Yosemite National Park
The Buffalo Soldiers—Yosemite’s Early Rangers
by Kelly Restuccia
More than 100 years ago, at a time when the U. S. military was still segregated, nearly 500 black soldiers rode for 14 days on horseback from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada to assume their new roles as some of the first “rangers” entrusted with the stewardship of Yosemite and Sequoia & General Grant (Kings Canyon) national parks.
These men were part a larger group of African Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers. Although African Americans have fought in America’s wars since the Revolution, they weren’t allowed to enlist in the Regular Army until after the Civil War. By 1869, Congress had created four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The members of these regiments would later become known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
There are many theories about how the soldiers got this name, but the earliest historical reference to the term comes from an 1871 book written by the wife of a U.S. Army officer stationed on the western frontier. According to her book, Native Americans living on the Great Plains thought the soldiers’ dark, curly hair resembled a buffalo’s coat. Buffalo were revered by tribal leaders, and the Buffalo Soldiers accepted the title with pride and honor.
In the years after the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in westward expansion by patrolling the frontier, building infrastructure, improving roads, escorting mail and pursuing bandits.
In 1903, the history of national parks in America would be forever changed, as the band of 400 to 500 Buffalo Soldiers rode on horseback from their headquarters at the Presidio of San Francisco to Yosemite Valley, where they were charged with the duty of protecting our parks.
The development of Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks hinges on the service of the Buffalo Soldiers. The men blazed trails, constructed roads, created maps, evicted poachers and loggers, and protected tourists as they started to visit our parks. Their role in national park history lay buried in Yosemite’s research library for nearly a century. In the 1970s and 80s, park rangers gave living history programs about the Buffalo Soldiers, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson started digging through the park archives, that the story of Buffalo Soldiers in our national parks began to take root nationwide.
“The story of the soldiers had always been there in primary documents like military files, but it was missing from our nation’s collective history,” said Johnson. “It wasn’t in history books; there were no exhibits here in the parks. I made it my personal mission to bring the story out of the library and into the forefront.”
Ranger Johnson has dedicated a large portion of the last 10 years to spreading the word about the critical role of the Buffalo Soldiers in our national parks. He’s helped pave the way for the development of exhibits and brochures about the Buffalo Soldiers and today he keeps the memory of the park’s early stewards alive by sharing their story with park visitors in the form of a living history program. The program, titled “Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier,” usually runs from May through October.
Johnson has also made it his personal mission to share this story with other African Americans.
“I honestly believe this is the single most important story about the involvement of African Americans in the development of the National Park System,” said Johnson. “While there are stories of other African Americans that are in no doubt significant, this is the only story in which African Americans are directly involved in the stewardship of national parks.”
Johnson has been doing his best to reach the millions of African Americans who live within driving distance of Yosemite and is encouraging these people to embrace the African American history that can be found at Yosemite.
“Just think,” he says, “African Americans were rangers in Yosemite before the term ranger was even coined.”
It took the original Buffalo Soldiers 14 days on horseback to reach Yosemite on a dirt road. The route still exists, and Johnson is campaigning to make that route a national historic trail. But in the meantime, he’s hoping that by spreading the word, he can encourage African Americans to follow in the footsteps of the Buffalo Soldiers anyway.
He recommends that visitors who want to learn more about African American stewardship of America’s national parks visit an updated exhibit about the Buffalo Soldiers at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Johnson also says that the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, one of the most popular destinations in the park, is rich with Buffalo Soldier history. In fact, the legendary Fallen Monarch, which is one of the first fallen trees that visitors encounter upon entering the grove, is the very tree upon which the Buffalo Soldiers posed for a now-famous photo that was taken in 1904.
Today visitors can marvel at the very same tree—a tree that welcomed the soldiers more than 100 years ago, witnessed the desegregation of the U.S. military, and will continue to greet visitors to Yosemite as the story of African American involvement in our parks continues to unfold.
Image Source: NPS.gov.