July 24th, 6:54pm
When Park Ranger Shelton Johnson learned about the Buffalo Soldiers early in his Yosemite career, he was shocked by how few people knew about this important legacy. Despite growing up a shy kid in Detroit, who moved out west after receiving a degree in poetry, Shelton took a look around and saw that he would have to preserve this legacy himself. In the years since, Shelton has developed a living history program, created the character Elizy Bowman, whose experience is captured in his novel “Gloryland,” and a PBS film, and developed the Yosemite theater program that we attended on Sunday evening.
‘Buffalo Soldiers’ was the term given to the 10th cavalry, an African-American infantry unit who fought in the Indian Wars throughout the Southwest in, from 1866-1890. The term was one of respect from Native Americans, who likened their hair to the matted fur of the buffalo, their sacred animal. After these wars, the unit was stationed in the Presidio, and were the first available when the country decided that this new protected land, this national parks idea, needed policing. The 10th cavalry was sent to patrol and protect Yosemite & Sequoia National Parks, an assignment known as “the cavalry men’s paradise.” In addition to protecting these newly formed lands, Buffalo Soldiers also began some of the first major construction projects into these parks.
It is Shelton’s work to embody Elizy Bowman, and tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, that has made him one of the most visible contemporary Park Rangers of Yosemite. He has appeared in Ken Burns’ films about the National Parks, and the Oprah Winfrey show. It’s his work that led us giddily to learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers, a story that we hope we’ll get to share in the final “Campfire Stories!”