Among the first stewards of the country’s national parks were soldiers of separate black regiments. Beginning in the 1890s, Buffalo soldiers, who had gained value in combat in the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War, added rangers hats to their military uniforms and played an essential role in protecting and building the infrastructure of the country’s vast public lands. .
The first step towards peacetime service for black soldiers began after the end of the civil war in 1865. By that time, the army had dismissed over a million soldiers, reducing the army to 16,000 . But with a war-torn nation in need of reconstruction and a growing desire to expand to the western border, Congress has passed legislation that has changed the trajectory of black soldiers in the U.S. military.
Addition of the first professional units of black American soldier
Although approximately 180,000 African Americans served in the Union army during the civil war, they were not allowed to join the regular army in peacetime. In 1866, however, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act, a law that doubled the size of the regular army, including the addition of six African American regiments, the first professional black soldiers of the United States army. -United. In 1869, these six regiments were grouped into four units, the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 24th and 25th infantry.
These men became the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to them by the Native Americans for the curly black hair of soldiers who looked like Buffalo fur; although some historical accounts indicate that the name was given as a nod to the strong fighting power of black soldiers.
With the country’s efforts to expand to the western border, the Buffalo soldiers forced the Native Americans to leave their land in often violent and deadly battles. The coveted regions of the West also attracted the attention of white settlers who had already started to take root at the border.
Yellowstone National Park established – without park service
With a growing concern to preserve the natural landscape during the expansion to the west, including the protection of wood, lakes, wildlife and minerals, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law of March 1, 1872, who created Yellowstone National Park, the country’s first national park, located in the territories of Wyoming and Montana, “as a public park or a playground for the good and pleasure of people.”
The management and control of Yellowstone and subsequent national parks, such as the Sequoia and General Grant national parks in California, both established in 1890, fell to the Secretary of the Interior; however, securing large lots has become an issue.
“Congress created all of these national parks, but it did not create the National Park Service to protect them,” says historian Brian Shellum, author of Black officer in a Buffalo soldier regiment: Charles Young’s military career.
“Farmers and ranchers had just returned to the land suddenly. Farmers knew the paths to Sequoia long before anyone else, so they grazed their sheep and damaged natural resources. ”
U.S. Army Intervenes as Park Rangers
The solution became the US military, which had the organization, mobility and logistics to protect the parks, says Shellum. Until the National Park Service was created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, security was the responsibility of the troops stationed at the forts and bases near the parks.
Buffalo soldiers became rangers in the late 1890s, according to an official study commissioned by the National Parks Service.
About 500 Buffalo soldiers served as rangers in Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant national parks in 1899, 1903 and 1904. Their duties, which were the same as those of the white regiments, were to evict the wood thieves, put out forest fires and build roads and trails. .
25th Infantry Bicycle Corps passes Yellowstone
Buffalo soldiers also participated in the trial of different ways of using bicycles in the war, which was eventually incorporated into park patrols. The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, the first of its kind in the United States Army, departed from Fort Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone in 1896. The first regiment of Buffalo soldiers assigned as park wardens was reportedly the 24th Infantry at Yosemite in 1899 .
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, in particular, distinguished themselves as park wardens because of their leader. Unlike other black regiments led by white officers, the 9th Cavalry was commanded by Captain Charles Young, the highest-ranking African American officer in the United States military at the time, before being appointed colonel to the retirement.
Captain Charles Young leads projects in Yellowstone
Imprisoned during the winter at the Presidio in San Francisco, Young went with his men to the Sierra Nevada for the summer, where they were stationed, undertaking major construction park projects.
Buffalo soldiers built new infrastructure, including the wagon route to the giant Sequoia Forest, the trail to the summit of Mount Whitney and the Yosemite Arboretum. In addition, they patrolled local businesses in the surrounding areas, keeping poachers at bay. In addition to Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant parks, the Buffalo Soldiers have also served as rangers in Hawaii and Glacier National Parks.
In 1903 Young was appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park, the first African American to hold this position.
The contribution of Young and the soldiers of Buffalo to the development of national parks had a profound impact. Young, a lover of ecology and nature, made suggestions to the Home Secretary on preserving vegetation and stopping erosion, says Shellum. And the presence of Young and the 9th Cavalry protecting the field helped to spread some of the racist perceptions of African-Americans that whites held.
In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to San Francisco to visit Yosemite, the 9th Cavalry served as his escort, an historic honor for Young and his men.
“He always stood at a much higher level than anyone,” says Shellum. “He always knew that to be successful in the military, he had to follow this color line. And he always had to be much better than any other officer, in order to get some acceptance. “