Buffalo Soldiers: The (Almost) Forgotten History of America’s First NPS Rangers

It’s a little cliché to suggest that, as a part of Black History, the Buffalo Soldiers have been forgotten.  Hence the title, “Almost Forgotten History.” There has been no shortage of academic, historic, and pop-culture material written about those men and women who served the U.S. Army after the Civil War.  There have been songs written about the Buffalo Soldiers—Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”—and made-for-TV movies—Buffalo Soldiers, directed by and starring Danny Glover—there is a museum in Houston, TX, as well as several books on the subject.  And yes, there was a female Buffalo Soldier, at least one, that we know of.  Her name was Cathay Williams, and she served by enlisting as a man named William Cathay (Bolger).  There may, in fact, have been many more; but because they (and she) served in secret, their names may forever be lost to history.  There were also Black Latinos who served in these regiments. In his 2001 speech at the National Museum of American History in D.C., historian Frank Schubert attempted to dispel the “forgotten history” myth.  His published essay recognizes that there are monuments to Buffalo Soldiers, postage stamps issued in their honor, t-shirts, a plethora of books and bibliographies, and a wider range of other materials.  Schubert is right; the Buffalo Soldiers have not been forgotten or ignored by history; but, for whatever reason, America’s first “park rangers” have failed to capture the wider, popular imagination. 

So, who were the Buffalo Soldiers?

The regiments in which the Buffalo Soldiers served were created through the Army Reorganization Act of 1866.  In July of that year, congress authorized the creation of six additional regiments to the army—four of infantry and two of cavalry.  The two cavalry units, the 9th and the 10th cavalry, are the Buffalo Soldiers.  The act was explicitly segregationist, in that the 9th and 10th cavalry were to be exclusively black regiments: “[T]o the six regiments of cavalry now in service there shall be added four regiments, two of which shall be composed of colored men, having the same organization as is now provided by law for cavalry regiments” (Article III).  Regardless of this fact, or perhaps in spite of it, the soldiers of the 9th and 10th would serve their country bravely and with distinction in war.

As many as 186,000 African Americans served the U.S. forces during the Civil War; but it was only after the war, with the afore-mentioned act of Congress, that African Americans could serve as regulars in the army.  Although they achieved fame as America’s first park rangers, the 9th and 10th cavalry were not created specifically to patrol and protect the parks; the army had been doing that since at least the 1870s or 80s.  The 9th cavalry was brought together in New Orleans, and consequently sent to West Texas to secure the road from San Antonio to El Paso, which was under constant threat from Native Americans, attacking out of frustration with reservation life and the broken treaties and promises and of the federal government.  Meanwhile, the 10th was based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; there they stayed, initially, protecting the Pacific Railroad, then under construction.  Both units were successful in their respective missions.

A great irony exists in the mission of the soldiers, in that the government used one oppressed people—the Buffalo Soldiers—to put down another oppressed people—Native Americans.  Largely, the Buffalo Soldiers’ mission was to stamp out any Indigenous rebellion.  “You will stay on the reservation and you will like it,” seems to be the message.  Before the Buffalo Soldiers, the U.S. government had homesteaders do their dirty work.  Land grants came with the assumed responsibility of defending that land from its former inhabitants: the tribes of the American plains.  (For more on this see S.C. Gwynn’s amazing book, Empire of the Summer Moon.)  That being said, the Buffalo Soldiers were, by all accounts, valiant and successful in battle.  In fact, that seems to be at least one explanation for how they got their name: “American Plains Indians who fought against these soldiers referred to the black cavalry troops as ‘buffalo soldiers’ because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat and because of their fierce nature of fighting” (NPS).  Other sources say it is because they could march long hard miles for days on end, like the buffalo across the plains; still others said it was because of the buffalo hides they wore to keep warm in winter.  Whatever the reason, “The troopers took the nickname as a sign of respect from Native Americans, who held great reverence for the buffalo, and eventually the Tenth Cavalry adopted the buffalo as part of its regimental crest” (National Archives).  The Buffalo Soldiers, named after the animal on which plains tribes so utterly depended for their way of life, helped bring about the end of an era for Native Americans.

Despite their bravery, the Buffalo Soldiers faced immense discrimination.  Initially, black regiments were led by white officers.  The first black graduates of West Point wouldn’t be appointed until 1879, thirteen years after the Army Reorganization Act.  These graduates were: “Henry O. Flipper, John Alexander, and Charles Young, all [of whom] served as Buffalo Soldiers. Flipper was the first black graduate of West Point in 1877, and commissioned in 1879, serving in the Tenth Cavalry. John Alexander (commissioned in 1887) and Charles Young (commissioned in 1889) both served in the Ninth Cavalry” (National Archives).  Before this, however, treatment at the hands of white officers could be harsh.  Corporal Charles Woods, for instance, was court-martialed, charged with desertion, striking a superior officer and mutiny.  Woods plead not guilty to the latter two charges and guilty to the first.  He was found guilty on all three charges and sentenced to death.  However, after certain facts came to light during the proceedings, the judge advocate general recommended that, “[I]n view of the extraordinary circumstances developed by the testimony, showing that there was no disposition on the part of the prisoner either to mutiny or to desert, but that his conduct, and that of his company, was the result of outrageous treatment on the part of one of the commissioned officers, and in view of the suffering he has already endured, the sentence is remitted and the prisoner will be restored to duty” (National Archives).  Henry O. Flipper, mentioned above, would also be court-martialed, and subsequently discharged in 1882.  A subsequent investigation found that the court-martial was “unduly harsh and unjust.”  President Bill Clinton Flipper posthumously pardoned Flipper in 1999 (Wikipedia).  Through all this, Buffalo Soldiers still had the lowest desertion and court-martial rates for their time (History.com). 

Charles Young

Buffalo Soldiers Service in the Parks System

In May of 1903, two divisions of the 9th U.S. cavalry traveled over 300 miles in seventeen days: from the presidio in San Francisco to Sequoia National Park.  These were, of course, the Buffalo Soldiers.  1903 was also the first year that troops would have control of the entire park for a full season.  Under the leadership of the aforementioned Captain Charles Young, construction of roads and trails got underway—and then some.  In fact, so successful were these soldiers in their duty, that “By the end of that first season, Charles Young and his men had constructed more miles of road than all the labor in the first three seasons combined” (Mason 89). Prior to this, tourists had a rough go of it getting into these parks.  It was most certainly not for the faint of heart, even less so for the weak of constitution.  In Yosemite, for instance, after word and images of a “waterfall more than a thousand feet high”—Yosemite Falls—got out to the general public, the rush was on.  However, “The trip required a two-day journey from San Francisco to the nearest town; and then, with no wagon road into the valley, a grueling three-day trek by foot or horseback up and down steep mountainsides on narrow rocky paths” (Burns).  The Buffalo Soldiers were trailblazers in more than one sense of that word and helped to make these parks more tourist friendly: after this work was completed, visitors did not have to have an iron will and a team of livestock to see the most desirable attractions.

Their actions in protecting Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks from any number of threats also helped define the role of “park ranger” as we know it today.  In addition to building roads and trails, their job included patrolling for wildfires, stopping poachers, and removing livestock from public lands.  They also, as Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson enlightens us, educated the public: “They built the first usable wagon road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest, the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, and the first museum in what would become the National Park System” (Johnson).  Education of the public is still one of the primary jobs of park rangers, as it is almost certainly they who conduct guided tours and work in visitor’s centers throughout the U.S. parks system.  In addition to being the commanding officer during this time, Charles Young also served as host to “the traveling public and visiting dignitaries, including Politicians” (Mason 89).  From a modern perspective, we recognize all these things as the quotidian duties of our current park rangers. 

What must life have been like for a Buffalo Soldier in the early days of the National Parks?  Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson beautifully and movingly dramatizes that for visitors to Yosemite, as well as listeners of his podcast.  Johnson’s podcast, “A Buffalo Soldier Speaks”, imagines the thoughts of a Buffalo Soldier through the many logs and reports from 1903-1904 season.  Johnson becomes Elizy Boman, a real Buffalo Solider, about whom we know little.  While much of what Johnson presents is speculative, he bases his interpretations on extensive research.  His live performances in Yosemite and on his podcast seek to get beyond banal entries in the ledgers such as, “Encountered 500 head of sheep in Return Canyon”.  In the podcast episode titled, “Falling after Fire”, Johnson, brilliantly and imaginatively conveys the dangers still present in the forest after a fire: “Boy, this place needs a fire to come through here and clear all this out. You gotta be careful when you have thoughts like that”.  Johnson, as Boman, explains that danger is present long after the fire has been contained/extinguished: “longer than you might think … There [is] a danger from fire even after fire is long gone.”  After the ground has been burning and smoldering for a time, the roots and any sense of stability holding that tree in the ground are gone.  Trees, at this point, do not make a noise when they fall; the only thing to hear is the “boom” of the tree hitting the ground: “And then I could feel it again, and then it got quiet but we heard no tearing, no splintering of wood, it just fell, it made no sound, just a breeze that was picked up and pushed out by the branches as they made their way to the earth”.  Tree fall, in the forest, after a fire like the one described above, kills as easily as any wildfire, and without warning.  Johnson’s dramatization of the these “simple” ledgers does more to bring the experiences of these soldiers to life than any history or textbook.     

The rangers had their work cut out for them in terms of poaching and vandalism as well.  They had to protect the largest trees, the ones tourists most wanted to see, from vandalism and destruction: General Sherman and General Grant, for instance, in Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks respectively.  Park visitors would often strip off pieces of bark to take as a souvenir, or carve their names or initials into the trees; in the worst cases, huge passages were cut through the largest of some of these trees, such as the Wawona Tree, which had a passage cut into in 1881—a passage large enough for a horse and cart to fit through, indeed, a modern automobile.  Admittedly, this happened long before the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to protect the parks, but it was the prevention of destruction like that for which they were responsible.  These first rangers, therefore, put up fences around the largest and most popular of these giants of the forest to avoid further destruction of some of Nature’s wonders (Mason 91). 

Poaching was yet another problem in the early days of the parks.  And not just from outsiders or visitors.  Private citizens still owned land within park borders in 1903; and landowners didn’t like being told when and where they could or couldn’t hunt.  In an effort to stop poaching and preserve the local environment from over-foresting, Charles Young recommended to the Secretary of the Interior, to whom he reported, that the government buy up this land; Young had already negotiated a fair price.  The government did not act on this recommendation.  The following season, 1904, George F. Hamilton, a white officer and Young’s successor in the park system, iterated that suggestion, also to the Secretary of the interior, and for the same reasons as Young: “landowners within park boundaries objected to any restrictions on their hunting activities” (Mason 90-91).  It would be several years before the government would follow through on this recommendation, and because of that, it would cost them more money than originally negotiated with through Charles Young.

In terms of their authority, two items are of interest.  The first is that even though they were American military and were there to enforce the laws, the reality was that they had very little power to do so:  “Troopers were hampered by the fact that the park [Yellowstone] existed in a legal no man’s land.  Usually their only recourse was a warning, or in the most serious cases, expulsion from the park”.  But they were nothing if not resourceful: “The troops had to operate without clear legal authority; and therefore, invented techniques to protect their parks (Burns).”  They collected rifles from visitors upon entry, for instance: they removed illegal grazing herds from one end of the park, and their sheepherder from the opposite end.  In a park 1,500 square miles in area, this was a costly penalty.  Illegal grazers were not likely to offend again.    

The second, and perhaps more problematic of these two issues was, of course, racism.  The fact that the Buffalo Soldiers made a name for themselves in the Indian Wars may speak for itself.  While many battalions and regiments fought in these battles, black soldiers were chosen specifically and especially for remote or frontier locations.  This was no less true of their assignments in the Indian Wars than it was of their service in the national parks.  And, there is no doubt the soldiers themselves were aware of this fact.  From May 12-14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt toured San Francisco; he choose as his personal escort the Buffalo Soldiers: “a distinct and high profile honor.  Captain Charles Young, aware that his men would face particular scrutiny from the public, was determined to serve the parks under his charge with distinction as well. Despite these honors and efforts, however, these soldiers often experienced hostility from neighboring white population centers and social isolation at remote posts”.    Historian Kathy Mason goes on to tell how Capt. Young worked hard to nurture relationships with whites, as the Buffalo Soldiers would be working alongside them on any number of construction projects in the early days of the parks (Mason 88-89).  Young won many over with his charm, and the Buffalo Soldiers won the respect of many through their hard work and dedication.  Young and his soldiers, however, had to work twice as hard as a white person to get the same respect, simply because of the color of their skin. 

The Buffalo Soldiers would go on to serve in every in every major war until they were dispatched in 1944.  The last living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, passed away in 2005, at the astounding age of 111. 

It is true that so much of black history has been ignored, forgotten, lost, that black people and their pain in history have been invisible: such as Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy, the slave women that Dr. James Marion Sims—often thought of as the father of modern gynecology—tortured in the name of progressing medicine (Hidden Brain).  This history has only recently been rediscovered.  The Buffalo Soldiers, however, stand in some middle ground, in that they are very visible, and yet have failed to capture the wider, popular imagination.  Perhaps they need a real blockbuster, historically accurate, film to stoke interest, in the way that Hidden Figures did for Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, the computers who helped put the first men on the moon.  It is true that there have been any number of pop-culture sources who have delved into the subject of the first NPS rangers, as noted in the introduction to this essay; it is also true that a number of sources on the Buffalo Soldiers are much more specialized and narrow, sources, that is to say, that are more academic, that lie in The National Archives, or NPS documents, journals, etc.  Someone searching for this information would have to access an academic database or know specifically where to look.  Nonetheless, the information is out there.  Why they are not more popular, or visible, is a question I don’t have an answer to.

I suppose, given the current political and social climate, we need to be asking the question: “Do we really need a blockbuster film to educate us on the history of racism in this country?”  With the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of former officer Derek Chauvin, Black Lives Matter is front and center in the national spotlight and Americans are reminded that racism is today ever as much a part of American culture as it was yesterday; I wish it were a stretch to say that it is woven into the very fabric of that culture; but it is not; it simply, is.   Native American outrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries bear a striking resemblance to the rioting, looting and protesting in any number of cities following Floyd’s death: there is an eerie parallel. One we need be mindful of.  How much, really, has changed? Why did this happen?  How often does it happen?  Are black men really more likely to be killed by police?  Yes.  By a significant factor.  Is racism all about hatred, animosity and anger? No.  It is much more subtle.  As was the case with Captain Charles Young above, why do people of color still have to work so much harder to prove that they are equal, that they are human, that they deserve respect and common human decency?  Is there something to the claims of racism being “systemic”?  Yes.  Much.  But I’m not going to answer that here.  It’s much too big a question to answer in the conclusion to an essay on a very narrow topic, and one I fear I do not have the answer to.  But I can make a call to action.  It is up to readers, citizens, and your author, to seek answers to those questions and to have the hard conversations; that is what we need to be doing right now. Ashley Ormon, a book editor from New York, had this to say to me in regards to our current situation: “I’m finding that (some) people are willing to have hard conversations, as you see with your students, but are unwilling (scared/uncomfortable) to initiate it.  I think having hard conversations is something our culture needs to work on.”  Pretending that racism isn’t real, or that its results aren’t truly horrific, or that it no longer exists because we elected a black man as president, equates to silence.  Doing nothing allows the current rotten system to remain in place and fester more.  Silence is the exact opposite of what we need right now.  If you’re uncomfortable, good.  That’s where we need to be.

Get out there.

A special thanks to Ashely Ormon, who gave me permission to use part of a short dialogue we had. You can check out her IG account here: https://www.instagram.com/ashleyormon/

And can reach out and contact her at her website, here: https://www.ashleyormon.com/

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