Tuesday , May 28 2024

Buffalo Soldiers: The First Guardians Of Yosemite

"If people are looking at environmental heroes the buffalo soldiers were some of the first environmental heroes."

Armed with a gentle voice and a strong stroll park ranger Shelton Johnson, a Detroit native and university of Michigan graduate spends his days educating visitors about his predecessors, the buffalo soldiers.  The group of African American soldiers was stationed there in the late 1800s after fighting in several wars.

Johnson who became a ranger in the early 80s first learned of the group after coming across a photo on the grounds.  He would later expand his knowledge talking to another ranger and later doing additional research.

This video you are seeing is from the 2014 documentary titled Through the eyes of a buffalo soldier

The film which was shot by Sylvester Johnson features Shelton and a group of Buffalo Soldier reenactors from Los Banos.

In 1899, 1903 1904 the soldiers serving in these parts were African American” said Johnson

For Johnson, the group of men bears a striking resemblance to himself from the top of their heads.

During hand to hand combat the plains Indians saw the hair on the heads of these soldiers was the same as the was just like the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo


To the sole of the feet which Johnson uses to fill some pretty big shoes.

"There were over 500 buffalo soldiers that served in sequoia and Yosemite national park."

I look at the muster roles and found three different soldiers who when they arrived here had been in the military for over 20 or 30 years

The group was largely made up of men serving in the 9th and 10th cavalry or the 24th and 25th infantry led by a decorated colonel Charles Young.

Charles young knew Paul Lawrence Dunbar, WEB DuBois; he was part of the black inteligencia and was the highest African American serving in the u-s of his day.

The men largely from the south were given authoritative roles to protect park lands.


To make sure no one was poaching the deer no one was cutting the trees down or not in accordance with park service policy

Johnson also spoke with us about other key duties the soldiers had while tending to the thousands of acres of wild land.


They built the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, in those days it was the tallest mountain in the United States

While touring the iconic park with Johnson we saw trees several stories high and granite rock that seemed to nearly reach the sun.


In 1903 the soldiers in sequoia park built the first usable wagon road.

By 1905 all were being patrolled by the buffalo soldiers.

And that history was unfortunately almost lost. It was forgotten

By 1916 their assignment would come to a close and their task handed off to the first official national park rangers.

The hat that I am wearing that every park ranger wears in the U.S. is a cavalry hat.

As years went on few recalled who and what they Buffalo Soldiers did


Most folks visiting the park had no idea this park was once protected by African Americans” Johnson said


Retired African American studies professor Kehinde Solwazi says that knowledge about the buffalo soldiers has held largely because of their visibility over the years.

We are fortunate enough to have them come to our events; we have an African American museum.” said Solwazi 

Solwazi who taught at Fresno city says students entering his classes were largely unaware.

I ask my first class have you ever heard of buffalo soldiers … Maybe a poem or song but they don’t know

Knowledge he believes could empower next generation

We have to do deeper work teaching our children and young people their rich history.

Real life legacy that almost vanished, until a young kid from Detroit made his way to California, working hard each day to spread the word of their significant accomplishments he didn’t want to be forgotten.


As it turned out a journey that Shelton began to help preserve nature, has allowed him to preserve so much more.

We can we will, ready and forward” Johnson said

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