Retrace the Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks
Before there were National Park Service rangers, there was the U.S. Army. And within the army, a remarkable unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers had lasting impacts in places still preserved as national parks today. Over a century later, their stories and legacy are interwoven in the fabric of this nation’s history. Delve into their fascinating and inspiring story and retrace the footsteps of the Buffalo Soldiers in these national parks.
The Origins of the Buffalo Soldiers
After the Civil War, black soldiers were able to enlist as regulars, rather than volunteers, in the U.S. Army for the first time. The men enlisted for five years and were paid $13 a month, in addition to room, board, and clothing. For many, this provided a steady salary and the chance to be treated with greater respect.
Then, in 1869, the U.S. Army restructured the troops, a change that included consolidating black troops into two cavalry units and two infantry units. These were composed of black enlisted men led by white officers. The cavalry units served on the western frontier, protecting and assisting with supply and mail routes, and guarding against attacks from outlaws, Mexican revolutionaries, and Native Americans.
Troopers from the 10th Cavalry received the Buffalo Soldiers nickname by the Cheyenne and other Plains Indians. The origin of the name remains uncertain, though some say it was in response to the buffalo-hide coats worn by the soldiers in cold weather; others suggest it referred to the rugged and tireless marching of the cavalrymen. The most widespread account tells that the nickname began because the hair of the black cavalrymen resembled the dark, curly hair of the buffalo.
Both cavalry troops accepted the name. Though they rarely used it amongst themselves, they saw it as a sign of respect, given the high regard in which the Native Americans held the buffalo. The image of a buffalo later become incorporated in the 10th Cavalry Regiment’s crest.
Buffalo Soldiers in the Lone Star State
Fort Davis National Historic Site interprets the history of Buffalo Soldiers in Texas. Between 1867 and 1885, more than half of the soldiers at Fort Davis were in Buffalo Soldier regiments. During periods when both black and white soldiers were stationed at the fort, they were segregated by regiment and lived in separate barracks.
The soldiers shared the same responsibilities, including keeping the post running, protecting travelers, ensuring the safety of freight wagons, and securing the mail as it passed along the San Antonio-El Paso Road. They also engaged in a number of military campaigns against Native American tribes in the area. At this time, western Texas was largely unsettled terrain, frequented by raiding Apaches and Comanches. The cavalry’s time at Fort Davis brought about change as they helped transform it into a peaceful settlement area that facilitated safe travel.
Service and Racial Tensions in Kansas
Captain Nicholas Nolan, an Irish immigrant who’d fought in the Civil War and moved up through the ranks, commanded a company of African American soldiers after the war. Together, they traveled to their post at today’s Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas. Nolan often remarked on his admiration of the soldiers’ hard work and diligence.
He wrote of the great care the soldiers took with the horses and was impressed by their eagerness to prove themselves. In 1868, his company fought in two skirmishes with Native Americans, one of which took place in December and resulted in the recapture of cattle and a supply train but also left thirteen men suffering from frostbite.
Despite the camp’s successes, racial divides soon took their toll. Long, hot marches by white infantry under Kansas’s sun, while the black mounted cavalry passed by on horses led to jealousy and resentment. White soldiers were treated more leniently, and Captain Nolan believed that the other enlisted men and officers no longer wanted him and his company at Fort Larned.
Trouble began after a skirmish broke out between a handful of individuals from each unit over the use of the pool table at the local store. One of the men from Nolan’s company took out his duty revolver — a serious breach of military conduct. As punishment, the entire company was sent to guard the woodpile in a blizzard. On January 2, 1869, while the company stood patrolling the woodpile in the stormy, bitter cold, the Cavalry stables burned down, killing 39 horses and destroying many goods, including grains, saddles, and ammunition.
Rather than investigating further into the incident, the company was transferred to Fort Zarah in Kansas to avoid any trouble — a tactic often used by the U.S. Army while troops were segregated, rather than appropriately addressing the racism at the root of the situation.
Domesticating Wild Alaska
The early American history of Alaska is a rough and tumble story. Boomtowns sprang up in southeast Alaska in response to the Klondike Gold Rush, leading to an increased need for law and order. Skagway and Dyea became two of the most important ports, and subsequently became communities filled with lawlessness and crime.
Described as “about the roughest place in the world,” Skagway faced particular difficulties in its early days due to poor conditions on the White Pass Trail and continued controversy over the border with Canada. To protect the area and ensure rule of law, four companies were sent to Alaska. By 1899, only one remained, and by May 1899, it was replaced by the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Infantry.
This unit, referred to as Company L, consisted of 112 African-American enlisted men. First arriving in Dyea Alaska, the company, led by Captain Henry Walter Hovey, found Dyea as a dwindling town of only 75 occupants and increasingly infrequent shipments. That summer, a forest fire started, resulting in the loss of the dock, barracks, officer cabins, and storehouses. With nothing left, Captain Hovey and his troops moved camp to Skagway.
Just as the Buffalo Soldiers helped ensure the rule of law in other posts, so too did they protect the town in today’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. In Skagway, the Buffalo Soldiers escorted deserters back to their ships, investigated mysterious gunshots, notified the town of President McKinley’s assassination, patrolled the town, and prevented major damage during the Skagway River flood.
The company also took part in community life, attending the Baptist Church, forming a popular baseball team, joining the YMCA, and visiting the local establishments. By 1902, many of the soldiers in the company were completing their three-year enlistment terms and chose to not re-enlist, and the remaining men were moved to Fort Missoula in Montana. The Buffalo Soldiers left a lasting impact on America’s gold rush boomtowns and ensured the safety of American citizens and the continued recognition of Alaska as part of the U.S.
On Assignment in the Bay Area
Following the Spanish American and Philippine American wars, troops assigned to the Pacific returned via San Francisco. It was here at the Presidio of San Francisco, a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry were garrisoned during winter months, before their summers spent patrolling in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks.
Arriving in the fall of 1902 was the 3rd Squadron of the 9th Cavalry, including “I” Troop — commanded by Captain Charles Young. While staying at the Presidio, the troops largely worked on regular military activities such as work details and guard mount. Off duty, the soldiers played sports, each company creating its own team, or socialized in San Francisco’s African-American community.
Then, in the spring of 1903, the 3rd Squadron was assigned two special missions. Half of the squadron was sent to the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park to maintain and patrol the park. The remaining troops, including those led by Captain Young, stayed at the Presidio for a short while longer and were responsible for escorting President Theodore Roosevelts on his West Coast tour of California.
The Buffalo Soldiers flanked the president and several honored guests on horseback as he traveled down the streets of San Francisco. Roosevelt’s decision to have the Buffalo Soldiers act as his “Guard of Honor” was seen by many as an act of repentance after an early faux pas. The President had praised black soldiers for their service at the crest of San Juan Hill in 1898. But shortly afterwards, he made disparaging comments regarding their ability as professional soldiers, remarks which were printed by Scribner’s magazine. The troops were next sent to patrol Sequoia National Park.
Reaching New Heights in California
With the exception of Colonel Charles Young, officers were almost always of Euro-American descent. While acting as the military superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903, Young led a group of soldiers largely consisting of Philippine war veterans. In this new role as rangers, the soldiers assisted in maintaining public lands — keeping them safe from poachers and wildfires. They also oversaw the construction of the park’s infrastructure.
Young led the soldiers in the summer of 1903 as they made incredible progress in the park. Between forty to fifty men and up to twelve horses rapidly constructed mile after mile of new road through the rocky terrain. They completed a much-needed wagon road into the Giant Forest, the first trail to Mount Whitney (reaching the tallest peak in the contiguous United States). They also forged a road to the base of Moro Rock, thus allowing the public to access the mountaintop forest for the first time. These accomplishments literally paved the way for all infrastructure in today’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Preserving One of America’s Most Famous Parks
In addition to work conducted in Sequoia National Park, the U.S. Army was responsible for administration of Yosemite National Park in 1891 and 1913. Their work laid the foundation for park management as we know it today. Buffalo Soldiers prevented poaching, stopped timber theft, and extinguished forest fires. The troops helped the local economy by supporting local businesses and brought rule of law to the mountainous area. They were also responsible for building an arboretum near the south fork of the Merced River in 1904 — the first museum in a national park.
Life for the Buffalo Soldiers was constantly challenging as they served in U.S. Army. On top of navigating the hardships of service, they were marginalized and mistreated because of the color of their skin. In the face of unrelenting racism and inequality, they showed themselves as strong and successful soldiers in performing their jobs, while having to carry the burden of diplomatically negotiating tensions to prevent trouble. Their fortitude on the battlefield and in conflicts earned them the everlasting nickname as the Buffalo Soldiers. Their work in conservation also made an indelible impact in preserving public lands, setting the foundation for roles of park rangers, and ensuring the protection and future of national parks.