April 13th, 2014
All High Chaparral fans know that John Cannon’s prime directive (a’ la Star Trek Federation) was that all people were to be treated equally, regardless of color, race or ethnicity. Only one thing set men apart to Big John: they were either honorable or dishonorable based on their actions.
That ’s how the characters judged a person each episode. Behind the scenes, however, the decision-makers on the show were the ones who cemented that prime directive into reality by insisting on casting ethnic actors in ethnic roles and on portraying ethnic characters outside the stereotypes that riddled Western productions up to that time. And they did it in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. People like David Dortort, Kent McCray, William F. Claxton, Buck Houghton, James Schmerer, Don Balluck, Walter Black and, yes, the entire cast as well, made it happen, embraced it, and left their mark in history for it.
So, the second season episode called “The Buffalo Soldiers” should not have been a surprise. Touting Yaphet Kotto as the polished and more-than-capable Sgt Maj Creason, leader of the 10th Cavalry unit, the renowned Buffalo soldiers rode into Tucson. They came at the request of the townsfolk to establish martial law until the local town boss McCoy Hilliard (Morgan Woodward) was corralled. The show’s climax is a cinematic spectacular display, shot from 70 feet in the air per Kent McCray, in which the Buffalo soldiers perform some outstanding horsemanship maneuvers and literally round up the henchmen and return the town’s control back to the residents.
The episode featured members from the 10th Cavalry Regiment from Los Angeles. It aired on Nov. 22, 1968, the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1966.
Flash ahead 46 years later. Those of you who attended the Old Tucson visit on the Saturday of our recent High Chaparral Reunion were probably thrilled to see a contingent of Buffalo soldiers on hand. However, instead of declaring martial law, they were there to greet you on Main Street to educate you about the real Buffalo soldiers.
The men are part of the Territory of Arizona Buffalo Soldiers, one of several Buffalo soldier groups in the state. Spokesman Charles Young said there are a total of 25 to 30 men in the various units who are proud to represent the Buffalo soldiers and who are also eager to educate all who will listen.
“I enjoy sharing with the public,” said Young. “Did you know there are a number of Buffalo soldier Medal of Honor winners? Did you know that Gen. Black Jack Pershing got his nickname because he was the commander of the 10th Cavalry at one time?” he asks. “History doesn’t always tell things the way they happened. Teddy Roosevelt took San Juan Hill,” Young continues, “but the 9th Cav gave cover to allow him to go up the hill.”
According to Young, after the Civil War, most of the soldiers returned home and the military was depleted. Congress reorganized the Armed Forces by creating two black mounted units, known as the 9th and 10th (Colored) Cavalry, and four ground units that were eventually combined into the 24th and 25th (Colored) Infantry. Many of the units were sent out West to deal with bandits and Indian uprisings.
“If it weren’t for the Buffalo soldiers,” Young continues, “we may never have settled New Mexico and Arizona.” Indeed, history shows that the 9th and 10th Cavalries were stationed in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana (and many more places) and fought battles against Geronimo, Tularosa, Victorio and other Apache chiefs, as well as the Cheyenne.
According to Young, three different theories all point to the Indians as the originators of the Buffalo soldiers’ nickname. “The first is that their hair reminded the Native Americans of the buffalo,” said Young. “The second is that in Montana, the Native Americans saw the soldiers wearing buffalo coats. The third version is that the Native Americans knew the soldiers fought tenaciously like the revered buffalos that were central to their survival. After all,” said Young, “ these soldiers were former slaves, and would go toe-to-toe with anyone.”
In addition to staving off hostile attacks, Buffalo soldiers helped protect travelers and mail deliveries, and were even some of the earliest park rangers. They are also credited with opening hundreds of miles of new roads as well as stringing hundreds of miles of telegraph wire. The 9th and 10th Cavalries were decommissioned in the mid-1940’s and 50’s and re-commissioned later as racially integrated units.
One thing is for sure, The High Chaparral cast and crew recognized how special a place the Buffalo soldiers had in history. (The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma recognized the special place this episode had in history—by bestowing on it the Western Heritage Award Fictional Television Drama in 1969.)
Of The High Chaparral’s 98 episodes, “The Buffalo Soldiers” is the only one which included a tribute to those depicted in the story. While actors salute and otherwise show respect on camera, Cameron Mitchell’s voice speaks the following words as the mounted men in blue leave town:
The Buffalo Soldiers of yesterday were the stuff of which legends are made and hope rekindled. That hope has been translated into action by these men, the Buffalo Soldiers of today, who carry on in the tradition of the famed 10th Cavalry, determined that the patriotic spirit of that great troop must live and must flourish so that all of us can recall and cherish the historic and continuing contribution of the Black American to the life and progress of our Nation.
The visionaries who made The High Chaparral will likewise be remembered for their bravery to do the right thing at a time when it was not necessarily popular. Forty-six years later, their legacy is validated by the continually growing base of fans who cherish what The High Chaparral stands for, and who recognize its global contributions.
For more information about The High Chaparral, you’re already in the right place.