An exhibition by local photographer Ryan T. Bell documents the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, a group honoring the role of African Americans in the frontier West.
Article by RYAN T. BELL
For a group of historical reenactors, the scene at the Veterans Day parade in Auburn, Washington, was anything but accurate. A man dressed as a Confederate officer strolled up to a group of African American horsemen dressed as “Buffalo Soldiers” – black cowboys who rode in the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry Division. (Their motto was “Ready and Forward.”)
“I want to pay my respects,” the man said, extending his hand. “You guys look better and better every year.” The men struck up an easy conversation on the topic favored by military buffs everywhere: guns and paraphernalia.
As a documentary photographer, I observed the scene unfold from astride a horse, my camera in hand. Since 2017, I’ve been documenting a group of black horsemen called the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle. The nonprofit organization is based in Yelm, Washington, but draws members from across the Puget Sound region to help keep alive the memory of the original Buffalo Soldiers. Riding with them has been like a graduate class in U.S. history.
The group bases their dress on archival photographs from the late-1800s, wearing navy blue jackets, light blue trousers tucked into black boots, and Bowie knives snugged into their belts. They ride McClellan saddles and carry a number of replica firearms true to that era, including the .45-70 Springfield rifle, the Sharps Carbine rifle and Colt .45 single action revolvers. In full regalia, they look every bit as formidable as the 10th Cavalry soldiers whom the Cherokee dubbed “buffalo soldiers” during the Indian Wars because of their curly-hair, dark skin and fierceness in battle.
Although, to a trained observer, there are a few aspects of the Buffalo Soldiers parade dress that veer from historical accuracy. The men ride Friesian horses because the flowing manes, tails and feathered fetlocks are eye-catching and help pronounce the movements of the group’s synchronized parade drills. Also, a member carries a bullwhip that he cracks to fire up the crowd.
“We don’t mind upping the entertainment level a bit,” says Geordan Newbill, the group’s president. “That’s why we consider ourselves living historians, not ‘historical reenactors.’”
While there isn’t direct evidence of Buffalo Soldiers patrolling the Methow Valley, they did protect the Oregon Trail, a route used by many of our region’s first settlers. But popular culture has not always given African American cowboys their due. As the Civil Rights leader Rev. Joseph E. Lowery once said about the role of black cowboys, “our history with the building of the West has been saturated with vanishing cream.” Hollywood has been a major culprit, casting white actors in roles based on the lives of African Americans.
In The Searchers, John Wayne plays a role based on the real-life black cowboy Britt Johnson. And the Lone Ranger is believed to have been based on the exploits of an African American lawman named Bass Reeves.
“That white cowboy rode into my living room every night,” says Jerome Young, member of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle. “I grew up wanting to be like him. Of course, I could never become a white cowboy. But I didn’t have to because it turns out the Lone Ranger wasn’t white either.”
In May, Methow Arts will hold an exhibition of my documentary photography series “Buffalo Soldiers: Ready and Forward” at its headquarters in downtown Twisp. And, in the future, when it’s safe to hold the 49ers Day Parade again, don’t be surprised if you see the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle riding in formation down the street. You’ll know it’s them by their dress, their black Fresian horses, and by the sound of that cracking bullwhip.
RYAN T. BELL is a National Geographic Explorer. See more of his work at www.ryantbell.com and on Instagram @ryantbell.
DATES: May 15-June 15. Interview and Q & A with Ryan T. Bell and Buffalo Soldiers date TBA via Zoom. LOCATION: Storefront windows, Methow Arts, 204 E. 2nd Ave, Twisp, WA. INFO: methowarts.org/buffalo-soldiers, email@example.com, 509-997-4004.