Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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Buffalo Soldiers as National Park Pioneers

June 10, 2010
San Francisco Chronicle
By Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Congresswoman Barbara Lee

View the original piece here

It is difficult to imagine California history without gold miners, Spanish missionaries or the Chinese immigrants who built large segments of the transcontinental railroad.

Now, imagine California's history being told without including the Buffalo Soldiers. For many readers, that's an easier task. Why? Because it's very likely they have never heard of them, and unfortunately they aren't aware of the soldiers' unique and important contributions to our state's history.

Without knowing it, many Californians have been to the very places where the Buffalo Soldiers once made camp. The Buffalo Soldiers were the Army's first peacetime all-black regiments, established by Congress in the late 1800s. They were given this nickname by Native Americans, possibly because of their dark skin and curly hair. Since the buffalo was revered among Native Americans for its brave fighting spirit, the troops accepted the title as a badge of honor.

Despite fighting for their country in the Spanish-American War, where they gained legendary status as fearless fighters alongside Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the Buffalo Soldiers lacked equal rights at home and faced racism and discrimination as they performed their duties on the frontier.

The Buffalo Soldiers were our nation's first park rangers, and they played a critical role in the early stages of developing our national park system. In the latter half of the 19th century, the soldiers were stationed at the Presidio. Their mission was to protect lands in what would later become Sequoia and Yosemite national parks. Each May, they rode south along El Camino Real through San Mateo County, embarking on a 13-day trip covering 280 miles from San Francisco to Yosemite. The trek to Sequoia spanned 320 miles and took 16 days.

These soldiers were true pioneers. They blazed trails, built roads and protected lands for visitors. They helped make the dream of our national parks a reality.

Frontier work was difficult and often dangerous business, demanding hard labor that was a challenge even for many of these battle-tested veterans. During one trip, 40 to 50 men and up to 12 horses labored through the season to construct more miles of road than had been built in the previous three seasons combined. Discrimination made their job a heavier burden still. More than 100 years later, the road they built is still in use as a Sequoia National Park hiking trail.

Our legislation, the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act, instructs the National Park Service to study and commemorate the Buffalo Soldiers' legacy in our parks. Creating a national historic trail that marks the route traveled by the Buffalo Soldiers is a good place to start.

The vote by the House last week to approve the bill was only one step toward the rightful recognition of these soldiers. Just as we recently honored and remembered on Memorial Day those who died in service to our country, let us also honor the service of those who often have gone forgotten - the Buffalo Soldiers. All Californians owe these troops a great debt for their service, and it is essential that their story be included in California's rich and diverse history.

Rep. Jackie Speier represents San Mateo and San Francisco counties, and Rep. Barbara Lee represents Oakland.