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Black History Month: Remembering and celebrating Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers, 24th Infantry, Yosemite National Park 1899 (archival photograph, Yosemite Research Library)

In honor of Black History month it’s not  difficult to find subjects for showcasing the immeasurable contributions of African Americans to both our country in the world.  I could talk of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, or any one of the many inventors, artists, scientists, politicians, and political activists whose efforts to make our world a better place are well known.  Yet, there are others who will do this many times over.  I think it’s just as important to remember those whose history, but for a few dedicated researchers, might have been forgotten.  Such is the story of the Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite.

The hidden chapter of this U.S. Army history revolves around the participation of African-American troops of the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry, who protected both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904. (The parks are located approximately 150 miles apart.) Most of these men were veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War in which they were called “Smoked Yankees.” Many of them enlisted in the South where opportunities for African-Americans were limited to sharecropping, and other labor intensive work.

Their story might have been forgotten for all time had it not been for the inspired renewal by Shelton Johnson, the charismatic national park ranger showcased in Ken Burns’ documentary, National Parks: America’s Best Idea. At the website he created to honor this forgotten regiment,  Shelton explains how a chance encounter with a photograph gave greater personal meaning to his work as a park ranger, and how that photograph has allowed him to give new life and interest to the story of these African American soldiers charged with protecting Yosemite National Park in the racially conflict-ridden period immediately following the Civil War.

My name is Shelton Johnson. I work as a Park Ranger in Yosemite Valley. I’m African American, one of only a handful working for the Park Service here in Yosemite. Although the story I’m about to tell you is real, there are still many things shrouded in mystery. We know that these buffalo soldiers lived, passed away, and were forgotten. Their story, like many stories, lost its fire and became lost in the darkness. My awareness of this history began the day I wandered into Yosemite’s Research Library and found an old photograph.

I took a closer look at the picture and read the caption. It was a photograph of the 24th Mounted Infantry taken somewhere in Yosemite in 1899. The 24th, along with the 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry, were African-American army regiments that during the Indian War period became known as Buffalo Soldiers. Seeing this photograph was like stumbling into your own family while traveling in a foreign country.

I had no idea that 100 years ago the 24th Mounted Infantry and the 9th Cavalry were entrusted with the protection of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Parks. I had never read this information in any history, but there staring at me, across a gulf of 100 years were these Black soldiers who had overcome obstacles that made my challenges insignificant. I immediately wanted to know their names, to find out as much as I could about them. They had almost completely disappeared from Yosemite’s history. If it weren’t for this one photograph, who would know or care that they ever existed? I wanted to speak to them, to tell them that they weren’t forgotten.

The Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite were post-Civil War African American soldiers authorized by Congressional action in 1866. Originally sent west to fight the Indian Wars, these soldiers were eventually dispatched, along with white soldiers, to protect and patrol the national parks as the first rangers.  Their name was given to them by the native peoples who inhabited these scenic lands:

Buffalo Soldiers, like their white counterparts in U.S. Army regiments, were among the first park rangers, in general, and backcountry rangers, in particular, patrolling parts of the West. African-American army regiments, formed just after the Civil War, had been dispatched westward where these black soldiers fought in the Indian Wars and were eventually given the name Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne and other Plains Indians who saw a resemblance between their dark, curly hair and the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo.

(SNIP)

Historians have recorded the service of these Buffalo Soldiers on the Western frontier, but their service in some national parks has been nearly forgotten. Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and nearby Sequoia National Park with duties from evicting poachers and timber thieves to extinguishing forest fires.

While soldiers patrolling the national parks were not unusual, these soldiers faced a unique obstacle in this period just following the Civil War.  The Buffalo soldiers were also the ones who had to confront those who violated park rules, such as entering forbidden areas or taking wildlife or resources as souvenirs.   With less than 40 years passing since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, they found themselves in the midst of white wealthy tourists who were not used to taking orders from “coloreds;” and the soldiers faced more than their share of racism as they carried out their duties in Yosemite

Their noteworthy accomplishments were made despite the added burden of racism.

(SNIP)

Even though the Buffalo Soldiers wore the uniform of the U.S. Army, their ethnicity combined with the racial prejudice of the time made the performance of their duties quite challenging. In the early 1900s, African-Americans were routinely abused, or even killed, for the slightest perceived offense. They occupied one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder; a fact which served to undercut the authority of any black man who served in any position of power. Yosemite and Sequoia’s Buffalo Soldiers had to be simultaneously strong and diplomatic to fulfill the duties of their job but to avoid giving offense.

Despite these challenges, the Buffalo soldier’s contributions were significant:

Their accomplishments included, but by no means were limited to, the completion of the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the contiguous United States) in Sequoia National Park in 1903; and the building of an arboretum in Yosemite National Park near the south fork of the Merced River in 1904. One scholar considered the latter area to contain the first marked nature trail in the national park system. Thus, an integral part of that history played by the 500 Buffalo Soldiers, comprising eight troops of cavalry and one company of infantry, will no longer be forgotten.

And their contributions very well may have been forgotten, if not for the chance encounter Shelton Johnson had with that photograph.  To Johnson, the parks represent the true meaning of Democracy — pieces of America that belong to every citizen, not just the wealthy. In this clip he recalls the moment he arrived at the entrance to Yellowstone and the realization that this amazing place was a tangible symbol of democracy.

As one of the few African American rangers in the park service, Johnson has dedicated more than a decade to uncovering their story and sharing it with the visitors of Yosemite.  The percentage of African American visitors to the park is significantly lower than their representation as a population of our country; because of this he sees establishing a bond between the African American community and our National Parks as his calling.

As part of his work in the National Park Service, Johnson has developed an interpretive presentation where he presents the story of the Buffalo Soldiers through the life of Sergeant Alizy Bowman. In the following clip, Johnson explains how he came to know of this forgotten soldier:

…and here “Alizy Bowman” takes a walk with a group of visitors to Yosemite:

Johnson has since penned his personal reflections about these soldiers in order to express the profound sense of connection he feels in his role as one of the only African American park rangers in Yosemite:

A Letter to Dead Soldiers

Dear men, forgive me for not writing sooner, but I only recently discovered that the dead do not completely vanish from this earth. I realize now that death does not occur with the stopping of the heart, but when we choose to forget. One hundred years after horses and the creaking of wagon wheels, your names are air, unseen, yet moving around us. How can something as substantial as a column of twenty-six men riding side by side on a dusty road leave neither imprint on the ground nor sound in sky?

Someone must have seen you after you left the Presidio of San Francisco in early 1899. Is there no one in Mayfield who remembers, or Santa Clara, or Firebaugh, or Madera, or any other town in the Central Valley you passed through that has people old and wise enough to remember? A century’s accumulation of dust has buried the fourteen days it took for you to get to Yosemite. Even our memory of you fades under the pressure of years. Yet, there you are astride your horses in a Yosemite that is as close as the open window of my office. Is this all that remains that one can touch: a photograph, and part of a sentence in a military report?

Is this all that is left of you? All your hopes and desires, what you wanted out of life, your thoughts and dreams, even you and your bodies, your horses and wagons, the shadows you cast on the ground, all squeezed into the space of one sentence. To live only in a phrase, to find that all you ever were, or hoped to be, lies trapped among a procession of nouns, adjectives, and prepositions. To find that the collective memory of your life has become simply a reference in a government document. This is a terrible kind of eternity, but preferable to oblivion, because it means that you still live.

(SNIP)

The stockmen knew where you were and avoided you, but I wish the opposite. How can I reach across 100 years and hold out my hand for you to take? How can I convince people that you are not dead but live on? Not just in documents and old photographs, or even in the park ranger uniform I wear, but that you are real soldiers surviving into the present? Because I choose to remember you, you live on in me. I know your lives had meaning to Black folks. I know that someone called you son, brother, or father. I think that I understand why you joined the army. You had few choices, and a military career provided a sense of dignity, respect, and a pension upon retirement.

If you have an opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park in the future, check the schedule to see if you can catch one of Johnson’s ranger walks as Alizy,where he brings the story of the Buffalo Soldiers to life.

**********

For more information about the Buffalo Soldiers and National Park Service Ranger Shelton Johnson:

National Park Service: Buffalo Soldiers

National Park Service: Shelton Johnson as Alizy Bowman

Shelton Johnson’s Buffalo Soldiers website: Shadow Soldier

The History of the Buffalo Soldiers (pre-national parks)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Soldier

http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-12-03/entertainment/17182992_1_yosemite-national-park-buffalo-soldier-park-rangers

http://tourism.visitcalifornia.com/media/uploads/files/editor/Shelton%20Johnson%20-%20Buffalo%20Soldier%282%29.pdf

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