Colonel Charles Young, Early Park Superintendent

Charles Young in full dress uniform prior to receiving the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1916.
Charles Young in full dress uniform prior to receiving the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1916.

National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio




"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."

-Captain Charles Young in Report of the Acting Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, California, October 15, 1903

 
Captain Charles Young is photographed with soldiers and the 1903 Generals Highway construction crew.
Young, seated center, with the 1903 road construction crew. NPS Photo

Charles Young Arrives in the Parks

When Captain Charles Young, the new military superintendent, arrived in Sequoia and General Grant national parks, he had already faced many challenges. Born into slavery in Kentucky during the Civil War, Young's life took him to places where a Black man was rarely welcome. He was the first African American to graduate from the white high school in Ripley, Ohio. Through competitive examination, he won an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1884. After years of struggle, he went on to graduate with his commission, only the third Black man to do so.

Young’s military career flourished in the cavalry. In 1903, while serving as a Captain of an all-Black regiment at San Francisco’s Presidio, he was asked to take his troops to Sequoia and General Grant national parks (what is now Sequoia National Park and a small portion of Kings Canyon National Park). Here, he became acting superintendent for the summer. On May 20, ninety-six enlisted men of troops I and M of the 9th Cavalry, known as Buffalo Soldiers, departed San Francisco for their new assignments at the parks.

At that time, Sequoia and General Grant national parks were thirteen years old but they were still relatively undeveloped and difficult to access. Park management became the responsibility of the US Army beginning in 1891, and for the next ten summers they worked to stop the poaching of wildlife, illegal logging, and sheep grazing. Beginning in 1900, however, Congress authorized $10,000 annually to aid the parks with increasing access. The Army began improving an old wagon road that went to the Giant Forest from what is now Three Rivers, California.

Progress on the road prior to 1903 was slow, and after three summers, barely five miles of road had been constructed. Hoping to outpace the progress of previous military administrations, Young asked to begin work early and poured considerable energy into the project. Supervising a construction manager and civilian roadworkers, his crews soon made dirt and rock begin to fly. By mid-August of 1903, wagons traveled to the sequoia groves for the first time. Still not content, Young kept his crews of men working and they soon extended the road to the base of Moro Rock. Young reported that the road was built with less than an 8% grade and that it “should in future insure a thousand tourists where in previous years there have been but a hundred.” And so began an era of tourism in the parks.

Today, the path of the original park road follows the modern-day Colony Mill hiking trail from its intersection with Crystal Cave Road to the Generals Highway, then continuing along the highway to the Giant Forest and Round Meadow. The road to Moro Rock is also part of the original road work completed under Captain Young’s leadership.

 
Section of road constructed under the command of Charles Young, 1903.
Section of park road constructed under the command of Charles Young, 1903.

National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio

Other Achievements

Road construction was far from the only notable achievement that Young made while serving as superintendent. During his tenure, the parks reported no poaching violations. His troops stationed on the east side of the Sierra stopped herds of domestic sheep from entering the park and illegally grazing in meadows. Over 18 miles of trail were improved, including a trail connecting the Giant Forest to Mineral King. Young also convinced a majority of private landowners to sign contracts agreeing to sell tracts of land surrounded by the parks, particularly those located in the Giant Forest. While these contracts were not fully executed after he left his post, these early negotiations established the idea that it was critical to both the parks and private landowners to settle contentious property rights issues, paving a foundation for later land acquisition.

The Booker T. Washington and Charles Young Trees

The neighboring town of Visalia was so appreciative of Young’s work on the road that they requested that a sequoia tree be named in his honor. He protested, asking them to defer this honor and revisit the idea in twenty years. If after that time they had not changed their minds, he would be comfortable with a tree dedicated in his name. A tree was later named in his honor near the Auto Log, along the Crescent Meadow / Moro Rock Road.

Young did indicate that Booker T. Washington was a more worthy candidate for a tree. In his final Superintendent report, he recommended caution and responsibility when naming trees and permitted naming of only three trees, including the Booker T. Washington Tree. To find this tree, follow the Moro Rock Trail. The tree is located directly across the Crescent Meadow / Moro Rock Road from the Charles Young Tree.

After the Parks

After Young’s one-summer tenure in the parks, he was posted as military attaché in Haiti. He later served in the same capacity in Liberia. During the Pershing expedition in Mexico in 1916, Young again saw active combat in the fight against revolutionary leader Pancho Villa.

At the beginning of the World War I, Young was considered for a command position, but due to politics and health issues, he wasn’t promoted to lead troops in battle. He was later medically discharged for high blood pressure and a kidney illness. In an effort to prove his fitness for duty, he protested this decision by riding 500 miles on horseback from Ohio to Washington, D.C.. His demonstration eventually succeeded, and he returned to active duty as a full colonel. After the war, he returned to Nigeria as an attaché , where he died unexpectedly of kidney disease in 1922 at the age of 58. He was the fourth soldier in history to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

Colonel Charles Young’s achievements, both in the parks and beyond, have not been forgotten. The energy and dignity he brought to his career left a strong impression on those that followed in his footsteps. In the parks, the roads he created have been much improved but are still in use today, serving millions of park visitors for more than eighty years. The example he set as a determined Black man overcoming the prejudices of society remains an inspiration to anyone who faces similar adversity and challenges today.

To learn more about Colonel Charles Young and Buffalo Soldiers:

To purchase In the Summer of 1903, Colonel Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks visit Sequoia Parks Conservancy's bookstore.

Last updated: September 4, 2020

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Three Rivers, CA 93271

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