African American buffalo soldiers played a pivotal role in the preservation of the Sierra Nevada's national parks. 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.
When you visit the park, look for interesting living-history programs presented by park ranger Shelton Johnson, a buffalo soldier historian who appeared in Ken Burns' film Our National Parks: America's Best Idea. Johnson has also written the novel Gloryland, a work of historical fiction about the life of a buffalo soldier who also served in Yosemite.