The year was 1866. Minnesota had been a state for eight short years and the modern-day states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and the Dakotas were still territories. That year, Hawaii was still a sovereign kingdom and Alaska was still Russia.
In the wake of the Civil War, the U.S. Army created six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments, including the 9th and 10th cavalries and 24th and 25th regiments. These men, who soon came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers, served on the Western frontier and helped to transform the United States into the vast continental nation and world power it is today. They played a prominent role in the U.S. Indian Wars, served in Florida during the Spanish-American War, fought oversees in the Philippines during the early 1900s, and helped to secure the U.S.-Mexican border during World War I. The Buffalo Soldiers even guarded one of our nation’s first national parks – Yosemite – in 1899, 1903, and 1904, long before the National Park Service came into existence.
“The Yosemite experience for many African Americans may seem like an alien one, until you uncover the Buffalo Soldier story,” says Shelton Johnson, an Interpretive Ranger at Yosemite National Park. “Some of the soldiers who lived and worked in this park back then may have descendants living in Oakland, for all we know, and they have no idea that their great-grandfather was here as a Buffalo soldier, protecting the wilderness of one of the nation’s largest and oldest national parks.”
Shelton can relate to the experience of being black in a predominantly white profession. In an interview for the book Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, he talks about his own journey from city kid in Detroit, to National Park ranger in Yosemite. “I had to find a way to span that psychological distance between the urban culture and wilderness setting to get here.” Along the way, he learned forgotten stories about black men who guarded America’s wilderness and helped to shape our nation, long before the modern civil rights movement.
Yosemite National Park contains 1,200 square miles of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, filled with meadows, valleys, waterfalls, and ancient sequoias. It was first protected in 1864, and became America’s third national park in 1890. For more than 26 years, the U.S. Army protected Yosemite, Sequoia and Yellowstone National Parks against poachers, timber thieves, and forest fires, until the National Park Service was eventually created in 1916. During this time, 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite and nearby Sequoia, spending their winters at the Presidio in San Francisco. It is worth noting that Yosemite was also the home to American’s first female park ranger – Clare Marie Hodges – who began her service in 1918.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order eliminating racial segregation in America’s armed forces, and the last of the U.S. Army’s all-black units were disbanded during the 1950s. Today, the U.S. Armed Forces are a melting pot of races and ethnicities, much like the country they serve.
Revisiting American history through the eyes of the Buffalo Soldiers gives us a fresh perspective on the history lessons many of us learned in school. Here, we find African-American men, not just toiling on southern plantations or working assembly lines in factories up north, but also riding horses through the wilderness and fighting battles on the American Frontier. So too, we find that the Buffalo Soldiers share the same uncomfortable burden as white settlers, in helping to create a nation from land that once belonged to somebody else.
Today, Yosemite National Park remains a gem in the U.S. National Park System, bringing in 4.3 million visitors in 2017 and generating $589 million for the local economy. The park is home to 90 species of mammals, 1500 species of flowering plants, and the tallest waterfall in North America. Through its programming and collections, the National Park Service hopes to keep the story of the Buffalo Soldiers alive and aims to help the next generation of Americans imagine their place in the wilderness.