Buffalo Soldiers: The Original Park Rangers

Driving into Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass offers a prelude to the magnificent scenic views of the park’s wilderness.

Before beginning my internship at Devils Postpile National Monument, I made a pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park to experience John Muir’s Range of Light firsthand. I hoped that I would be lucky enough to meet a specific Park Ranger, whose book I had previously read, and attend his interpretive program. Entering the boundaries of the park on the historic Tioga Pass, I became a bit overwhelmed by the significance of the surrounding wilderness. Having learned about parts of Yosemite’s history prior to driving out west, I was excited to navigate my route through the park using roads blazed by the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. Members of four segregated units of the US Army, these original protectors of the National Parks of the Sierra Nevada built many of the roads and trails that are still used by visitors, and enacted and enforced restrictions on behalf of the Department of the Interior. After receiving maps and information from the Yosemite entrance booth, I learned that the ranger whom I admired only led his program on Sunday evenings. I was a day too early. This minor disappointment wouldn’t detract from my tremendous enjoyment of the granite cliffs, pristine meadows, and vast wilderness, but it set me up for a huge surprise a few weeks into my internship.

A very kind visitor took this candid photo of my unexpected introduction to Shelton Johnson. As you may observe from the expression on my face (on the right), this was a really exciting moment.

At Devils Postpile National Monument one afternoon a few weeks later, while arriving at the ranger station after collecting trash from the surrounding grounds, I noticed a tall figure in Cavalry uniform exiting the building. I hesitantly approached, reluctant to appear conspicuous while attempting to determine his identity. As he walked past, I sheepishly mumbled “Are you Shelton Johnson?” an unnecessary question since I immediately recognized him. He confirmed my suspicion before I even began telling him about his inspiring role in my journey to working in conservation. Our Law Enforcement ranger, Nina Weisman, then answered some of his questions about filming within our monument the next day.

The Buffalo Soldiers were a hit among visitors who were surprised to see men in Cavalry uniform wielding rifles throughout Devils Postpile National Monument.

Knowing how important the previous day’s meeting had been to me, Nina requested my assistance when the crew arrived to film. “Crowd control and trash collecting” were my official duties that day, but the few hours I spent conversing with Shelton were well worth the effort. I got to converse with Shelton about topics ranging from altitude acclimatization, the presence of Buffalo Soldiers in our valley, his journey into the National Park Service, and how often visitors fall off the top of the Postpile. It was an experience I will not soon forget.

Nina Weisman made an exception to the “no climbing on the rocks” rule for the military reenactors, who filmed scenes atop and at the base of the Devils Postpile.

As an interpretive ranger at Yosemite National Park, Shelton has been performing The Forgotten Yosemite: A Buffalo Soldier Remembers each Sunday for over fifteen years. During this passionate one-man show, he portrays Elizy Bowman, a 9th Cavalry sergeant of Troop “K” stationed in Yosemite from the summer of 1903 to 1904. 400 African American US Army soldiers were assigned to protect the parks of California’s Sierra Nevada from the summer of 1899 through 1904. Shelton and his crew were in the process of filming an adaptation of this program for future generations of Yosemite’s visitors to ensure that this interpretive living history of the Buffalo Soldiers tale would remain a staple in Yosemite’s programming and lore for many more years.

This photo depicts members of the 24th Mounted Infantry’s patrol of Yosemite during the summer of 1899. Ranger Shelton Johnson discovered this photo, which inspired his work resurrecting the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, in the Yosemite Research Library. (courtesy of the Yosemite Research Library and nps.gov/yose)

It may seem surprising, but these original supervisors of California’s National Parks have been basically forgotten; an unknown portion of American history. Shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War in early 1899, members of the US Army’s 24th Mounted Infantry and 9th Cavalry units were sent on a fourteen day journey east from the Presidio in San Francisco to Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (Kings Canyon) Parks led by the legendary Captain Charles Young (who later became the first Acting Superintendent of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks). Devils Postpile National Monument, where I work as an Interpretation Intern, was once part of the southern boundary of Yosemite and housed soldiers at Agnew Meadows and Reds Meadows posts.

Shelton and his fellow Cavalrymen film a scene in which the soldiers take a break from their patrol to investigate the extraordinary columnar basalt of the Devils Postpile.

Aside from building roads and facilities such as Tioga Pass in Yosemite, and others that are now used as hiking trails throughout Sequoia, these soldiers fought fires, caught poachers and loggers exploiting park resources, and enforced penalties for those who violated park rules. One of the more notable solutions to illegal grazing of sheep and cattle involved soldiers displacing shepherds from their herds in the most inconvenient of ways. For example, if soldiers out on a patrol in a park found a man grazing animals, they would typically eject him from one corner of the park, while relocating his herd to another corner, roughly 125 miles from each other. Terrain throughout the parks was rugged, but the men of the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry units were able to truly appreciate the Sierra wilderness in which they worked.

This glorious High Sierra landscape, which I enjoyed during a recent hike to Young Lake at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, is as undisturbed and pristine as the park’s original protectors might have observed during their patrols.

Though they have been mostly overlooked throughout history, the Buffalo Soldiers who paved the way for modern Park Rangers have been resurrected in part by thoughtful historians and interpreters like Shelton Johnson. In addition to his weekly interpretive program, Shelton wrote Gloryland, a novel in which he elaborates on the life of Elizy Bowman prior to, and during, his tenure as a Cavalry sergeant in Yosemite National Park. Recently, Representative Jackie Speier of California has worked to enact the House of Representatives Bill 520: Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act in order to authorize the Department of the Interior to conduct a study of alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the early years of the National Park system. The US Postal Service has also commemorated Captain Charles Young and the service of the Buffalo Soldiers on a postage stamp, which we sell in our ranger station bookstore. It was an unexpected treat, and an absolute honor to speak at length with one of the most well-known and insightful interpretive National Park Rangers in the Service. Though many Americans are unaware of the rich history which he proliferates, I am completely intrigued and intend to continue spreading the word about the original official protectors of California’s incredible parks. Out of all of my experiences at work thus far, meeting Shelton Johnson is one of the greatest highlights.

This photo-op concluded one of the most memorable days of my internship at Devils Postpile National Monument.