African-America soldiers made significant contributions to the early parks
More than a century ago, African Americans played a critical, pioneering role managing and stewarding Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada. It’s a fascinating story that is an important part of the legacy of giant sequoia conservation.
The National Park Service wasn’t created until 1916, so before then, management of park facilities largely fell to the military. At the beginning of the 20th century, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks were administered by the U.S. Army, which rotated regiments out of the Presidio in San Francisco. In 1899, 1903, and 1904, soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry managed these two parks. These groups were among the four African-American regiments created by Congress after the Civil War, which came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers during their deployment in the American West.
These military units were the official face of the federal government on these lands, responsible for a wide range of duties such as evicting poachers and timber thieves, building and maintaining park infrastructure, and extinguishing forest fires. The presence of these troops was a substantial boon to the local economy, as well. Among the specific accomplishments of the Buffalo Soldiers in the area during this time was the completion of the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the contiguous United States) in Sequoia National Park in 1903. A section of the road built by the 9th Cavalry has been designated the Buffalo Soldiers Scenic Route. The troops also built an arboretum in Yosemite National Park near the south fork of the Merced River in 1904.
In addition, in 1903, the 9th Cavalry in Sequoia National Park was led by Col. Charles Young, the third African-American graduate of the U.S. military academy at West Point. In this role, Young served as the acting military superintendent of Sequoia National Park that year, making him the first African-American superintendent of a national park. In 2019, the National Park Service designated a section of Highway 198 in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in his honor.
2022 addendum: In January of 2022, the U.S. Army promoted Young to the rank of brigadier general in recognition of his varied and distinguished career.