Many of us remember learning about Buffalo Soldiers in school as the all-Black U.S. Army Cavalries formed after the Civil War, but less well known is their service in many California National and state parks, specifically Yosemite and Sequoia National Park.
Up until 1916, Yosemite was still a California state park and several hundred troops of Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th Calvary and 25th Infantry were assigned to the site. As a newly formed park, the Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to protect it from poachers, squatters, fires, loggers, and other threats. In addition, the regimens worked on various stewardship and construction projects including an arboretum in Yosemite that is considered to be the first museum in the National Parks System. They also constructed the first road to the top of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. They were our first park rangers, though none had that official title.
Few had as much an impact on the development of these early parks as Colonel Charles Young, who later became the first Black superintendent of a National Park. Young was a veteran of the Civil War and rose to be the highest-ranking Black army officer at the time of his death in 1922. Colonel Young led the Black cavalry assigned to Yosemite and Sequoia National Park and oversaw road construction, mapping, and other maintenance and protection tasks. The summer months in the Sierras were coveted by members of the Calvary for obvious reasons. However, this was still the late-1800s, and Black people were regularly harassed and attacked, even as members of the military. Because of this, the Buffalo Soldiers faced the difficult task of remaining diplomatic in the face of oppression and discrimination, and worked to preserve natural beauty in a country that did not embrace them.
It is important to remember the legacy of Buffalo Soldiers and their effect on our public lands in California. Their oral history lives on in Shelton Johnson, a current park ranger in Yosemite National Park. Johnson has dedicated much of his life to researching Buffalo Soldiers and often puts on interpretive programs while dressed in the traditional uniform. Johnson has been featured in the Ken Burns documentary on National Parks and has even met with former President Barack Obama to discuss his work.
Learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers and their contributions to our early parks in PBS’ Untold Stories | Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers here: https://www.pbs.org/video/the-national-parks-untold-stories-yosemites-buffalo-soldiers/