Bicycling Buffalo Soldiers

Since I am both Bookish and Bikish, every so often something will pop up that requires deliberation about which blog is more appropriate. Blogging about bike books: more bookish, or more bikish? Should I be cross-posting? Do I need a policy, or can my policy for the moment be dictated by my whimsy? Thoughts? At least for now I think I’ll post here, since Bookish gets more traffic (hello, spambots!) and Bikish is still finding its audience.

This summer I’ve been living in Missoula, MT, interning the the publications department at Adventure Cycling Association. My internship is now officially over, but I’m wrapping up a couple of projects—including a short film that will be featured as the last blog post of my series “Backstories,” about bike history.

Adventure Cycling is certainly a cool piece of Missoula’s bike culture, but in my opinion, not the coolest. Earlier this summer Atticus and I spent a day at Fort Missoula and learned that Missoula was home to the 25th Infantry, a group of African American soldiers. In the late 1890s, the unit was tasked with experimenting with the newfangled safety bicycle to assess it for military use.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula has embraced the unique story they can claim that no other Army fort is able to. One section of the exhibits is dedicated to the bicycling soldiers, and include an interactive that puts visitors on a bike with 75 pounds of gear. In the store, the museum sells T-shirts and magnets with “Fred E. Fox,” a bicycling soldier. For those who are curious beyond the artifacts and interactives that the museum exhibits have to offer, the museum sells a booklet (really, more of a zine) explaining the experiments in more detail.

It’s a quick read, but satisfied this cyclist’s thirst to know more. Contextual information was included about how the 25th Infantry was formed, and how Missoula was a hospitable place for the group compared to other towns. While the unit did different types of experiments with the bikes (formation work, long-distance travel, and front line message delivery), the booklet focused mostly on their long-distance travel, even though it seemed like the least successful experiment.

The soldiers embarked upon three trips: a short trip from Fort Missoula to Seeley Lake; a longer trip from Fort Missoula to Fort Yellowstone; and an epic journey from Fort Missoula to Missouri. The challenges increased the longer the distance traveled, and the booklet outlines problems stemming primarily from the lack of good roads in the United States. Unfortunately though, before the good roads movement made any headway, the soldiers’ next trip was cancelled due to the unit being sent to fight in the Spanish-American war. (Why were they deployed first? The theory was African American soldiers were not as susceptible to the tropical diseases in the Philippines as caucasian soldiers would be. Not true!)

Eventually the unit was transferred out of Fort Missoula and into a more racially-charged community in Texas. What led to the unit being disbanded was a sad shot of historic reality in what was otherwise an inspirational and intriguing story. No spoilers, though—you’ll have to read it for yourself.

Can’t make it to Fort Missoula but you’d like to read more? Here’s “The Bicycling Buffalo Soldiers,” an article that appeared in Adventure Cyclist earlier this year. Don’t forget—you can also get the booklet via interlibrary loan through your local library!

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1 Comment

Filed under bicycles, books, history, zines

One response to “Bicycling Buffalo Soldiers

  1. Keep history alive by telling that history:

    Read the greatest untold fictionalized ‘historical novel’, Rescue at Pine Ridge, the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers. The website is: rescueatpineridge.com The greatest story of Black Military History…5 stars Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Youtube commercial: youtube.com/watch?v=iD66NUKmZPs

    Rescue at Pine Ridge is the story of the rescue of the famed 7th Cavalry by the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers. This story is about, brutality, compassion, reprisal, bravery, heroism and gallantry.

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