America’s First Park Rangers
Early in 1851, during the frenzy of the California Gold Rush, an armed group of white men were scouting the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They called themselves the Mariposa Battalion. They were searching for Indians, intent on driving the natives from their homelands and onto reservations when they stumbled upon an area of awe-inspiring beauty, later to be known as Yosemite. It was this discovery of Yosemite that set into motion events that would lead to the U.S. Congress proclaiming it a national park in October 1890, as it had done several weeks earlier for Sequoia and Yellowstone in March 1872. However, it had made no provision for an authority to oversee them. Instead it required the U.S. Army to patrol and protect federal lands making them, in essence, America’s first national park rangers.
It was a mammoth task for the army to patrol the millions acres of no-man’s land on horseback. While they did their best to stop poachers and vandals, the soldiers had no authority to punish offenders. No laws had been defined and so the wrongdoers were only issued warnings or, in severe cases, expelled from the parks. Nevertheless, the presence of these soldiers as official stewards of park lands brought some sense of law and order to the mountain wilderness.
Protecting the park was also dangerous work. In the frigid winter season, cavalrymen on skis patrolled for poachers. Conditions were often treacherous; soldiers died in avalanches and snowstorms, or were killed by poachers.
Among these earliest stewards were four segregated black army regiments formed just after the Civil War and sent west to fight in the “Indian Wars.” Native Americans living on the plains called them “Buffalo Soldiers.” They saw a resemblance between their dark, curly hair and the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo. It has also been written that the Cheyenne called them “Buffalo Soldier” because their fierce, brave nature reminded them of the way buffalos fought. Whatever the reason, the term was used respectfully and with honor.
Many of the African-American troops of the 24th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry were also veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War in which they were called “Smoked Yankees.”
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, these units were consistently assigned to the harshest and most desolate posts. They were sent to subdue Mexican revolutionaries, outlaws, Comancheros, rustlers, and hostile Native Americans. They also explored and mapped the Southwest and established frontier outposts that would become future towns and cities.
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.
Although officers were mostly Euro-American, an exception to this was Charles Young, the third African-American graduate of the U.S. military academy at West Point. He served as the acting military superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903. Although his tenure was brief, it was groundbreaking. Young is considered by some to be the first African-American superintendent of a national park as well as the first black military attache, first black to achieve the rank of colonel, and highest-ranking black officer in the United States Army until his death in 1922.
Most of the men under Young’s command in Sequoia, as well as the 9th Cavalry soldiers serving in Yosemite, were war veterans, but service in the Sierra brought about an astonishing change in geography and function for these battle-weary men.
Their duties included confiscating firearms as well as curbing poaching of the park’s wildlife, suppressing wildfires, ending illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and stopping thefts of timber and other natural objects. They oversaw the construction of roads, trails, and other infrastructure.
Their accomplishments included 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. Their noteworthy accomplishments were made despite the added burden of racism.
Soldiers from the 25th Infantry, referred to at the time as a “crack black regiment,” were famously called in during the Great Fire of 1910 – the same year Glacier National Park was established – to fight the largest blazes. The forest fires raged over 2,000 square miles of northern Idaho and western Montana and consumed more than 100,000 acres of park forests, killing 70 people and destroying timber worth $13 billion.
In 1914, civilian employees of the Department of the Interior replaced the Army in administration and protection of Yosemite National Park, thus ending the U.S. Army’s role as the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Between 1891 and 1913 the U.S. Army helped create a model for park management as we know it today.