Sgt. Mark Matthews Dies; at 111, Was Oldest Buffalo Soldier
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Retired 1st Sgt. Mark Matthews, 111, one of the last of the nation's legendary Buffalo Soldiers, died of pneumonia Sept. 6 at Fox Chase Nursing Home in Washington.
Sgt. Matthews, who also was the oldest Buffalo Soldier, was heir to a proud military heritage that originated with the black soldiers who fought in the Indian wars on the Western frontier. Historians say that the Cheyenne, Kiowa and Apache tribes bestowed the appellation because the soldiers' black, curly hair reminded them of a buffalo's mane.
Given Native American reverence for the sturdy animal of the Plains, the soldiers wore the nickname proudly -- and with good reason. The Buffalo Soldiers won 20 Medals of Honor, more than any other regiment. They also helped lay hundreds of miles of roads and telegraph lines, protected stagecoaches, were involved in the military actions against the Apache chiefs Victorio and Geronimo and fought bravely in Cuba at the side of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.
Sgt. Matthews joined up at the end of the Buffalo Soldiers' colorful Western exploits. The regiments that made up the Buffalo Soldiers -- the 9th and 10th cavalries and 24th and 25th infantries -- stayed together for years afterward, however, fighting in World War I and II and Korea. The all-black regiments were disbanded in 1952 after the Army desegregated.
Sgt. Matthews was born Aug. 7, 1894, in Greenville, Ala., and grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. He rode horses starting when he was a child, delivering newspapers on his pony.
According to stories Sgt. Matthews told friends, family members and at least one military historian, he was 15 when he met members of the Buffalo Soldiers' 10th Cavalry; they were visiting a Lexington, Ky., racetrack where he worked exercising the horses. When the soldiers told him that they rode horseback wherever they went, he decided he had to join up. Although young men had to be 17 to enlist, his boss concocted documents that convinced a Columbus, Ohio, recruiter that he was of age.
"I was 16 when I joined the Army to be a soldier," he told Parade Magazine in 2003. "I had to wait awhile before I could get on duty. But then they shipped me to the West."
Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he was first stationed, was still using local Indians as guides. "I learned all the different rules, how to ride the different horses, how to jump and how to shoot," he recalled in the 2003 interview. "Every time I got in a contest where I shot at a target or something, I usually won."
He served along the U.S.-Mexican border as part of Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing's 1916 expedition into Mexico, on the trail of Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa. "I never met him," Sgt. Matthews said in the Parade interview, "but I knew where he was at."
In 1931, he was assigned to Fort Myer, where he trained recruits in horsemanship, helped tend the presidential stable for Franklin D. Roosevelt and played on the polo team. Ten years later, although he was in his late forties when the United States entered World War II, he saw action on Saipan in the South Pacific.
He retired from the Army in 1949 and became a security guard at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. He retired a second time, as chief of guards, in 1970.
In retirement, he liked to fish. He also enjoyed sitting on the front porch and telling tales about the old days out West and the not-quite-so-old days in the Pacific during World War II, often to neighborhood kids who came around and sat at the knee of a man who had experienced an adventure-novel's worth of stirring chapters in U.S. history.
He spent time with the children, enjoyed looking after them. He took them fishing with him, made sure they got to school, took them in if they needed a place to stay. "They called him Daddy," daughter Mary Matthews Watson recalled.
He met with President Bill Clinton at the White House, and in 2002 marked his 108th birthday by meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who for many years campaigned for a monument honoring the Buffalo Soldiers. In 1992, Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dedicated the monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., birthplace of one of the regiments.
Believed to be Washington's oldest man -- the District's Office on Aging lists a woman, Corrine Taylor, as slightly older -- he had lived with his daughter in the same Northwest neighborhood for more than half a century. He had been in good health until recently. Before he began to lose his eyesight to glaucoma about 10 years ago, he enjoyed reading his Bible daily. He was a former member and trustee of Trinity AME Zion Church in the District, a member of Prince Hall Masonic Temple and a member of the Washington, D.C., Chapter of the 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association.
His wife, Genevieve Hill Matthews, died in 1986. They had been married 57 years. A daughter, Shirley Ann Matthews Mills, died in 1988.
In addition to Watson, of Washington, survivors include two other daughters, Gloria J. Matthews, also of Washington, and Barbara Jean Young of Dacula, Ga.; a son, Mark Matthews Jr. of Hyattsville; nine grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.
"I did it all," Sgt. Matthews told The Washington Post a few years ago. "Yes, I was there."