Retrace the Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks

Brian Q. Clay and Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Buffalo soldiers at Yosemite National Park
National Park Service

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

Black and white image of the 9th US Cavalry Company I at Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas in dress uniforms on their horses in a line in front of cliffs in the background

9th U.S. Cavalry, one of the 1st African-American Regiments, later known as Buffalo Soldiers. 1875 at Fort Davis National Historic Site

National Park Service

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

A group of living history Buffalo Soldiers riding on horses in blue uniforms on the grass at Fort Larned National Historic Site

Historical reenactors at Fort Larned National Historic Site

National Park Service

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 13 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.

Historic image of Broadway Street in Skagway, Alaska, from Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park

Skagway, Alaska. c.1916

National Park Service

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

Military photograph of Charles Young in a US military uniform and hat from 1919

Charles Young in 1919

Library of Congress

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 Roosevelt 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

The road crew comprised of white men and African American Buffalo Soldiers at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

The Buffalo Soldiers with members of the road crew and park rangers, working on the first wagon road to Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. c.1903

National Park Service

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

Five Buffalo Soldiers on horseback at Yosemite National Park
National Park Service

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.

Honoring Their Legacy

A large two-story house with several windows surrounded by green grass on a partly cloudy day, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

NPS Photo / Tom Engberg

In 2013, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument was established, preserving the home and military legacy of Col. Charles Young. The National Park Foundation’s African American Experience Fund helped provide the necessary financial support to purchase the historic property from the Omegi Psi Phi Fraternity’s Friendship Foundation – of which Col. Young was a member – and donate it to the federal government. Originally built in 1839, the home was once used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and upon Young’s purchase of the property in 1907, became a social hub for Young’s friends, university colleagues, and even strangers. Visitors to the park today can take a tour of Youngsholm, the historic home, and learn about Young and the history and legacy of Buffalo Soldiers.

The story of Buffalo Soldiers is inextricably linked to the history of our parks and the history of our nation. The National Park Foundation and its partners are dedicated to increasing access to places, cultural resources, and stories that help all people gain a deeper understanding of the contributions of African Americans.

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The National Buffalo Soldier Museum is in Houston, Texas. Great place to visit and has a very knowledgeable staff.
We have a Buffalo Soldier in our community and his name is Clyde Robinson and he is 98 years old. Our organization will be honoring him this September and I'm curious if there are any other living Buffalo Soldiers? He was featured in a article in the Seattle Times and there seems to be conflicting stories as to whether or not there are any other living Buffalo Soldiers. Thank You in advance.
My brother in laws father was a Buffalo Soldier. What should be done with documents that belonged to him. They are in the possession of my 85 year old sister.
Hello, My maternal grandfather was a Buffalo soldier who served two five-year terms in the 1880s, a portion of the time in what was called the Indiana Territory. He was also stationed for a time at Ft. Sill. He told one of his sons that he once saw Sitting Bull while in captivity. Grandfather also spent time at Fort Robinson. I have a copy of a letter he sent home to relatives while stationed at Ft. Sill. It was a particularly emotional moment for me when I visited the National Archives in DC and held in my hands my grandfather's first enlistment papers that he signed with an X because he was not able to read or write. My favorite uncle, grandfather's youngest child (now deceased) told me how superior officers taught illiterate Buffalo soldiers to write. By the time my grandfather re-enlisted for his second five-year tour, he was able to sign his name on the papers. I would love to converse with other descendants of Buffalo soldiers, sharing our common bond. Contact me via email with Buffalo soldier on the subject line. fehcscott at gmail dot com
Hello Sir, as a Buffalo Soldier living Historian and Reenactor your Brothers Story should be Shared with as many People as Possible. You can Make Copies of the paper work and Send them to The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Texas for their Archives. Also you May wish to have a Facebook Page and share his Stories There. I often Look for such unique information to add to my Discussion and Presentation for my Public Events. Best Regards Trooper David Jones 10th Cav Buffalo Soldier

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