California Love: The Buffalo Soldiers, Yosemite National Park, and the Western Frontier

My father used to drive one of those 70s style vans. It was tan with no interior except for the driver and front passenger seat. In flashes, I can recall clinging to one of the two sand-filled cushions that doubled as backseats. In that van, I slept most of the way to Yosemite National Park, the ride seemed to stretch on for weeks instead of the three hours it actually took.

Besides riding on my father’s shoulders, and the walls of rocks, I can’t recall much about the 1200-square-mile park. My memory gaps are filled in by pictures of my brother, my sister, my sister’s shirtless boyfriend and my cousins standing in front of one of the park’s many waterfalls.

I’m looking forward to bringing my boys there to watch them marvel at the rich scenery and to tell them about the park’s original rangers, the Buffalo Soldiers.

Beginning as six segregated regiments in 1866 but later consolidated to four in 1869, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry would come to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. With the extreme shortage of opportunities for Blacks particularly in the South, the all-Black regiments rushed to enlist.

Taking part in the Philippine-American, Spanish-American and the Indian Wars, the units were some of the most distinguished in combat. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Buffalo Soldiers were regularly given the most rugged, challenging and deserted posts to patrol. Apache Leaders Victorio and Geronimo, Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa all faced and surrendered in part because of the Buffalo Soldiers. These American heroes explored, mapped and established outposts throughout the West. They also delivered mail and protected railroads, wagon trains, stage coaches, cattle drives and settlers.

About 500 Buffalo Soldiers were on duty in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks and were responsible for stopping wildlife poaching, confiscating firearms, extinguishing wildfires, and countering illegal grazing on federal lands. They ended timber theft, supervised road and trail construction, and oversaw infrastructural improvement projects—including the installation of hundreds of miles of roads and telegraph lines.

The Buffalo Soldiers served with such talent and distinction that they earned the greatest number of Congressional Medals of Honor (20) of any regiment. First Black National Park Superintendent Charles Young named a giant Sequoia for Booker T. Washington and had a giant sequoia named in his honor in 2004.

Cathay Williams is the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Registered as “William Cathay,” she was a member of the infantry from 1866 – 1868. The link in the previous sentence goes pretty deep into her story and I look forward to writing about her during Women’s History Month.

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