Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA)today reintroduced the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act, legislation which would authorize the Department of the Interior to study the role that African American soldiers played in establishing the National Park System, including Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
“Locally, my hope is that this remarkable story is incorporated into lesson plans for children learning about our region,” said Speier. “We all learned in history class about the Spanish missionaries, the 49ers and the railroad barons. In more recent years, educators have stressed the history of local Native American tribes who made their home along what would later be known as San Francisco Bay. The sacrifices the Buffalo Soldiers made in service to our country should be added to that history.”
The Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned at the San Francisco Presidio during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries under the command of Colonel Charles Young, an accomplished graduate of West Point who was the highest ranking African-American military officer of his time. He and his fellow troops came to San Francisco after successful campaigns in the Philippines and in the Spanish American War, where they gained legendary status as fearless fighters alongside Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Among the duties assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers after their tours abroad was protecting Yosemite and Sequoia prior to the establishment of the National Park System.
The Buffalo Soldiers made substantial improvements to the parklands and also patrolled for loggers and poachers, a confrontational job under ordinary circumstances made especially risky by the racial tensions of the period. However, despite having to perform their duties under the constant specter of racism and discrimination, by many accounts they quickly earned the trust, respect and friendship of white settlers and landowners surrounding the parklands and became important members of the frontier communities they worked to protect.
To get to the parks, the soldiers left the Presidio in spring and headed south along El Camino Real through San Mateo County. It was a thirteen day trip covering 280 miles from San Francisco to Yosemite. The trek to Sequoia spanned 320 miles and took 16 days. The Native Americans they encountered nicknamed them “buffalo” soldiers in reaction to their dark skin and curly hair. The moniker was bestowed as a badge of honor to the troops, connoting bravery and a fierce fighting spirit.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ story has most recently been memorialized in Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Today, in addition to efforts by the National Park Service to document their work, numerous veterans associations and local groups around the country continue to pay tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers and their role in American history.