The National Parks


Untold Stories | Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers

Find out about the work of ranger Shelton Johnson and his rediscovery of the story of the African American soldiers who patrolled the parks of the High Sierra at the turn of the last century. Shelton tells the story in the dramatis personae of a Buffalo Soldier himself, directly engaging visitors in a way that is immediate and often high impact.

AIRED: June 27, 2012 | 0:11:27

(peaceful flute music)

- [Narrator] Most peoples' experience of a park

is a park like the city park, the county park.

Yosemite is completely different.

It's an entire world that has

its own mountain ranges, its own wildlife.

As a window into the ancient Earth,

the Earth that once was, the Earth that will always be,

park is not a strong enough term to describe

what's beyond this gate.

(peaceful flute music)

- How you doin?


I don't know what you folks want.

We could go for a little walk,

or I could just talk to you right here.

How many of you are too comfortable to move?

(crowd laughs)

I'm not gon' walk that far.

Now my name is Sergeant Alizy Bowman,

and what I was hoping to do is to talk to you

about Yosemite, which seems a good topic,

and about why there are colored soldiers in Yosemite.

How's that sound?

Now I don't want to start walking down that path

and get out there and there's no one behind me

because then you're gonna see a soldier start to cry.

So you really with me?

Okay, then follow me.

(flute music)

- I can't really say that I'm portraying a real person.

I am embodying a real name.

The name Alizy Bowman is on the muster rolls,

which is a listing of all the soldiers

who served in Yosemite in the 9th Calvary.

So I made Alizy Bowman a composite figure

to stand for the 400 to 500 other soldiers,

these African-American soldiers, who served alongside him.

- Would you come on up here closer?

Folks, could you come on up here closer to me?

No, no, come on closer, could you come on up?

Would you come on up?

You're too far away, what are you doing way back there?

Just come on up.

I'm gonna be honest with you,

I didn't know much about Yosemite when I got here.

We got the word at the city of San Francisco

that we were going to be protecting Yosemite National Park

all summer long, this was a summer, the last year, 1903.

We had no idea what Yosemite was.

All we knew, it was something called a National Park.

We had no idea if this was going

to be good duty or bad duty.

Show me your hands right now, how many of you folks

think this is good duty if you get assigned to Yosemite?

How many of you are thinking about enlisting yourself

if this is your duty right here?

Well, we were riding through the Lombard Gate

of the city of San Francisco.

There was a sentry, and he was looking down at us

as we were riding through, and just as I got close to him,

he said, "it just ain't fair,

"these niggers are going up to Yosemite.

"This is a white man's job.

"What's this army coming to?"

It was then and there that I realized

that this was good duty

because if that sentry wanted to be in Yosemite,

maybe we needed to be there too.

[Shelton] When I came here, 15 years ago, I had no idea

that African-American soldiers had anything to do

with the National Parks.

And then I saw the photograph of the 24th Infantry

taken in 1899, sitting on a table

in Yosemite's Research Library.

This, right here,

is the image that changed my life. (laughs)

So this is the earliest shot of African-Americans

here in Yosemite National Park in an official capacity.

These were park protectors,

park rangers before the term was even coined.

Those were the Buffalo Soldiers.

And when I saw this image,

my heart just went what's that?

- They call me a Buffalo Soldier, and I got that name

because the Indians we were fighting in the Indian Wars,

they saw the hair of these soldiers in the 9th Calvary

and the 10th Calvary, and they saw that their hair

was just like the hair between the horns of a buffalo.

So they started calling them Buffalo Soldiers,

out of respect.

It sounds a whole lot better than Nigger Calvary.

- The Buffalo Soldiers fought native peoples.

The Buffalo Soldiers fought

the insurrectos in the Philippines.

The Buffalo Soldiers fought the Spanish

in the Spanish-American War in Cuba.

But the battlefield that was rarely mentioned

was the battlefield of race.

- Tomorrow, we're going to get on a bus,

and we're gonna take this road that crosses the entire park.

- [Shelton] African-Americans, their visitation

is less than 1% of the visitation to Yosemite.

- And the second day we're going to do a day hike

in Summit Clouds Rest, hopefully, try our best.

- When I saw that image, I saw the bridge

that would tie wilderness to the African-American community

right there in the faces and in the eyes

of those dead soldiers who were looking at me

from across a distance of 100 years.

And I knew in the instant that I saw that,

that I was looking at the most significant thing

that I had to do in my career as a park ranger.

This is one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments

that served in the West.

I don't know these guys, I'm not related to these guys.

Okay, I'm gonna have to break this to you,

I'm African-American,

and I'm a park ranger,

and there aren't a lot of African-American park rangers.

In Yosemite, there's me, then there's me,

and there's also me.

Buffalo Soldiers were African-American army regiments

that served in the West, fighting in the Indian Wars,

but they also served here in Yosemite.

So I'm protecting Yosemite, they were protecting Yosemite.

I'm wearing a uniform, they're wearing a uniform.

So, you tell me, young man, how excited was I?

- Extremely excited.

- Oh yeah, I was extremely excited.

- [Shelton] There were African-American soldiers

who were part of the Western Frontier,

who were part of that whole mythology.

In 1903, Charles Young, the third African-American

to graduate from West Point, was the acting military

superintendent of Sequoia National Park.

He's one of my heroes.

When this was happening, there were only parks

in Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Mount Rainier.

The idea of parks was such a new thing

that people behaved inappropriately.

They saw something on the ground they wanted,

they pick it up and they walk out with it.

The mindset was trees are good for building towns,

wildlife is good for feeding your family,

there's a utilitarian purpose to the land,

it's there for us.

The frontier was declared closed around 1890,

and now we're saying protect the Earth, protect the land.

So to say that beauty is also there for us

is a whole new thing.

(folk music)

Very few African-Americans were in any position

of authority in 1903 and 1904.

There were still people around who had been

the enslavers and the enslaved.

It was still living memory, and so they're here

telling people what they could and could not do

to people who are not used to being questioned

at all by African-Americans.

And when you consider that, in 1903 and 1904,

an African-American was being lynched on a daily basis

in the South, and that African-Americans occupy

one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder,

I mean it's a pretty amazing thing

that they were doing what they were doing.

- Will you folks come closer?

I gotta ask you something.

How many of you folks knew when I stopped right here,

you said to yourself, "well, that soldier is stopping us

"right in the shade of a culture."

You see right above us, right here?

This is an Oak tree; this is a California Black Oak.

And a California Black Oak produces an acorn.

Look right here, lemme show you something.

Here's an acorn, and the brown squirrels

and the gray squirrels eat that acorn,

but the Indians, the Indians eat the acorn as well.

And when you look at that tree

and you can recognize that tree,

you look around and you see that there are other trees

just like it, right there, and right there, and right there.

And you realize that we are not just in the valley,

we are in a culture, and this is the crop of that culture.

And you're looking at something that is rooted here

and a culture that is rooted and intertwined

with those roots of this plant.

- [Shelton] In 1904, the Buffalo Soldiers here in Yosemite

built what is considered to be the first museum

in the National Park system.

It was an arboretum near the south fork of the Merced.

In 1903, the 9th Calvary in Sequoia National Park,

built the first usable wagon road into Giant Forest.

Also in 1903, the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia

built the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney,

which, in those days, was the highest mountain

in the United States.

If that's not worthy of being remembered,

I don't know what is.

(flute music)

There's nothing more democratic than a National Park.

You are going into a wonderland,

you are going into a different world,

and doesn't everyone deserve the right to experience

what it must have felt like to be in a place

that no one has ever been before?

We can all have that experience

on any trail in any National Park.

So why should only part of the population have

that sense of wonder and that experience of discovery?

Why can't African-Americans and the Latinos

and Asian-Americans and everybody have that experience

because that is part of the experience

of being an American.

It belongs to everyone.

(flute music)