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Buffalo-soldier `tales' turn out to be solid history

History buff John W. Bell Jr. never really believed family stories about his grandfather being a "buffalo soldier," a black who served in the U.S. Army and helped settle the West in the late 1800s.

After all, Bell reasoned, "I'd never read anything about buffalo soldiers in any history I'd studied."But his father maintained that Bell's grandfather Addison Taylor had fought American Indians and been in the cavalry. He would tell his son John, "You should check this out."

About a decade ago, Bell took his father's advice.

Now, the 55-year-old Bell is devoted to researching the buffalo soldiers. In the basement of his Broomfield home, Bell slowly is collecting items for a future museum - saddles, hats, sabers, carbines, photos and mementos from those soldiers.

Historians can only estimate how many blacks were buffalo soldiers, serving in the cavalry and infantry mainly from 1866 to 1898, from after the Civil War through the Spanish-American War.

"But we know that about 8,000 were in this immediate area," Bell said, speaking of the Denver area. The buffalo soldiers served in two infantry and two cavalry regiments of about 1,000 men each.

The men helped settle the West, fought in 32 "skirmishes" during the so-called Indian Wars and were nicknamed "buffalo soldiers" by the Cheyenne Indians because of their dense, black hair.

Many, like Addison Taylor, were former slaves looking for work, and the Army paid $13 a month.

Bell, a retired educator, not only is delving into history but is bringing it to others. He shares his heritage by dressing as a buffalo soldier and telling tales of the soldiers, in classrooms and libraries. He has organized 25 others into Buffalo Soldiers of the American West Inc., who perform military drills at parades, educational shows and rodeos throughout Colorado, Nebraska and the West.

They've even appeared in a couple of lesser-known movies - an educational piece for the Colorado Historical Society and a pilot on Teddy Roosevelt for TNT Enterprises. The "Rough Rider" about Teddy Roosevelt will be shown on television as a miniseries later this year.

Bell is known for training horses - in fact, a lot of his interest in the buffalo soldiers stems from their cavalry adventures and expertise as horsemen.

"White soldiers got horses first," Bell said. "The buffalo soldiers got the ones that weren't wanted or unbroke."

Bell's group doesn't see itself as entertainers.

"We see ourselves as educators and don't consider ourselves re-enactors," said Mike Price of Louisville, Bell's sidekick.

Price, a social studies teacher, is white and an officer in Bell's re-created calvary regiment. "Which is authentic," Bell said. "The officers were white."

That reflects the segregated post-Civil War Army.

"Gen. (George) Custer was offered the command of a black regiment and turned it down," Bell said, referring to the cavalryman killed at the famous Battle of Little Big Horn. "And, we're sure glad he did."