This photo depicts the 25th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, which was a solely African-American regiment formed during the segregation period in the United States. Following the American Civil War, regiments of African-American soldiers like the 25th Regiment primarily served in and around the American West, performing tasks like building roads and infrastructure, protecting settlers as they migrated west, and – most notably – fighting Native Americans during the Indian Wars. It was the Native Americans who granted these soldiers their nicknames of “buffalo soldiers” during these conflicts – while the exact reasoning is uncertain today, a common theory purports that the name derives from the appearance of their African hair, which was thick and dark in a manner similar to buffalo hair.
This particular photograph of buffalo soldiers was taken at Fort Keogh, Montana, in 1890. The 25th regiment had previously served in Texas until 1880 and was then moved further north to serve in states like Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana. The 25th regiment would soon be sent to fight in the Pine Ridge Campaign of the Indian Wars – the last major campaign of those wars, and the campaign in which the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. While the 25th Regiment was not present at that massacre, they participated in other skirmishes which occurred in the overarching military campaign, from November 1890 to January 1891.
Despite facing harsh racism from both the communities they protected and from the military authority under which they served, buffalo soldiers like those in the 25th Regiment developed a reputation for serving valiantly and fighting courageously. Another theory of how they acquired their nicknames from the Native Americans stipulates that they had actually fought so bravely that the Native Americans came to admire their strength, just as they admired the strength of wild buffalo – hence, buffalo soldiers.
In the years following, the 25th Regiment would continue to serve in almost every major military campaign fought by the United States Army, including the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Second World War. Following the Second World War, the regiment would be disbanded in 1947.