Indigo Sky, my soon-to-be published historical romance, is centered in the nineteenth-century, and partly takes place in Yosemite. While researching Yosemite again for my next book, I uncovered a prize in Yosemite—Buffalo Soldiers.
“Buffalo Soldiers” was a nickname given to the Negro Cavalry by the Native American tribes they fought in Yosemite. In September 1867, Private John Randall was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunters suddenly became the hunted when a band of seventy Cheyenne warriors swept down on them. The two civilians quickly fell in the initial attack and Randall’s horse was shot out from beneath him. Randall managed to scramble to safety behind a washout under the railroad tracks, where he fended off the attack with only his pistol and 17 rounds of ammunition until help from the nearby camp arrived. The Cheyenne beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind 13 fallen warriors. Private Randall suffered a gunshot wound to his shoulder and 11 lance wounds, but recovered. The Cheyenne quickly spread word of this new type of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo— who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”
The term eventually became synonymous with all of the African-American regiments. During the American Civil War, the government formed “colored troops.” After the war, Congress reorganized the army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry with Infantry designations. Some took the job of protecting Yosemite, others in Yellowstone.
The late 1800’s saw civil rights issues at its extreme. Discrimination increased as the number of African-American U.S. soldiers increased. Racial segregation plagued the nation, yet our soldiers of color exhibited an attitude that reflected their “distinguished service,” protecting their country. In 1886, uncontrolled fires traumatized parks and its inhabitants. According to the National Park Services, in the mid 1800’s, army regiments were dispatched to Yosemite. Four of the six regiments that patrolled Yosemite National Park were African-American–the Buffalo Soldiers, whose duties were evicting poachers and timber thieves and extinguishing forest fires.
Not exactly current events, but some relatively recent history: The 1960 Western film Sergeant Rutledge tells the story of the trial of a 19th-century black Army first sergeant of the 9th Cavalry, played by Woody Strode, falsely accused of rape and murder. One of the characters narrates a history of the term “Buffalo Soldier” as coming from Plains Indians who first saw troopers of the 9th Cavalry wearing buffalo coats and caps in winter, and thought they looked like buffaloes. The movie’s theme song, titled “Captain Buffalo”, was written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston. In the last decade, the employment of the Buffalo Soldiers by the United States Army in the Indian Wars has led a few historical revisionists to call for the “critical reappraisal” of the “Negro regiments.” In this viewpoint, shared by a small minority, the Buffalo Soldiers were used as mere shock troops or accessories to the forcefully-expansionist goals of the U.S. government at the expense of the Native Americans and other minorities.
The Buffalo Soldier Cavalry Regiment was formed in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was an active regiment until the Korean War in 1951. The last and oldest living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died at the age of 111 on September 6, 2005 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. An honor reserved for those who have gallantly served our country.
“History is a source of strength,” says Pulitzer Price winning historian, David McCullough. “It sets higher standards for all of us.”
What era in American History surprised you?