Facts About Buffalo Soldiers, The Afro-American “Park Rangers”

Buffalo Soldiers the First African Park Rangers


When President Teddy Roosevelt visited San Francisco in 1903, he personally requested the now-legendary Buffalo Soldiers to serve as his security detail throughout the city. According to some historians, he did so to honor these African-American soldiers, whose military prowess enabled his Rough Riders to make their heroic charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

Whatever the motivation, this was the first time a President asked an African-American unit to serve as his Escort of Honor. In 2016, as the Buffalo Soldiers celebrate their 150th anniversary and the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial, it’s a good time to reflect on how their history intersects with the story of our national parks, including the Presidio.

The term “Buffalo Soldiers” was coined in 1866 to describe soldiers in four all-black United States Army units: the 9th Cavalry Regiment, the 10th Cavalry Regiment, the 24th Infantry Regiment, and the 25th Infantry Regiment. Native Americans, against whom the black soldiers fought during the so-called Indian Wars, gave them the name. Their curly black hair was also said to be reminiscent of a buffalo’s coat, and since bison are revered in Native American cultures, this was considered a term of respect).


These fearless Buffalo Soldiers were sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, to the Pacific during the Philippine-American War, and to the Mexican front during the Pancho Villa Expedition in the years that followed. All four units passed through the Army’s Presidio of San Francisco at various times, but only the 9th Cavalry and 24th Infantry were garrisoned there. In fact, the men of the 9th lived in the Main Post barracks (the red-brick buildings that still stand today, along Montgomery Street).

Troops from the 9th and 24th played pivotal roles in the history of our parklands during their time in San Francisco. Black soldiers patrolled Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Parks beginning in 1899 and again between 1903 and 1904. Because the National Park Service was not established until 1916, it could be argued that the Buffalo Soldiers were among the very first park rangers (even the iconic “Smokey Bear” hat is based on troop headwear from the time).

Many military men recognized the African American units’ contributions and valor; General John J. Pershing, who lived on the Presidio with his family, held the Buffalo Soldiers in such high regard that he was given the nickname “Black Jack.” Nonetheless, in turn-of-the-century American society, black soldiers faced rampant racism and discrimination.

Brawls between black and white soldiers were common in San Francisco’s saloons and streetcars. It’s even more remarkable that the Buffalo Soldiers served their country so bravely and selflessly in the face of such racial prejudice. They were always caught between a rock and a hard place because they were asked to be good soldiers while also assisting the United States in spreading democracy, liberty, and equality to people in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

They did this despite the fact and knowledge that their parents were not granted full citizenship as they deserved. Furthermore, African-Americans had little democracy, liberty, or equality in their own country in many cases. So, doing the job they did while constantly confronted with this moral quandary was a testament to their integrity and sense of self.

Today, anyone can pay their respects to these remarkable men in the Presidio. At the San Francisco National Cemetery, over 400 Buffalo Soldiers are interred.



Written by How Africa News

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