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The National Park Service Played a Vital Role in the Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project


Buffalo Soldier sites map produced by the Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project. NPS photo.

Bibliographies and maps focused on the activities of black soldiers in the American West were produced in the initial phases of the Warriors Project, a university/government partnership designed to involve African American and Native American students in the exploration and documenting of their "shared history" in the frontier West. The National Park Service has supported this worthy endeavor with funding, training, and other support. A prime example of the agency's involvement is the Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project, which employed the resources of the National Park Service's CRGIS facility to process student-generated data and produce multivariate maps of more than 200 significant Buffalo Soldier sites.


The National Park Service's Cultural Resources Geographic Information Systems (CRGIS) facility was established in 1989 "to institutionalize the use of GIS, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Remote Sensing (RS) technologies in historic preservation within the National Park system as well as with State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO)." Having been designated the Park Service's lead agency in the development of standards for the collection, management, and distribution of cultural resource spatial data, CRGIS bears a heavy responsibility to apply these relatively new and powerful technologies to very good effect.

CRGIS has proven up to the task and is well respected. During the past two decades, CRGIS has: produced GPS surveys of hundreds of historic places throughout the U.S., provided GIS database development assistance to more than 20 National Park System units, State Historic Preservation Offices, and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices; provided GIS and GPS training for hundreds of federal, state, and local government employees; undertaken numerous GIS analyses related to disaster situations, created map atlases for clients such as the National Register of Historic Places, and performed other important work.

Maps Are Important Heritage Documentation Tools

Providing heritage documentation assistance is a key CRGIS function. Because maps produced with the use of GIS, GPS, and RS technologies provide vital information about "how much of what is located where and why," maps depicting the spatial distribution of historical-cultural resources in relation to public lands, tribal lands, and various other features of interest are very useful in federal, state, local, and tribal preservation planning processes. The maps and related products not only help to identify historically significant sites, but also heighten awareness of local history and support efforts to protect heritage resources.

The Warriors Project

One of the most interesting heritage documentation projects that the CRGIS has been involved with in recent years is the Warriors Project. The Warriors Project is an ongoing project that was conceived by a university/government group in 2002 for the main purpose of getting black and Indian college students involved in exploring and documenting the "shared history" of African Americans and American Indians in the West. The Warriors Project was designed as a program that would "put the dialogue concerning minority history in the American West in the hands of the minority students and institutions themselves."
Bibliographic and mapping work was undertaken in the initial phase of the program (early 2000s).

• The bibliographic project was undertaken to compile a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary documentary sources.

• The goal of the mapping project was to map the point locations and place attributes of significant Buffalo Soldier sites in 12 western states between 1866 and 1891.

As more and more Americans now know, thanks to increased media attention in recent decades, the Buffalo Soldiers were African American U.S. Army troops who were organized into nearly all-black (mostly white-officered) cavalry and infantry regiments and assigned to duties in the western states and territories during the post-Civil War era. The period from 1866 to the mid-1890s was a turbulent time when wilderness land was being settled, frontier posts were garrisoned, the Indian Wars were being fought, and some western parks were being patrolled by cavalry troops (though not by Buffalo Soldiers before 1899). Because the Buffalo Soldiers remained active in the West for several decades, taking part in a wide variety of events and activities spread over a huge geographic area, they played an important role in the history of the West.

While much has been written about the Buffalo Soldiers, some aspects of their history have remained poorly documented. One problem area has been inadequate documentation of the many places -- some of them now in national parks -- closely associated with Buffalo Soldier activities of various types. Until recently, for example, there were no comprehensive maps accurately showing the point locations and related physical and cultural attributes of significant Buffalo Soldier sites. Now, thanks to the National Park Service-assisted Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project and supporting data-gathering efforts, this heritage documentation gap has been largely filled.

Producing The Buffalo Soldier Bibliographic and GIS Products

In 2002, the National Park Service's Intermountain Regional Office and the Desert Southwest Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit (a network of 8 federal agencies, 8 universities, and 7 NGOs) formed a partnership with Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC. Undergraduate history students at the two institutions were enlisted to work together on a project that entailed a division of labor. At Haskell Indian Nations University, where project funding was provided through the National Park Service Director’s Challenge Cost Share Initiative, participating students compiled a bibliography of materials documenting skirmishes and pitched battles between Buffalo Soldiers and Indians. At Howard University, the students inventoried voluminous amounts of material to identify Buffalo Soldier encampments, battlefields, and other significant sites.

The collective efforts of the student teams yielded an extensive working bibliography and a tally of 250 significant Buffalo Soldier sites throughout the western United States. Project workers were subsequently able to establish point locations for all but 35 of these places. Pending further research, the point locations of the other 35 sites identified by the students cannot be reliably established.

The CRGIS provided several days of training at Howard University for participating students, who gained valuable knowledge about GIS techniques used to process, analyze, and portray cultural resource spatial data. Then, using student-gathered data and other attribute table inputs, CRGIS employed GIS software to produce thematic and multivariate maps showing the locations and place attributes of the 215 Buffalo Soldier sites for which point locations had been determined.

These places are shown (chronologically coded) on the accompanying map, Significant Historic Sites Associated with the Buffalo Soldier Regiments. Those familiar with Buffalo Soldier history and the tasks to which the black regiments were assigned should not be surprised to find Buffalo Soldier sites most abundant (with significant clusters) in the central and southern Great Plains, the southwestern deserts, and along and near the U.S.-Mexican border. A great deal of "Indian trouble" occurred in these areas during the decades following the Civil War. Buffalo Soldiers fought in many skirmishes and pitched battles, sometimes even chasing renegades into Mexico from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. They also performed other valuable services, such as building roads and escorting mail deliveries.

Several National Park System units in these regions have Buffalo Soldier sites. Perhaps the most notable is Fort Davis National Historic Site in far west Texas, which preserves the remains of a fort garrisoned part of the time by black soldiers who fought Apaches and Comanches.

Since the Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project database was confined to the 1866 to 1891 period by design, California sites established in the late 1890s and early 1900s are not included on this map. Had this time frame been included, you would see Buffalo Soldier sites indicated at San Francisco for the Presidio and Fort Point National Historic Site (both components of Golden Gate National Recreation Area), Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and the former General Grant National Park (Kings Canyon).

Digging Deeper

For a more legible version of this map, additional information about the Buffalo Soldiers, and further explanation of the goals, organization, and methods of the Warriors Project, visit this NPS Heritage Documentation Programs site, read this excellent journal article by Deidre McCarthy and visit the Warriors Project page of the University of Texas-El Paso African American Studies Program website.


The maps, bibliographies, and other tangible products of the Buffalo Soldiers Mapping Project have already heightened awareness of preservation needs and opportunities at scores of historically significant sites in the western states. It's not too much to hope that this work will translate into substantially improved protection and interpretation for Buffalo Soldier sites on tribal, state, and federal lands, including our national parks.

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I was wondering why there weren't any California marks on the map when I knew there should be several. I figured out why further into the article.

I would note that while technically now part of the Presidio and GGNRA, what's now Fort Point National Historic Site housed several Buffalo Soldier regiments. They now host a display about the regiments that travelled from the Presidio to guard Yosemite NP, Sequoia NP, and General Grant NP. My understanding was that Fort Point wasn't exactly a cushy posting. It was cold, foggy, and windy. It had great views though. They've also got a display of the quarters there, complete with beds set up as they would have been in the 1890s. Apparently the standard configuration was two to a bed with one soldier in each direction. Must have been interesting getting to smell a bunkmate's feet.

You may wish to look at the fine map produced by the "True West" magazine team for the Dec 2010 issue that covers some of this material. This is a great project. Thanks for undertaking this effort.

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