Looking forward to an excursion to a national park this spring or summer? Do you know the role the vaunted Buffalo Soldiers had in the early years of these national treasures? The park system celebrated its 150th birthday in 2022, but many people may be unaware of one of the earliest public faces of California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. In 1903, Colonel Charles Young (1864 – 1922), the third African-American graduate of West Point, became the first Black national park superintendent. In honor of Black History Month, POST would like to provide some insight into this important leader. He blazed trails for people of color who have been too often overlooked in the conservation stories of our country.
The season Young spent at Sequoia and General Grant National Parks (now Sequoia and Kings Canyon) truly showcased his leadership skills. He got to know and negotiated land deals with local landowners. He out-performed the superintendents who came before him, building in one season more roads than had been completed in the previous three combined. His soldiers honored him, and he won the respect of the all-white road crew who reported to him, in addition to the local townspeople.
Former Sequoia and Kings Canyon Chief Naturalist William C. Tweed described Young’s national park legacy in Black Army Captain in Charge During Sequoia National Park’s Early Years,
Although Colonel Charles Young only served one season as Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, he has not been forgotten. The energy and dignity he brought to his national park assignment left a strong imprint. His roads, much improved in later times, are still in use today, having served millions of park visitors…And the example he set – a determined Black man overcoming the prejudices of society – remains an inspiration to anyone who faces life’s challenges head-on.
Young’s journey to that historic post was a long one. He faced difficult constraints as a Black man in the military only a few decades removed from the Civil War.
Young’s enslaved parents escaped to Ohio when he was an infant. His father, Gabriel, enlisted in the Union army and later had a livery business, which allowed his son to become an accomplished horseman. His mother, Arminta, helped him cultivate a love of learning, which served him well his entire life.
At West Point, Young roomed for a year with the only other Black cadet, John Alexander. He guided Young in surviving at West Point and later in the challenges of being a Black officer in the post-Civil War army.
Later in his life, Young gave a hint of his trying experience there. He said the worst he could wish for an enemy would be to make him a Black man and send him to West Point.
Congress created six all-Black army regiments in 1866 to help rebuild the country and to provide support during the “Indian Wars,” which were the result of the U.S. government stripping Native Americans of their land and way of life. The origin of the name Buffalo Soldiers for the Black troops has been attributed to Native Americans. Legend has it that the Plains Indians referred to the Black troops as Buffalo Soldiers because of a perceived resemblance between the soldiers’ hair and the curly hair of the buffalo. Though the source of this lore and the original intent of this name are uncertain, the troops ultimately embraced it, including a buffalo on their official military crest.
After graduating from West Point in 1889, Young joined the Ninth Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where he was again one of only two Black officers. His biographer, Brian G. Shellum, describes the isolating circumstances that Black officers faced. Forbidden, like all officers, to socialize with their troops and unwelcomed by many of the white officers, they generally ate alone and kept to themselves, appearing briefly at social functions before withdrawing.
When Alexander died unexpectedly, Young assumed his post at Wilberforce University, the first African American-owned and operated college in the U.S. Here, Young created the curriculum and training and ran the military science department from 1894-1898. Not only was he highly successful, but it allowed him to meet and befriend Black luminaries including Paul Lawrence Dunbar, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.
After some time leading the Ninth Ohio Battalion, Young rejoined the Ninth Cavalry bound for the Philippines where Filipinos were resisting U.S. control. Young was promoted to Captain – the first Black line officer to achieve that rank – and he and his men served with distinction.
In 1903, Captain Young was assigned to Sequoia and General Grant National Parks becoming the first Black acting national park superintendent.
The army was in charge of protecting the parks; the park service wasn’t created until 1916. Young’s assignments were to complete a wagon road into the park for tourists and to eliminate poaching and illegal grazing. He and his men accomplished much more.
At the time, the parks weren’t guarded during the winter months. Young received permission to start work earlier than previous superintendents. He immediately sent troops to all park access points to stop incursions of poaching and illegal grazing while improving trails on the eastern side of the parks.
We now know that grazing can be beneficial to the landscape, reducing invasive species and promoting wildfire resistance. In this situation, it was more of a tourist-friendly issue. Tourists came to the park not only to see the majestic sequoia trees, but also to see wildlife. If the meadows were over-grazed by sheep, there would be nothing for the deer and other wild animals to eat. Likewise, there would be no food for the horses the tourists rode into the park.
The men of the Ninth also contended with poachers. When disgruntled locals complained the soldiers were also poaching animals, Captain Young had a simple yet elegant solution. He had his soldiers lock up their long rifles and only use them for target practice or work outside the park. The soldiers patrolled using their pistols, and pistols of that day were not powerful enough to use for hunting, thus ending the controversy.
Next, Young evaluated the six miles of road into the park built during the previous three summers. His mission was to complete an additional five miles over one summer. To accomplish this, Young supervised a crew of sixty white civilians blasting rock and constructing the road.
By August, Young’s civilian crew had finished the road to the park. To celebrate, Young and representatives of his soldiers and staff rode into the park on a wagon drawn by four horses.
Young got along with the locals well enough that he accomplished something above and beyond his assigned duties. Within the park boundaries there were eighteen parcels of private land, totaling over 3,800 acres. As he got to know the people living on these parcels, Young began to talk to the locals about selling their land to become a part of the park.
As a Black man in an area largely populated by white citizens, Young likely had to contend with racist attitudes. It is a testament to him that, by the end of the summer season, he had convinced every private landowner to sell their property for an appropriate price. Unfortunately, the government was slow to take advantage of Young’s work. They did not buy the land until a decade later, when it cost substantially more than the prices Young negotiated.
Toward the end of the season, the local citizens wanted to honor him for his work. They approached Young with the idea of naming a tree in the grove in his honor. Young declined, responding that if they still wanted to honor him with a tree in twenty years, he would consider it. He offered an alternative choice: naming a tree after Booker T. Washington, which they did. It took 100 years for a tree in the park to finally be named for Young. Dedicated in the summer of 2004, the Colonel Young Tree stands in Sequoia National Park.
In all, 11 miles of new road were constructed and over 18 miles of trails were improved in one season under Young’s leadership. In his final report, Captain Young, showing a deep understanding of the importance of this posting, wrote,
Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation.
After Sequoia, Young became the first Black military attaché, serving in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and later in Liberia. He returned to war once more, proving himself again in battle against Pancho Villa. Young was promoted to Colonel, but as WWI began, he was medically retired. After riding his horse 500 miles to Washington DC to prove his fitness, he was reinstated shortly before the armistice. He returned to Liberia as an attaché, and died in Nigeria of a kidney infection on January 8th, 1922.
Colonel Young was buried in Nigeria, but his wife Ada worked with Black leaders to return him to Washington D.C. He became one of the first men interred with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Due to prejudice at the time, most Buffalo Soldiers were buried along Arlington’s fringes. Young, however, was laid to rest where he belonged, in the heart of the cemetery not far from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Colonel Charles Young was the most visible and highest-ranking African American in the military for nearly 30 years. He stood up to prejudice and proved himself at every turn. He spoke several languages, was a diplomat, composed and played music, taught military science, French, and math, and became an accomplished mapmaker, all in a society that often doubted his capabilities. Despite the adversity he faced, Young was very successful, ultimately having a lasting effect on one of our treasured national parks. In recognition of his many achievements, Young’s home in Wilberforce, Ohio, became a national monument in 2013.
For more information about Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers:
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more