seven-year-old Mooar, one of the hunt’s most successful...

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3. Comanches and Settlers in 1877

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pp. 38-54

After the Civil War, two facts of life above all others slowed the settlement of West Texas: Indian raiding and insufficient rainfall. “Figuratively speaking,” wrote William Curry Holden, “the settler had to hold his rifle in one hand and his plow in the other.” Under such conditions, a pioneer farmer or rancher had trouble...

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4. Buffalo Soldiers and the Army in 1877

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pp. 55-68

Some 180,000 African American soldiers fought in the Civil War, and from all accounts they fought well. Indeed, the United States Congress was impressed enough that in July 1866 it created six new and permanent black regiments: four of infantry plus what became the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries. Although in 1869 the War Department...

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5. Onto the High Yarner

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pp. 69-81

Instead “of having . . . the forty rational men who left camp with us,” wrote Lieutenant Charles L. Cooper to his father, “our party now consisted of eighteen madmen.” Cooper, one of two white officers with Troop A, Tenth Cavalry, was describing the condition of his few remaining black soldiers. The day was July 28, 1877, and Cooper’s...

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6. The Thirsting Time

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pp. 82-107

In our “troubled” sleep, remembered Mortimer “Wild Bill” Kress, a tall, usually jovial bison hunter, “thirst ever haunted us.” On that July 28 evening “it was thirst, water, thirst and water, until it was all gone, and still we were all in a horrible condition.” Earlier, Sergeant William L. Umbles, Troop A, Tenth Cavalry, upon learning that no...

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7. Down off the High Yarner

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pp. 108-121

It is [ascertained] that a disastrous encounter was had on the Staked Plains, in which there were two officers and 26 enlisted soldiers killed.” Thus read the first official army communication about the black troop tragedy. Dated August 8, 1877, the notice came from military personnel at the headquarters of the Division of the Missouri in...

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8. Back from the Dead

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pp. 122-138

On Tuesday morning, August 7, 1877, couriers from Double Lakes, high up on the Llano Estacado, arrived at Fort Concho. Sent ahead by Captain Nicholas M. Nolan to counter the reports of his own and Lieutenant Charles L. Cooper’s probable death, the couriers brought exciting news. They assured everyone at the post that not...

Dramatis Personae

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pp. 139-142

Notes

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pp. 143-160

Bibliography

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pp. 161-168

Index

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pp. 169-177


E-ISBN-13: 9781603446693
E-ISBN-10: 1603446699
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585442539
Print-ISBN-10: 1585442534

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 22 b&w photos., 5 maps.
Publication Year: 2003

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Subject Headings

  • Comanche Indians -- Wars.
  • United States. Army. Cavalry, 10th.
  • Nolan, Nicholas, d. 1883.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Llano Estacado.
  • Texas -- History -- 1846-1950.
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