Buffalo Soldiers on the Southwest Border

by Helen Erickson, ASLA

Camp Naco, 2021 / image: Helen Erickson

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.

Camp Naco lies in the valley of the San Pedro River of southeastern Arizona, between the Huachuca Mountains and the Mule Mountains. Set some 300 feet from the wall that now runs along the border between the United States and Mexico, its adobe buildings bring to mind an unsettled decade at the beginning of the twentieth century when Mexican revolutionaries, striking mine workers, lawless bandits, and a World War I intrigue between Germany and Mexico dominated the political landscape. During the greater part of its history, the camp was home to rotating troops from the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Location of Camp Naco / image: Helen Erickson

During the Civil War, some 179,000 African American troops served in the Union army. Afterwards they were consolidated into the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. The African American regiments served with distinction in the Indian wars of the Great Plains and Southwest, where they earned the sobriquet of “Buffalo Soldiers.” Fort Huachuca (Arizona), established as a camp in 1877 during the Apache conflict, became the home base of the 10th Cavalry Regiment from 1913 to 1933. The end of the Apache wars in nineteenth-century Arizona had made it possible to develop the rich mineral deposits on both sides of the border with Mexico. Construction of the El Paso and Southeastern Railroad from Cananea, Sonora, to Naco was the result of a collaborative enterprise between the United States and Mexican governments to transport copper ore from Cananea to processing sites located at Bisbee/Douglas and Benson in Arizona. The twin cities of Naco Arizona, and Naco, Sonora, evolved to serve the needs of cross-border traffic.

The Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, led to a decade of continuing conflict in that country. Increasingly concerned that Mexicans living north of the border might become involved in arms and ammunition smuggling to support the rebels or that violence might boil over into U.S. border states, the military constructed a number of camps along the border. One of these was a tent camp, established in 1911 at the point where the railroad crossed from Naco, Sonora, into Naco, Arizona.

In 1913, Naco Sonora was attacked by rebel Mexican forces. When the rebels gained control of the city, Mexican Federal troops fled into Arizona and surrendered to the U.S. military at Fort Huachuca. Following this event, troops from the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments were dispatched to Camp Naco to protect U.S. citizens and maintain neutrality. Enforcing neutrality laws not only required keeping violence from spreading across the border, but also forbade any direct engagement with Mexican troops even when under attack. The Cavalry’s exemplary service in this regard was commended by the Secretary of War in 1914.

In 1916, Pancho Villa led revolutionary troops on a raid against the town of Columbus, New Mexico. In response, General “Black Jack” Pershing, who was to gain fame during World War I, drew on the 10th Cavalry to launch a punitive expedition into Mexico with the eventually unrealized goal of capturing Villa. In 1917 the U.S. entered World War I, and troops were drawn away from the border to serve in the European conflict. At the same time, concerns were raised about a possible alliance between Mexico and Germany with the goal of regaining the formerly Mexican territories of the southwestern U.S. This further unsettled the relationship between Mexico and the U.S.

With the end of the war in 1918, the military found funds to build thirty-five permanent camps along the border in a string from Brownsville, Texas, to Arivaca, Arizona. More than 30,000 American troops manned these posts, largely providing protection against bandits and cattle thieves. The endeavor also offered employment for returning veterans. Constructed in 1919 at the site of the former tent camp, Camp Naco was unique in that it was built almost entirely of adobe, a circumstance which explains its survival to the present day. When other border camps were eventually deconstructed and materials were recycled elsewhere, its adobe construction meant that the camp remained largely undisturbed.

Camp Naco was home to a rotating schedule of men drawn largely from the 10th Cavalry at Fort Huachuca. Although it was constructed as a permanent facility, military directives required that troops serve tours of only a month before being returned to their home base. The soldiers ranged in age from twenty to fifty-two years old, and all were literate, as this was a requirement for enlistment. The majority of them came from the southern United States.

Camp Naco today. Click here to view at a larger size. / image: Helen Erickson

The overall arrangement of the camp draws on the common spatial patterns of the Indian War forts of the west, in which buildings were set facing a central parade ground, with housing for officers on one side and barracks for enlisted men on the other. The layout of these military installations embodied the structure of the military hierarchy, such as the distinction between enlisted troops and officers. In addition, while African Americans might rise through the ranks to become non-commissioned officers, commissioned officers at this time—with a few notable exceptions—were white. Officers’ housing reflects this distinction.

Parade ground and flagpole base / image: Helen Erickson

Camp Naco was not designed as a long-term residential community, and troops cycled in and out with short-term postings, usually a month in length. Unlike more established western forts, it was not laid out around a central parade ground, yet aspects of military culture dominate it in other ways. As was common practice, the camp was oriented to the cardinal directions. Enlisted men were housed in two sets of two barracks that faced each other across an open quadrangle. At the head of each pair of facing barracks was a common mess hall. The other end of each quadrangle was closed by the back of another building (hospital, officers club). A parade ground with a ceremonial flagpole lay between the two sets of barracks, surrounded by the backs of the barracks and the camp office.

Northwest barracks and mess hall / image: Helen Erickson

Facilities for the camp’s officers reflected both military tradition and de facto segregation. Housing for non-commissioned officers was set some 170’ to the east and within sight of the barracks complex, while the larger quarters for commissioned officers were set across Newell Street and visually separated from the barracks by the hospital, the office (now removed), and the officers club. The officers club itself was divided into two rooms with separate entrances to provide segregated areas for commissioned and non-commissioned officers. The entrances to the building were oriented to the separate housing clusters.

Non-Commissioned Officers Quarters / image: Sarah McDowell
Commissioned Officers Quarters / image: Sarah McDowell
Northwest Bath House / image: Sarah McDowell

Behind the barracks to the north were community bath houses, and behind them were the stables (now ruins). A laundry and/or bakery was located across the street from the barracks. North of this building was a baseball diamond, baseball being a popular pastime during the first half of the twentieth century. It appears that no efforts were ever made to landscape the grounds, likely because of the rotating population.

Attention was paid, however, to the issue of summer heat in southern Arizona. Houses, barracks, and mess halls all featured porches and passive cooling systems. The camp had electricity, running water, and a sewer system; the 20,000-gallon water tower remains in place today.

Water Tower / image: Sarah McDowell

A year after the camp was constructed, the Mexican Revolution came to an end and it soon became clear that the extensive series of border camps set in place during the previous decade were no longer necessary. In 1923, Camp Naco was decommissioned, and all recyclable materials—the frame office, for example—were removed for use at Fort Huachuca. Because the camp as a whole was almost entirely constructed of adobe and therefore not readily transportable, the remainder of the site was returned to the original property owner, John Newell. His family lived in the former hospital building and rented out the other buildings. During the 1930s, for example, it housed New Deal project workers. Under Newell ownership, enough maintenance was expended on the buildings that the better part of them remain today—the only site of the nine western border camps constructed almost entirely of adobe and the only remaining largely intact camp in Arizona.

In 2008 volunteers led by Rebecca Orozco and Debby Swartzwelder—with help from the Naco Community and the Naco Fire District—formed the Naco Heritage Alliance, a non-profit devoted to the preservation of the Camp. With the assistance of Archaeology Southwest and through the work of Jennifer Levstik, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places at the National level of significance in 2012. Since 1990 the property has passed from private ownership to Huachuca City to the City of Bisbee in efforts towards its preservation, and a number of grants have made it possible to replace the asbestos roofing and begin the stabilization of the buildings. Fences have been installed to deter vandalism and arson, but much work remains to be done.

Helen Erickson, MLA, ASLA, teaches preservation planning at the University of Arizona. She serves as the Chair of the ASLA HALS Subcommittee / HALS Liaison Coordinator. Photographer Sarah McDowell is a student in the Heritage Conservation Certificate Program at the University.

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For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic black landscapes that are being documented for HALS, like Buffalo Soldiers of the Southwest Border, highlighted here, or that have already been documented for HALS, like Daughters of Zion Cemetery, featured last month; Marian Anderson Heritage Village and the Anne Spencer Garden, featured in April; Allensworth: A Town Built by and for African Americans, featured in March; and the Smokey Hollow Community, featured in February. If you missed the HALS Challenge webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes with Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA, the recording is now available.

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