Among the earliest stewards of the nation’s national parks were soldiers from segregated black regiments. Starting in the 1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers, who had earned valor fighting in the Indian Wars and Spanish-American War, added park ranger to their titles and played a critical role in protecting and building the infrastructure of the country’s vast public lands.
The first step toward black soldiers’ peacetime service began after the end of the Civil War in 1865. At this time, the army had discharged more than one million soldiers, reducing the military to 16,000 men. But with a war-torn nation in need of rebuilding and a growing desire to expand into the western frontier, Congress enacted legislation that changed the trajectory of black soldiers in the U.S. Army.
First Professional U.S. Black Soldier Units Are Added
Although approximately 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, they were not allowed to be a part of the regular peacetime Army. In 1866, however, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act, a law that doubled the size of the regular Army, including the addition of six African American regiments, the first professional black soldiers in the United States Army. By 1869, these six regiments were consolidated into four units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.
These men came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers, a name reportedly given to them by Native Americans for the soldiers’ curly dark hair that resembled Buffalo fur; though some historic accounts state the name was given as a nod to the black soldiers’ strong fighting power.
With the country’s efforts to expand into the western frontier, the Buffalo Soldiers forced Native Americans off their land in often violent and deadly battles. The coveted regions in the West also attracted the attention of white settlers who had already begun to put down roots in the frontier.
Yellowstone National Park Established—Without Park Service
With a growing concern to preserve the natural landscape during the western expansion, including protecting timber, lakes, wildlife and minerals, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act of March 1, 1872, which established Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first national park, located in the territories of Wyoming and Montana, “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
Management and control of Yellowstone and subsequent national parks that followed, such as California’s Sequoia and General Grant national parks, both established in 1890, fell under the Secretary of the Interior; however, securing the vast terrains became a problem.
“Congress created all these national parks, but they didn't create the National Park Service to protect them,” says historian Brian Shellum, author of Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young.
“Farmers and herders would just come in and run roughshod over the land. The farmers knew the trails into the Sequoia long before anybody else, so they would graze their sheep and damage the natural resources.”
U.S. Army Steps in as Park Rangers
The solution became the U.S. Army, which had the organization, mobility and logistics to protect the parks, says Shellum. Until the National Park Service was created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, security fell to troops stationed at forts and bases located near the parks.
The Buffalo Soldiers became Park Rangers in the late 1890s, according to an official study commissioned by the National Parks Service.
Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served as Park Rangers at Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, in 1899, 1903 and 1904. Their duties, which were the same as white regiments, included evicting timber thieves, putting out forest fires and building roads and trails.
The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps Cycles to Yellowstone
The Buffalo Soldiers were also involved in testing different ways bikes could be used in warfare that was eventually incorporated into park patrols. The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, the first of its kind in the U.S. Army, rode from Fort Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone in 1896. The first regiment of Buffalo Soldiers assigned as park rangers was reportedly the 24th Infantry in Yosemite in 1899.
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, specifically those in Troop L, stood out as park rangers because of their leader. Unlike other black troops that were in regiments led by white officers, Troop L of the 9th Cavalry was commanded by Captain Charles Young, the highest ranking African American officer in the U.S. Army at the time, before he was named colonel in retirement.
Captain Charles Young Leads Projects at Sequoia
Garrisoned during the winter at the Presidio of San Francisco, Young rode with his men to the Sierra Nevada for the summer, where they were stationed, undertaking significant construction park projects.
The Buffalo Soldiers constructed new infrastructure, including the wagon road leading into the Sequoia’s Giant Forest, the trail to the top of Mount Whitney, and the arboretum in Yosemite. In addition, they patrolled local businesses in the surrounding areas, keeping poachers at bay. In addition to Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers also served as rangers in Hawaii and Glacier National Parks.
In 1903, Young was named acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park, the first African American to hold that position.
The contributions that Young and the Buffalo Soldiers made in the development of the national parks had a profound impact. Young, a lover of ecology and nature, made suggestions to the Secretary of Interior on preserving vegetation and stopping erosion, says Shellum. And the presence of Young and the 9th Cavalry protecting the terrain helped to diffuse some of the racist perceptions of African Americans that whites held.
In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to San Francisco to visit Yosemite, the 9th Cavalry served as his escort, a historic honor for Young and his men.
“He always held himself to a much higher standard than anybody else,” says Shellum. “He always knew that in order to be successful in the Army, he had to walk this color line. And he always had to be much better than any other officer, in order to gain some measure of acceptance.”