American history is Black history. So much of American history is more diverse than it might appear, including the history of land conservation.
In 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, Congress established regiments of enlisted Black soldiers. The 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry served in peacetime as well as in every American war until the US Army integrated troops in 1951. These Black soldiers were known as Buffalo Soldiers, the name given them by Native Americans, possibly as a respectful reflection of an animal they esteemed for its bravery and fierceness.
Until 1913, when the Park Service was established, the military was the sole protector of national parks, and the Buffalo Soldiers could be considered among the first park rangers. In Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, they chased away poachers, fought fires, and constructed trails in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They endured long days in the saddle, racism, and slim rations, as well as separation from family.
Their legacy includes an arboretum in Yosemite that is considered to be the first museum in the National Park System, as well as the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney, at that time the highest peak in the United States.
Another legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers may be the Ranger hat, also known as the Smokey Bear hat. Although not officially adopted by the Army until 1911, the distinctive hat crease, called a Montana peak or pinch, is worn by several of the Buffalo Soldiers in park photographs dating back to 1899. Soldiers serving in the Spanish–American War added the pinch to Stetsons to better shed water from tropical rains. The park photographs show Buffalo Soldiers who were probably veterans of that 1898 war.
We owe a debt of gratitude to these unsung conservation heroes.