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America's First Park Rangers

Yosemite’s well-known, early stories of the park often center around conservationist John Muir and his work that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. However, a chapter in Yosemite's park history, and the history of the National Park Service often goes disregarded: The service of Black soldiers protecting the newly formed Yosemite National Park.

At this time, the concept of a "National Park" was still brand new not only to the U.S. but to the entire world. The landscapes of Yosemite and Sequoia, along with Yellowstone were the first of 3 National Parks that existed in the world at the time. The lands were federally protected from but no system existed yet to enforce this protection. The National Park Service wasn't formed until 1916, meaning that for almost 30 years the young National Parks were left without a formal system of protection.

Nobody quite knew how to actually enforce protection of these new protected lands. Technically it fell under the duties of the US Department of the Interior, but securing the vast terrains became a problem. Yosemite was vulnerable to farmers and herders, who would drag cattle through the valley and cause tremendous amounts of damage to the ecosystems. Yosemite was also vulnerable to rogue timber thieves, poachers, and other illegal activities.

The U.S. Army was the solution. They had the organization, mobility and logistics to protect the parks. The Army soon became the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks between 1891 and 1913, and, in that capacity, it helped create a model for park management as we know it today.

After the Civil War, many black men from the South enlisted in the Army as a way to escape the narrow job opportunities available to them post-war. Really, the only opportunities for work included sharecropping and other labor intensive work. Although approximately 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, they were not allowed to be a part of the regular peacetime Army. In 1866, however, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act, which created six African American regiments, the first professional Black soldiers in the United States Army. By 1869, these six regiments were consolidated into four units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

The first U.S. Army regiment to be assigned to supervise the new western National Parks was one of these four segregated regiments. Approximately 500 Black soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and nearby Sequoia National Park.

Their duties included confiscating firearms as well as curbing poaching of the park's wildlife, suppressing wildfires, ending illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and stopping thefts of timber and other natural objects. They oversaw the construction of roads, trails, and other infrastructure. They essentially were the deciders and enforcers of what was and wasn't allowed in a federally protected land. They were the first park rangers.

Even though these men wore the uniform of the U.S. Army, their ethnicity combined with the racial prejudice of the time made the performance of their duties quite challenging. In the early 1900s, African-Americans were routinely abused, and killed for the slightest perceived offense. They occupied the lowest rungs of the social ladder; a fact which served to undercut the authority of any black man who served in any position of power, even military. Yosemite and Sequoia's Buffalo Soldiers had to be simultaneously strong and diplomatic to fulfill the duties of their job but to avoid giving offense.

The presence of these soldiers as official stewards of park lands brought a sense of law and order to the mountain wilderness. They are also credited with having created the very first marked Nature Trail in the National Park System. Charles Young, the third African-American graduate of West Point, served as the acting military superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903. Although his tenure was brief, it was groundbreaking. Young is regarded as the first African-American superintendent of a national park.

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