During the Indian conflicts on the western plains after the Civil War, Native Americans gave Black regiments of the U.S. Army the name Buffalo Soldiers, after their short, curly hair, which to them, looked like a bison. The soldiers took a liking to the name, and it stuck.
The Buffalo Soldiers contributed to the U.S. in many ways over the course of nearly 90 years, but one of their most important was as the first caretakers of our national parks. Between 1891 and 1913, the Army was tasked with the protection of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Buffalo soldiers fought wildfires and poachers, ended illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and constructing roads, trails and other infrastructure. In 1903, Captain Charles Young led a company of Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia and what is now Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, becoming the first African American park superintendent.
Gabriel & Arminta Young, an enslaved couple from May’s Lick, Kentucky, gave birth to son Charles on March 12th, 1864. That same year, Gabriel escaped enslavement and joined the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery of the Union Army. The family relocated across the river into Ripley, Ohio, seeking a new life in the river town, which was also an important station of the underground railroad.
Young Charles excelled in school, particularly in foreign languages and in music. His mother had been educated while enslaved, a rarity, and she taught him lessons beyond his public schooling. Charles graduated with academic honors from an integrated high school in 1881 at age 17. Knowing the power of education, after high school, he taught the children at the African-American elementary school in Ripley for two years while he continued his own education by studying with renowned abolitionist John Parker.
Gabriel encouraged his son to take apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Charles scored the second highest on the exam but was not selected to the Academy that year. When the candidate ahead of him dropped out of West Point, Charles Young would receive his opportunity.
As a cadet, Young encountered racial insults and isolation. He suffered poor academic performance in his first year and was forced to repeat it. Starting over, he did well, until he was faced with a failing grade in engineering during his last semester. After tutoring from his instructor, he was allowed to re-take the exam. He passed and was awarded his diploma and commission in the summer of 1889. He was only the ninth African American to attend West Point, and the third to graduate.
African American officers were not allowed to command white troops. Young was assigned as the 2nd Lieutenant to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. After a year of isolation and hostility, Young transferred to a post in Utah, where the command and fellow officers proved more welcoming. Here he mentored Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. who later became the first African American to attain the rank of General. He also served as director of the fort’s marching band.
Between 1889 and 1907 Charles Young served in the 9th Cavalry, now known as the Buffalo Soldiers, at posts in the west and rose to the rank of captain. He taught military science, served as a military attaché, and fought in the Philippine-American War, winning the praise of his commanders for his troops’ courage and professionalism, at which point he was assigned to a post in Wilberforce, Ohio.
He was to take over the planning and eventual teaching for the new Military Sciences & Tactics courses at Wilberforce University. Young built the program to just over 100 cadets by the 1898 class. He also helped establish the Wilberforce University marching band and became one of the most distinguished professors.
Young remained at Wilberforce until early 1898 when the war with Spain had begun with the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Cuba. He did not re-join his troopers of the 9th Cavalry, however. Instead, he was appointed as Major and commander of the Ninth Ohio Battalion, U.S. Volunteers.
In the summer of 1903, Young and his troops were tasked to manage and maintain the recently created Sequoia National Park in northern California. Buffalo Soldiers were among the first park and backcountry rangers patrolling many parts of the West. Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks with duties ranging from evicting poachers and timber thieves to extinguishing forest fires. Their noteworthy accomplishments were executed despite the added burden of racism.
Even though the Buffalo Soldiers wore the uniform of the U.S. Army, racial prejudice made the performance of their duties quite challenging. In the early 1900s, African-Americans were routinely abused, or even killed, for the slightest perceived offense. They occupied one of 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. 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.
Upon arrival, Young’s troops proceeded to construct roads and trails that other troops were unable to do in the years before them. They completed the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney. As the leader, Young would inherit the title of Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. He incorporated the local townsfolk to assist his troop’s efforts and he and his troops’ accomplishments from their summer of hard work were lauded by many throughout the area.
In 1904 Captain Young became the first Military Attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. He joined 23 other officers (the only African American among them) serving in these diplomatic posts in the Theodore Roosevelt administration. He won President Roosevelt’s praise through an introduction Roosevelt wrote for his monograph on the people and customs of Hispaniola. Young’s experiences in foreign service and as a commander in the Philippines formed the basis of his book, “The Military Morale of Nations and Races.”
From 1912 to 1916, he served as the military attaché to Liberia, helping to train the Liberian Frontier Force. After returning from Liberia, he then served as a squadron commander during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Agua Caliente, leading his men to the aid of a cavalry unit that had been ambushed. By 1916, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel
The following summer, Young was medically retired and promoted to colonel in recognition of his distinguished Army service. He wasn’t ready, however, to stop. He was the highest-ranking African American Army officer in 1918, but despite an impressive leadership record, the Army refused Young’s request to command troops in Europe. To demonstrate his fitness to serve, the then 54-year-old hopped a horse and made a historic 500-mile ride from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Afterwards, the Secretary of War gave Young an informal hearing but did not reverse the decision. Young was, however, sent back to Ohio to help muster and train African-American recruits for the war.
After the war ended, at the request of the State Department, Colonel Young was sent once more to serve as military attaché to Liberia, arriving in Monrovia in February of 1920. While on a visit to Nigeria, he became gravely ill and died at the British hospital in Lagos on January 8th, 1922. Due to British law, Young’s body was buried in Lagos.
In the year after his death, Young’s wife and many other notable African Americans lobbied the U.S. to repatriate Young’s remains from Nigeria so he could receive a proper burial in American soil. One year later, Young’s body was exhumed and transported back to the U.S.
Upon arriving in New York City in late May of 1923, Young’s body received a hero’s welcome. Thousands upon thousands celebrated Young’s life as he made his way to Washington, D.C. On June 1st, 1923, Colonel Charles Young became the fourth soldier honored with a funeral service at Arlington Memorial Amphitheater before he was buried alongside the thousands of other heroes in Arlington.
The Buffalo Soldiers went on to serve the U.S. Army with distinction and honor until the desegregation of the military and disbandment of the 27th Cavalry on December 12, 1951.
On March 25th, 2013, President Obama signed the document establishing the 401st unit under the protection of the National Park Service, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio. The proclamation set aside nearly 60 acres of land that includes the former home of Colonel Young. He purchased the house located at 1120 U.S. Route 42 East, with his wife Ada in 1907 and affectionately nicknamed it “Youngsholm.” The house would become the social hub of the Wilberforce University area for many years as notable African Americans, family, friends, and strangers would often gather there to enjoy the Young family hospitality. The house also serves as the face of the park.
“Youngsholm” is situated less than one mile west of the Wilberforce University and Central State University campuses, and is open for regular visitation on weekends but guests can view the historical markers on the park grounds at any time.
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