The Immortal 15, Fort Yellowstone, and Buffalo Soldiers (Part 1 of 2)

November 07, 2013 Posted by: Francis Shawn Bawden, Archives Technician

Ken Burns’ 2009 TV mini-series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea brought to the public’s attention the vital role the U.S. Army had in protecting early national parks.  Not surprisingly, much of the focus was on the cavalry units who patrolled the parks, but infantry units also played important parts including being among the earliest park interpreters in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, and was administered by a civilian staff for the next fourteen years.  During this early period the protection of the park from poachers, looters, and vandals was at best very limited.  So in 1886 Company M, 1st Cavalry Regiment, was sent to Yellowstone to protect the park.  This assignment was only meant to be temporary, but in the end the Army stayed in Yellowstone for 32 years!  And while other parks, such as Yosemite, experienced military administrations, only Yellowstone would become the site of a permanent post.  In fact, the military administration of Yellowstone was the longest-lived example of this unique experiment.  

Company M was commanded by Captain Moses Harris, who also served as the park’s acting superintendent from 1886 to 1889.  Captain Harris soon realized that he would need reinforcements to cope with the ever-increasing number of park visitors.  In August 1887, he requested the assignment of a company of infantry for duty in the park during the summer months.  In 1888, his request of additional troops was partially answered when fifteen soldiers from the 22nd Infantry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Thomas M. Moody and Corporal Louis R. D. Hunter, arrived at Yellowstone.   

These infantrymen were soon guarding the area around Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, and it was here that they earned the titled “The Immortal 15.”  Here’s a transcript of an 1888 letter to the editor from the Livingston Enterprise written by a park visitor:

In a recent issue in speaking of Uncle Sam’s convey the impression that the last 15 additions thereto are decidedly tough and worthless.  I am glad to bear witness to the fact that such a reputation does not belong to all of them, as witness the following incident.

Scene - Upper Geyser Basin.  Personages - Corporal in the U.S. Army, and one of the immortal 15, and a middle-aged lady tourist with a flock of more or less middle-aged females under her wing.  Bystanders - a few humiliated and depressed tourists and a detachment of soldiers ready to rush to the assistance of the aforesaid Corporal in case he needs it.

Middle-aged lady, timidly addressing the Corporal, “Will you please tell us if Old Faithful will probably be in a state of eruption again today?”

Corporal (swelling up and striking an attitude), “I am not here to be talked to death by a lot of women.  Neither do I propose to answer a thousand and one fool questions.”

Lady (quietly), “Well, will you please tell us just what questions we are allowed to ask, and how many of them, so that we may govern ourselves accordingly.”

Corporal, “It is not any part of my business to answer questions at all, but if you will keep still I will, without being questioned, explain all that is necessary for you to know.”

Thereupon the ladies assumed various awe stricken positions, and the Corporal delivers a lecture similiar to a man who is shooting off a magic lantern.  The foregoing conversation and occurrence are facts, and yet there are people who visit the park not sufficiently civilized to fully appreciate the treatment they receive.

Regardless of whether or not visitors appreciated the “treatment they received” from this detachment of infantrymen, this story helps demonstrate that their role at Old Faithful wasn’t limited to just protecting park resources.  If fact, according to Yellowstone historian emeritus Aubrey Haines, interpretation in Yellowstone had its early beginnings with these “Cone Talks” given by the soldiers of the 22nd Infantry in 1888.  

Members of Yellowstone’s Immortal 15:

Lt. Thomas M. Moody

Cpl. Louis R. D. Hunter

Pvt. John Cleary

Pvt. John Coyle

Pvt. John Donnelson

Pvt. John Fackland

Pvt. Henry Haley

Pvt. Thomas Horton

Pvt. Alfred Kennedy

Pvt. Dennis Mack

Pvt. Chris Meuer

Pvt. Herman Martin

Pvt. John Mulirhill (sp?)

Pvt. Thomas Norton

Pvt. Clayton Wilson

 This mounted soldier is often misidentified as a cavalryman. However, upon close examination, the color of this corporal’s hat cord is light blue (infantry) and not yellow (cavalry), circa 1910.

This mounted soldier is often misidentified as a cavalryman. However, upon close examination, the color of this corporal's hat cord is light blue (infantry) and not yellow (cavalry).
Sources: Army Era Records, Yellowstone Park Archives; Battle, David and Erwin N. Thompson. Fort Yellowstone Historic Structure Report (May 1972); Ekey, Robert. “Infantry heads for the fire lines,” Billings Gazette (August 23, 1988); Hampton, H. Duane. How the U.S. Cavalry saved our National Parks (1971); Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story: A History of our first National Park, vol. 2 (1996); Livingston Enterprise [newspaper], Yellowstone Research Library; May, Kay. Returns of Regular Army Infantry Regiments, 1821-1916, National Archives and Records Administration; Whittlesey, Lee. Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the first National Park (1996).

2 Comments Comments icon

  1. June 05, 2014 at 07:26

    Requesting pre-WWI Military Records The U.S. Army administered Yellowstone National Park from 1886 to 1918. The National Archives and Records Administration stores the military personnel records (generally prior to 1917) at the Textual Archives Services Division in Washington, DC. (Military records from 1917-present are held at the National Personnel Records Center) How to Order pre-WWI Military Service Records Order online or with form NATF 86 How to Order pre-WWI Military Pension Records Order online or with form NATF 85 For more info see:

  2. February 07, 2014 at 11:23

    I 'm looking for 2 buffalo soldiers from the 9th Calvary which were with the 9th that were satiation in the Monterey presidio from 1902-1904 William H smith & his brother Louis Charles Smith there unit 1st squadron 9th Calvary My s

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