On Aug. 16, 1881, Apache Indians attacked a ranch near Cuchillo Negro Creek, New Mexico, killing a family of four and two sheepherders. Troop I of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, composed of African American soldiers — known as the Buffalo Soldiers — answered the cry for help.
One of the first to respond was 1st Sgt. Moses Williams, already a 15-year veteran of the Buffalo Soldiers.
Williams distinguished himself in the attack involving 40 to 60 Apaches and received the Army’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, in 1896, while he was stationed at Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast.
Historian Greg Shine detailed Moses’ 31-year military career and his arrival in Oregon during a March 14 lecture in the Cannon Beach History Center.
The first official units of African American soldiers were formed during the Civil War. More than 180,000 African Americans served in 163 units.
Following the war, the Army created regiments, consisting entirely of African Americans led by white officers. These included the 9th and 10th Calvary and the 24th and 25th Infantries.
After serving in the South during Reconstruction, the regiments were transferred to the West by 1877.
“This is the era most commonly associated with Buffalo Soldiers – the Indian Wars era roughly between 1866 and 1891,” Shine said.
When the term, “Buffalo Soldiers,” came into use and what it refers to is unknown, Shine said. He read a letter from 1872 that describes one of the earliest references: “The Indians called them ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ because their woolly heads are so much like the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo.”
Other sources describe the name as a tribute to the “similarity of the bison who fought ferociously, displaying uncommon stamina and courage,” Shine said. “The oral tradition among Native Americans supports this and can be traced back to about 1867.”
The term now applies to all African American soldiers in the American West, whether cavalry or infantry, he said. The 2,500 to 3,000 Buffalo soldiers constituted 10 percent of all the Army’s infantry and 20 percent of all cavalry.
“Black soldiers used military service as a strategy to obtain equal rights as citizens, but this came at a cost – the defeat and dispossession of native people,” Shine added.
In 1866, Moses Williams, 21, who couldn’t read or write, joined the Army, and, during his 31-year career, he became literate and rose to the highest position an African American could achieve.
For 19 years he fought in the Indian Wars, assigned to at least 23 forts throughout the West. In 1885, he was appointed as ordnance sergeant by the U.S. Secretary of War and was responsible for the care of armaments, primarily cannons, guns and ammunition, at Fort Buford in North Dakota.
Four years later, Williams was reassigned to Fort Stevens on Oct. 15, 1895. He served the last 2.5 years of his career there.
He faced several challenges, Shine said. “Inside the old earthwork fort in 1895, time stood still. There were 34 old muzzle-loading cannons, 10 unmounted cannon tubes and 24 cannons that were on unserviceable or limited-use wooden platforms.”
By the standards he was used to working with at Fort Buford, these weapons were antiquated, Shine added.
But outside the earthwork fort, technology was quickly advancing, Shine said. “Williams was soon surrounded by one of the largest construction projects the site had ever seen” and the largest in Oregon at the time. It was a massive expansion of a west battery replacement for four cutting edge “disappearing” guns, which would “disappear” behind the parapet after firing to be reloaded. More than 130 laborers worked on it.
During his stay at Fort Stevens, Williams applied for and received the Medal of Honor. His application was accompanied by a letter from his former commanding officer citing Williams’ bravery, skill and “unflinching devotion to duty” at the battle of Cuchillo Negro Creek 15 years earlier.
In this era, “It was not uncommon in the era for soldiers to initiate their own claims for Medals of Honor,” Shine said.
He was one of 22 Buffalo soldiers to receive Medals of Honor for their action in the Indian wars and the 1898 war in Cuba.
Williams retired on May 12, 1898, at age 53. He moved to the Fort Vancouver barracks and was found dead in his bed on Aug. 23, 1899.
In 1991 Gen. Colin Powell dedicated a monument to Williams and three other Medal of Honor recipients on Officers Row in Fort Vancouver. In 1989, the Moses Williams Pacific Northwest chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers was chartered in Portland.
Williams’ legacy “shows the value of black self-determination and agency during the post-war era of Jim Crow and racial animosity.” Shine said.
“Williams showed grit, he moved up, he served with valor, he leveraged his distinguished service into a highly sought-after position as ordnance sergeant, and he actively pursued the Medal of Honor to which he was entitled.”