America’s Hidden History: Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers
Scenic Yosemite is not only famous for its breathtaking views and beautiful terrain but also for its groundbreaking legacy as America's first national park (History, 2020). Designated as a protected national territory in 1872, Yosemite national park was a unique space that existed well before the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 (National Park Service, 2020). This meant that the U.S. Army was in charge of park protection until 1913, and many remain unaware of the distinctive group of brave soldiers that protected Yosemite national park during this time. Dubbed as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” this African-American army regiment was among some of the first rangers of the United States (National Park Service, 2019).
The Buffalo Soldiers included men from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry, which were segregated army regiments created by Congress in 1866 (National Park Service, 2019). The Buffalo Soldiers earned their nicknames from the Cheyenne and other Plains nations, although the exact origin of the name remains unknown. What remains certain is that the service of these soldiers was monumental; the Buffalo Soldiers’ legacy includes preventing poaching and theft, supporting local businesses, establishing rule of law in the frontier West, and building the first museum in a national park in 1904 (Clay and River, 2019). These accomplishments were made despite the soldiers facing extreme marginalization and mistreatment on account of their skin color.
In a time where African-American soldiers could be heavily penalized for the smallest perceived offense, the Buffalo Soldiers proved their unrelenting resolve and commitment to their role by showcasing strength and great diplomacy simultaneously (National Park Service, 2019). Today, the legacies of these soldiers and an important, yet hidden part of American history have been brought back to life by Yosemite park ranger Shelton Johnson (Peglar, 2020). For the past decade, Johnson has been honoring the memories of the Buffalo soldiers and educating others about their contributions through a one-act play. For Johnson, telling the stories of the Buffalo soldiers is one of the ways he can educate visitors and Americans alike about the people of color who worked hard to make Yosemite park what it is today.
Shelton Johnson remarks, “It’s important for people of color to know that this is part of their heritage and even though it seems far away, it is part of what it means to be an American.” It is not too distant a history for Johnson personally, as his maternal grandparents were Black Indians from Oklahoma territory who witnessed their ancestors enslaved. Johnson emphasizes that “There's no national park in the United States that's older than 150 years, but the land that serves as the foundation of our democracy is still the homeland of the first people” (Peglar, 2020). It is important to understand and remember the underlying context to the history of America that is commonly told.
While the powerful history behind Yosemite park’s origins may have gone untold for decades, the legacy and celebration of the Buffalo soldiers are now here to stay.
Clay, Brian and Katherine Rivard. 2019. “Retrace the Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks.” National Park Foundation, 2019. https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/retrace-legacy-buffalo-soldiers-national-parks.
History. 2020. “Yosemite National Park established.” History, September 29, 2020.
National Park Service. 2020. “Buffalo Soldiers.” National Park Service, August 19, 2020.
National Park Service. 2019. “Buffalo Soldiers.” National Park Service, October 31, 2019.
Peglar, Tori. 2020. “The Living History of Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers.” Yosemite National Park Trips, November 17, 2020. https://www.myyosemitepark.com/park/buffalo-soldiers.