The Living History of Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers

The African American soldiers who were assigned to protect the Sierra Nevada became Yosemite's first park rangers.
By Annette McGivney ,

Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers

Public Domain

In 1890, when Yosemite National Park first came into existence, the U.S. Cavalry was assigned to protect the new federal lands in the Sierra Nevada, which included Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park, now part of Kings Canyon National Park. The soldiers who were assigned to protect these new parks became Yosemite's first park rangers.

Many of the cavalrymen chosen to serve in the West's new national park lands were buffalo soldiers. The term "buffalo soldier" was first used by Native Americans of the Cheyenne tribe to describe African American regiments sent to the West during the Civil War to fight against Plains Indians. It is said that the tribespeople saw a resemblance between the African American soldiers' dark, curly hair and the matted fur between the horns of a buffalo, and that they also respected their bravery in battle.

After the war ended, many of these buffalo soldiers were re-assigned to patrol the Western frontier, including in national parks. Although officers were usually white, many of the soldiers on duty in Yosemite National Park were African American. Their duties mainly consisted of backcountry patrols, during which they fended off poachers, illegal timber loggers and livestock grazers. These soldiers were also the Sierra Nevada's first official forest fire prevention crews.

The U.S. Army protected Yosemite National Park from 1891 until 1913. Thereafter, civilian employees of the Department of the Interior took over administration of the park, which came under the management of the newly created National Park Service in 1916. But without the earlier contributions of buffalo soldiers, Yosemite would not be as beautifully preserved as it is today.

Living History Presented by Park Ranger Shelton Johnson

When Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson speaks about parks, people listen. Featured in Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Johnson’s eloquent descriptions of his experience as a ranger in Yosemite and Yellowstone was inspirational to many viewers, including President Barack Obama. After the film’s debut, Obama invited Johnson to the White House to discuss national park issues. In 2010, Oprah Winfrey also came calling after Johnson, a longtime advocate of getting more African-Americans to visit national parks, wrote to her. Winfrey took Johnson up on the offer to visit Yosemite and not only devoted two episodes to inspiring more African-Americans to visit national parks, but she also camped for the first time in her life (in a well-equiped RV).

While Johnson has enjoyed the media buzz that his Ken Burns and Oprah appearances received, he remains focused on his one true passion: Getting more people, especially youth of color, to experience national parks. And his favorite tool is historical entertainment. He reenacts the history of Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers in an ever-evolving performance. The segregated African-American regiments of the U.S. Army’s 24th infantry were assigned to patrol and protect Yosemite in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Until Johnson took up the cause, very little public information existed about Buffalo Soldiers and their connection to Yosemite National Park’s earliest history. Johnson has developed a website and written a book about Buffalo Soldiers, and he performs a popular living-history program in the park called, “Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, 1904.”

Shelton Johnson, Buffalo Soldiers Historian and Park Ranger

NPS

Yosemite Journal editor Annette McGivney visited with Johnson last summer.

When you were a kid, did you dream of one day being a park ranger?

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit. I never thought about national parks or that I wanted to visit a park, but somewhere inside of me there was an awe for the mountains. In college, I studied literature and was in a graduate poetry program at the University of Michigan. I was looking for a quiet place to write and ended up as a seasonal worker in Yellowstone in the summer of 1987. Once I stepped off the bus in Montana, I was hooked. I have been working for the parks ever since, and at Yosemite for the past 18 years.

What first drew you to the Buffalo Soldiers?

l was working as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite in the mid-1990s, and I just stumbled upon an archive photo of five black soldiers on patrol in the park. They were with the African-American regiment (called the Buffalo Soldiers) of the 24th U.S. Army Infantry in 1899. These guys were charged with protecting the park from poachers and squatters. I started researching it and realized this was a story of national significance that had been forgotten. This is something that African-Americans should be proud of and can serve as a grounding experience today to connect them to national parks. Visitation of African-Americans to national parks has been increasing, but it is still only one percent of the total. I try to reach out to inner-city kids as well as Yosemite park visitors with this message.

How did you create your performance?

It has evolved over the years. It started out as a ranger walk, and now is a one-act play. First, I had to get the right uniform from the Spanish-American War. Then, I enrolled in the Yosemite Mounted Horse Patrol School in 1996 to better understand what the Buffalo Soldiers experienced. I developed a composite character, Elizy Bowman, who was a Buffalo Soldier. I tell his story of being a slave and a sharecropper from South Carolina who served with the 9th Calvary in Yosemite. He is also of Native American descent. My mother is half Cherokee, so this is partly autobiographical.

Do you practice before going on?

Never. When I change into the uniform, I immediately slip into character. My play is improvised and a little different every time. I interact with the audience, and it can be emotional; they become part of the story.

See Johnson perform at Yosemite Theater in Yosemite Valley every Sunday, May through Oct. His website is shadowsoldier.wilderness.net; purchase his historic novel, Gloryland, from Sierra Club Books (sierraclub.org) and Amazon (http://a.co/d/eszE5FN). And subscribe to his podcast on iTunes (itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/buffalo-soldier-speaks/id572955855)