Courtesy of the National Park Service
24th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers patrol Yosemite in 1899.

The soldiers would leave an indelible mark through numerous environmental firsts.

J.D. Simkins  –  Updated February 22, 2021

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When Congress stood up a collection of all-Black regiments in 1866, the units that would eventually become known as the Buffalo Soldiers wasted little time distinguishing themselves in the face of segregation and a Jim Crow South that relegated them to socio-economic inferiority.

Ordered into service in the expansive Western frontier, stories quickly emerged of combat distinction among the Buffalo Soldiers against Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa nations, part of a months-long campaign launched by the U.S. Army to displace Natives during the infamous period known as the Red River War.

And while the heritage of the Buffalo Soldiers can trace its roots through numerous armed campaigns until a 1948 order by President Harry Truman ended segregation in the U.S. military, it was their prominent, albeit lesser known role as guardians of federally-owned lands that cemented their legacy as our national park’s first rangers.

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Prior to the 1916 establishment of the National Park Service, the job of stewarding such places was left to the United States Army. Of those troops who deployed to regions like Sequoia, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks, a great number were Buffalo Soldiers. In fact, nearly 500 Black soldiers would be deployed to the neighboring Yosemite and Sequoia national parks alone to battle forest fires and eradicate the region’s poachers and timber thieves, according to the National Park Service.

In these wild settings, troops during the late-19th and early 20th centuries built trails, monitored back country regions, acted as law enforcement, and performed routine maintenance, jobs made inherently more challenging due to the intense racial prejudice encountered by the men performing them.

“The Buffalo Soldiers’ work in managing and building the foundation of our earliest national park units helped set a precedent for park management and stewardship that continues today,” authors wrote in a study conducted by the National Park Service.

“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.”

One exception to such restriction was Charles Young, an African-American officer born to enslaved parents, who, in 1903, spent a brief period as the acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park. Among the soaring mountains and rugged foothills of the park, Young oversaw the 9th Cavalry, men who undoubtedly enjoyed a change of scenery after seeing combat in the Philippine-American War.  

There, soldiers serving under Young left an indelible mark when, among numerous environmental firsts, they constructed the first-ever trail leading to the peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States.  

Young, who would go on to serve under Brigadier General John J. Pershing in a 1916 expedition to capture Mexican Revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa, wrote about his time at Sequoia in his Report of the Acting Superintendent of Sequoia.

“A journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation.”

Today, the accomplishments of Young and the Buffalo Soldiers are immortalized at the Ohio-based Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. Numerous additional sites recognize the environmental contributions of the famed regiments, including various national parks, where ranger-led programs and reenactments tap into the little-known history of America’s first national park stewards.

To learn more about the contributions of men like Charles Young, visit the National Park Service’s Buffalo Soldiers catalogue.