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Buffalo Soldiers in the Cavalryman’s Paradise

This Climbing Life first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016.

[Photo] Tyler Roemer

[Photo] Tyler Roemer

FOR A CLIMBER, WILDERNESS IS VERTICAL, it’s up and down, a geography perceptible as gravity, the ache of resistance as you move into the sky. But, not so long ago, for visitors here in the West, even relatively flat terrain felt energetic precisely because it was unknown, except to Indigenous people.

For the Ninth Cavalry and Twenty-fourth Infantry men who explored Yosemite on horseback over 100 years ago, the pitch of the wild was somewhere between panic and bliss, neither plain nor peak, but still a high country.

In 1899, 1903 and 1904, Yosemite’s roads were as rough to ride as an Army mule. The trails were deer paths, easy to navigate if you were a mountain lion.

The Buffalo Soldiers, African American veterans of the Philippine War, had moved from the lows of those rainforests to the snows of the tallest mountain range in the United States. Here, they were no longer soldiers, but rangers in a high country called Yosemite.

They weren’t lost; they were just trying to figure out exactly where they were, but they’d been in that wilderness for months, surrounded by cold mountains rising, and the bluest sky they’d ever seen, a land frequented by different folk, such as the scattered yet undefeated remnant of the Indigenous people who had survived the Gold Rush, but also the scoundrels called timber thieves and poachers by Army officers. The Buffalo Soldiers were up against pioneers, hard men with no love for the newfangled invention called a national park, and no love for anyone enforcing those rules and regulations. For some of the citizens of Mariposa County, this was just a new way for the government to keep a man from staying warm in the winter, or from feeding his family. These cavalry and infantry troops served as some of the first park rangers anywhere.

Depending on which side of the boundary you stood, doing right was wrong, and doing wrong was right. For any soldier it meant difficult conversations in difficult terrain; difficult rides to patrol posts, to cabins in the wild.

For the Buffalo Soldiers, each patrol post defined a sanctuary, a refuge from hard talk in a hard place during a hard time. For the average park visitor intent on enjoying the beauty, and obeying the rules, such conflicts were invisible. For the Colored Regiments of the Ninth Cavalry and Twenty-fourth Infantry, working in a national park was relatively easy duty. Although it’s probable that they may have been disparaged verbally, any time you can get through the day with no one actively trying to kill you, well, that’s a good day for any soldier.

These men were veterans of the Philippine Insurrection, a racially charged, bloody conflict with plenty of ambiguity in terms of right and wrong to go around. This atmosphere clouded that unforgiving terrain, but the clear skies of a Yosemite summer must’ve felt like a homecoming for the Buffalo Soldiers, medicinal in its cumulative impact on body and soul, in short, a cavalryman’s paradise.

–Shelton Johnson, Yosemite Valley, California

This Climbing Life first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016. Issue 56 is available direct through our online store.