"A Buffalo Soldier Speaks" is a weekly audio podcast featuring National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson as Sergeant Elizy Boman, Troop "K," Ninth U.S. Cavalry, who was dispatched to Yosemite National Park in 1903 and served there through 1904. On their routine patrols through the high country of Yosemite, these Buffalo Soldiers recorded the pertinent but mundane details of their journeys in ledgers that were housed in the remote patrol posts that served as both the beginning and end of long days spent in the saddle. Certainly they must have entertained thoughts more provocative than "encountered 500 head of sheep in Return Canyon. Brand "P," which mirrors the sort of entry you can find in the historic patrol reports! This podcast is an exploration of those thoughts via the imagination of Ranger Johnson, but based on years of historic research of what a particular Buffalo Soldier by the name of Elizy Boman, a man who did exist but of whom we know practically nothing about, might have been feeling or thinking after one of those long, arduous, but inspiring patrols through the "Range of Light."
A Buffalo Soldier Speaks (Episodes 16-30)
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You know, a few days ago, I was in that area in that country, that place a little bit south of Yosemite Valley and there's a lot of trees in that area. I mean, not just trees but trees crowding next to other trees, it's thick with trees. And all you can think of when you look up, you can think of, boy, this place needs a fire to come through here to clear all those out. You got to be careful when you have thoughts like that because in '03 when I got here at Yosemite, that was the thought that I had but in early '04 and now early, I mean in the summer of '04, well, there was a fire that burned through there. And the fire went out but sometimes it takes awhile for a fire once it gets a hold of the ground, gets a hold of all that can--that can burn, that fire can sit around in there in these roots of these trees and sit there smoking for a long time, longer than you'd think. And that fire got a right to sit around and do nothing but just burn, but that's what it--it'll do. And we were in that country, it was me and it was Corporal Bingham. And we were riding through it and then I remember as I saw that black storm on the trees in either side of the trail and off to one side I realized, oh, this is that area that burned and it wasn't too long ago, you could still smell the smoke in the air. And there were trees that were down, and there were trees that looked like they're thinking about going down. And it was quiet, and it was still and you could smell that taint of smoke in the air and how it made your throat feel when you breathe it in and it stung your eyes, too. But I wasn't all that worried because you couldn't see any flame, you couldn't see any fire. Fire seemed to be out, seemed to have been out a long time ago or at least days or weeks ago. But I didn't know that there was a danger from fire even when the fire is all gone because as I said as we were riding through, me in front and the corporal behind me, the only sound we could hear was the sound that the hooves of our horses made as we moved along the trail. We could also hear when we stopped, we could hear the creaking of a few branches in the canopy to one side and to the other. But other than that little bit of creaking here and there, it was quiet. And there wasn't even much of that because as I said there wasn't much wind. So it was just still and we couldn't hear any birds singing and we didn't see any sign of wildlife. It was just us and we felt like we were the only people in the mountains on that day in that place. And then the wind picked up all of a sudden and you could hear it, you could hear it in the branches around us and above us. And if the wind had stayed quieter, probably what did happen wouldn't have happened. But that breeze, that's what you'd call it, that breeze got stronger, got full of itself and got bigger still until it became more than just a breeze. And when it became an actual wind that is when things got bad. And the first sign that something had gotten bad was this--all I can say it sounded like an explosion and it was right behind us, about 50 yards behind us and we could feel it. It came up through my horse, through the body of my horse. I could actually feel it through the horse and right in my legs and I could hear it when it--when that big boom happened behind me. And so I turned my horse, I didn't have any choice, I had to turn around to see what was there. And what was there was a tree. A tree that had been standing just a few moments before we walked our horses right underneath it, but now it was lying down right across the trail. And so we turned around again, I looked at him, he looked at me and he said, "Which way are we going, sarge?" I said, "I want to get to that post. Ain't--there ain't no tree hopefully in front of us along the way, so let's keep going." So we kept moving along and that wind, you could hear it singing above us in the trees and then all of a sudden, off to one side of the trail, another--it sounded like an explosion. And it was another big Red Fir hit the ground and we could feel it again. I feel even--I thought a gust of wind come up from the impact of that tree. And again, all we heard was when the tree hit the ground. We didn't hear no tearing of wood, we didn't hear anything at all until there was that boom again. And I couldn't figure that out because usually, you cut a tree down, you can hear it splinter and tearing on itself as it makes its way down like it's resisting when it knows it's going to happen, like it's arguing with its own faith, "I don't want to fall. I don't want to land here. I want to stand up tall in the blue of the sky and drinking all of that sunlight and turn it into something sweet." That's what you think a tree is saying to itself or you're hoping is saying to itself when it knows it's going down. But when that tree fell and the tree before it, it was quiet. There was no tearing of wood, no splintering of wood, nothing, nothing but quiet. So that made both of us nervous. We looked around and we looked, everywhere we looked, we saw these trees, some of them moving slightly in that little bit of breeze and some of them not moving at all but that's the second time a tree had fallen not too far from us and it made no sound whatsoever. And our horses, they didn't like where we were moving into the country, we were moving into the mood, we were moving into--sometimes places can have a mood and the mood of this place was that death was all around us, death was the name of that country we were riding our horses into and we had to get through that country called death just to get sleep that night, to get a--to find a bed, a cot that night. We had to ride through the country of death itself, that's what it felt like. And so if you were to ask me, "What's the country of death like?" I'd say, "Well, it's nice and sunny, it's clear, there's a bit of a breeze but every once and a while, there's a hammer coming down like a Red Fir to one side or right in front of you." Because that's what happened. We actually saw this one, it went down, we--the wind got stronger and we looked up, something caught--the movement caught my eye and right in front of me was this tree, had to be three feet in diameter from one side to the other and it come down and it came right in the angle, right across the trail we were on, only 70 feet or so in front of us. And then I could feel it again, and then it got quiet but we heard no tearing, no splintering of wood, it just fell, it made no sound, just a breeze that was picked up and pushed out by the branches as they made their way to the earth. Now, this is something, we got ourselves a mess. We got to keep going where we're going but these trees are falling and they're not making any sound at all. Now this time, when we had to go around this tree, I saw the roots and I saw that the roots were completely burned out. And that's why that tree and those other trees made no sounds at all. The roots had been burned away by that fire so when it fell, there was nothing really there to keep it up. All that was keeping it up was maybe the memory of being upright but memories fade in the high country pretty quick, and the memory of being upright ain't got no strength at all against the reality of trying to go down with the wind being blown down by that little bit of breeze. It wasn't an easy thing to keep that horse, my horse under control because every once in a while it happened again and again, another tree would come down again, the ground would shake again, a little bit of that breeze or I imagine the breeze coming from that tree but there were these trees coming down all around us every time the wind picked up. It got to the point I hated the wind, I hated the movement of air. I wanted it to be still. I wanted it to be quiet because I didn't want something to come down on my head and on my horse and take me out of this world. It seemed to take forever, forever to get where we were going, but eventually we did. We got there, we got to the post. And when we got there, it was an open space near the shade of some trees but they had not been touched by that fire because I noticed as we were riding through, some areas got burned pretty bad, other areas still looked green. And so when the area around us was green, the trees were coming farther off but when the area around us was still black, the trees were coming down too close, too close, too close. So we were there that night and there, we were lying in that cabin trying to sleep, trying to get some rest and every bit of patience in me was gone because I got awakened and the corporal got awakened by the sound of a tree coming down. Some tree hundreds of years old finally pushed down by a little bit of wind, but the fire that burned out the roots. The fire is what caused that fallen, and that fallen fell right into me too because I could almost feel it every single time that happened. Now that's something. You're in a place where a fire burned through a forest and you can smell the smoke but it's gone. You can taste it in the air but it's gone but the trees still remember what killed them, what killed them right at the roots and finally, they got the news, "Hey, you know what, you ain't got nothing to stand up tall anymore. A breeze come up, you're going down and you're going to just crush whatever is in your path." And that's something about Yosemite. Sometimes Yosemite is just--needs a little bit of nudging and that little bit of nudging can take you out of this world into some place entirely different and all it takes is a breath of wind, a movement of the air and you may not see the sunrise on the next day. And I wrote that down too in that little patrol report, be careful in a fire, be careful after a fire, be careful when a breeze picks up on a clear, sunny day, there could be come fallen after that fire.
You know, when you're up in the high country, when you're on a trail and the sun is beating down on you and there's a wind coming up from nowhere and going nowhere, you never know what might be around that bend in the trail, you never know what you might find. Sometimes I think in the spring time, there are more surprises. More surprises because, you know, the winter left all that snow in its wake. And that snow gets deeper and deeper and deeper the higher you go. And then when spring come and everything turns to music and all that water that was once snow, that was once clouds is falling, falling back down the earth, from the earth and to the earth. In the spring time, that's when things get exciting up in the high country. There was one particular day where I was on patrol and it was just me by myself this time. And I was on a little trail that had been a dear trail that maybe was an Indian trail, too, went from some place and it was going some place and I was just in that frame of my mind where you're just drowsing a bit with your horse that you're on in the saddle just not paying much attention to anything. That's a very dangerous place to be, I might add. And I heard the sound of water off in the distance. And the sound of that water got closer and closer and as I got closer and closer to it, it got louder and louder until pretty soon, all you could hear was the sound of all that water somewhere a ways off, flowing. It even got louder than the wind itself and it was a windy day. Well, I come up to a creek and the funny thing about that creek was it wasn't a creek at that point. It was more like a little river. And it was steed country right about there. And I just looked at it and my horse kind of looked back at me like, "You want me to go through that?" And I'm thinking, well, the trail is right there on the other side and it just, right ahead of me, it dropped down, got muddy and then it just become water and it comes down in all those fury of it going by so fast. And I looked at my horse and I said, "Well, that's what we're supposed to do and that's where we're supposed to go." So I could see it right there just 15 feet away, the--where the trail come up out of the water. But right in front of me, in front of my horse, the trail disappeared into all that water. And it was just raging right there. So I figured, okay, I don't know if I want to go through that. Let's go up a bit. So I go give my horse a spur and moved it up to the right and started making my way up through this thick underbrush, went over to the left again and it was worse even there. Okay. I figured I'll just move my horse up a little bit more. And it's not an easy thing to move around in the wooded section of Yosemite where there's lots of trees more than just even those Red Fir that are so tall without branches rising up high into the sky. There's all those undergrowth that loves and prefers the shade of these taller trees and getting through that ain't something that God intended me to do. And I was getting tore up and my horse was getting a bit tore up and we're just trying to find a way across this creek and I couldn't find it and it wasn't all that easy. And so we went back down again. And same thing, everywhere I went right in front of me was this barrier right where I needed to go. Right where my--that cabin I needed to get to, that patrol post I needed to get to. That bed I needed to get to. That comfort--well, relative comfort I needed to get to was right there. And sometimes you get into a frame of mind where you're thinking I don't want to sleep on the bare ground tonight. I want something soft. And that's what I was thinking. So I'm thinking I got to get there and I'm going to get there. So this time, I went back to where I was before at the natural ford and I said, you know, "If I put my horse in there, we could both get swept away." So I just headed to the left again farther down. And it was a journey in and of itself, just trying to find where that creek slowed down enough, got narrow enough that I could get my horse through that. Well, eventually, I found it and it wasn't easy, wasn't easy at all, but when I did, I found a spot where it opened up a bit, but yet, the creek itself got kind of close, close enough that at a run, I could get my horse almost completely over. Now, that ain't an easy thing to urge your horse through. And I just figured it look like I could do it and I felt that I could do it so I backed my horse up and turned it around and well, gave it the spurs and once I put those spurs into it, I just start--I just leaned forward and eased up in myself and the--and that horse just felt that I was relaxed, that I was comfortable. So it figured, well, if he ain't worried, maybe I ain't got to be worried either. So we just got closer and closer and my fear which I tried to keep out of my body so that my horse couldn't feel it through my legs because a horse can pick up what you're thinking and it's communicating through your legs and through your body. Well, I'm hoping it didn't pick up. I hope--my thought was I think I could make this jump. I think I can. I wasn't certain at all. And we got right up to the edge. The edge was coming up where that creek was and I'm thinking what if that horse just stops right then and there, I'm going to go clear over its head right down on all those rocks and into that water. And that was my fear when I got right to that point. But when I got there, I just eased up, leaned forward and the horse went right over. And there was a bit of a splash where its--where its hindquarters hit a little bit of that water, but we've got out of there quick. The horse didn't want to hang out--hang around there either. And we got out and I looked back and the horse looked back too and then it kind of looked up at me, "Why did you do that to me? Why did you bring me so close to that? That ain't right. That ain't army regulations. You broke--you're breaking your own rules." I just smiled and laughed at my horse saying, "Hey, it's all right. We got through okay." But, you know what, my word sounded hollow even to myself. And the strangest of it all, later on that afternoon when I got to the patrol post, the strange thing was I was thinking if something had happened to me, it'd take a while for Corporal Bingham or Ruebottom, lieutenant to find me. They just knew I was on a patrol by myself and they knew I wasn't going to go far because it's better to have someone with you. But what if something had happened? How many times in Yosemite that someone doing something kind of crazy and they're all by themselves and then something bad does happen and no one ever hears about it and people wonder, "Whatever happened to that man? Whatever happened to that boy?" Well, I made it through and it was all right, but it might not have been, you know. This is pretty forgiving--unforgiving country that we're in right here. And you make a mistake and it could cost you plenty, but I didn't have time to think about if it was a good thing or a bad thing. I just said to myself, "We got to get it done. We just got to do it." So I jumped that creek and it was all right, but it could have been worse. It could have been much worse. And then on my map, all that said was just a little word right there, it said, "Ford" of that particular creek and it made it sound like it was something simple. It was something easy. But when you're in the wilderness, there's things that'll surprise you and they ain't easy, they're as hard as granite and as fast moving as that white water in that little creek. And the funny thing of it all, I know if I come right back to the same creek come fall, it'll be dry, no sound, no music and no fury. And I wonder then on that day what all the fuss was about. Well, that's Yosemite. One moment, it's a storm and another moment, it's quiet as death itself. Huh.
You know, it was August on 1903 and I was up in the high country north of Tuolumne. And the night before, there had been a storm and there have been lightning and thunder. And later in the middle of the night, at some point, the wind come up. And with that wind even in my--oh, you know, I was dreaming, I was asleep in my bedroll but I could feel that wind on me, but more, I could smell smoke. And when I got up that morning and I got up my--the private and I got up my corporal and we got our horses ready and we rode out. We wondered why it was taking awhile for the sun to come up and then we saw that the air, that it was smoky, blocked the light of the sun. And so there was a strange twilight and the sun was this red disc that you could see, there's a red ball that you could see off in the distance. And I looked at my men, they looked at me, we said, "Oh, there's the sun." And we knew we had to do something. And so we had--we had some shovels with us at--back at the--at the camp, at the post. And we went back and we got those shovels and we went ahead on that trail and yup, we found it and it found us. It was a fire, a forest fire. Ain't never really seen one this close before and it was hard to breathe but we know we had a job to do, we had to protect. And that little trail we were on, and that trail was something, that's what we needed to patrol, so we couldn't just let that fire get too close. And already, some trees had come down and we had to do our best to pull those trees off the trail which ain't easy, you can't pull the tree off the trail by yourself but that's why God made mules and that helped quite a bit. So it was hard work though because we're out there and it was--again, it was just so dark from all the clouds and all the smoke from that fire and it was hard to breathe and it was hot. And the fire was close, at some point, it's--it was so close you could feel the heat of the fire against your skin, even through your clothes, you could feel that fire, you could feel that heat. And I was looking at them, they're looking at me and we'd sometimes go back and there was a little creek that was--wasn't too far away and we--we'd douse ourselves with water and get all that wool soaked with water and that made it easier. But, you know, that's when I remember looking at Corporal Bingham and at some point, I looked at him and I saw, "Hey, man, you're steaming." He said, "What's that?" I said, "Corporal, you're steaming." He was just steaming, all that water from that creek was coming right off of him and he looked like he was a spirit, like he was a ghost. And that's how hot it was but we just did our best to cut a way into the ground to where there was rock so the fire wouldn't get too close where we didn't want it to. Now, that was the most uncomfortable duty I had when we were in Yosemite and be in the middle of all that smoke and hearing the crackling of all that fire and every once in a while, a tree would come down and you know what? When it did, it didn't make a sound until it hit the ground because the roots all got burned away and with the roots burned away and nothing to hold it up, it fall. That makes sense when you think about it but when it fell, it was quiet. And it's a strange thing when you hear a thunder then you hear a big boom of a tree, a Red Fir coming down to the left or to the right. I didn't know what to be more worried about, the sound of the thunder or the sound of the trees and I figured I'll be worried about the trees because I don't want one of those things to fall on me. But that's what we had to do and we did it. And the funny thing was afterwards, a long time--well, not too long, I found out that it wasn't--it wasn't lightning that started that fire. It was someone's campfire, someone didn't put out their campfire, they just let it burn and that wind that I felt in the middle of the night, it picked up, that sparked those embers. And they caught--they caught hold of Yosemite, they caught hold of all that dry tinder because it was August and that is what started the fire. So I was blaming and I was cursing that thunder and lightning from the night before, we went out in all that hell and it wasn't the sky at all that was to blame. It was a person who didn't even know, maybe never knew what they had left behind them in Yosemite by not putting out that fire. Yosemite's many different things but sometimes it's hell. And on that particular day when we were trying to protect that trail that we had helped build and rebuild because that's what you got to do out here, you can't just pretend it's going to be there forever, you got to work it and work on it to make certain that you can get a mule across it, you can get a horse across it, you can even maybe get a wagon through it as well but we worked hard on that and I'll never forget that. I'll never forget how bright it was at night from the light given off by trees. Trees don't normally give off light but the light of those trees engulfed in that fire, that was something. And the smell and the wind, and the wind was made of the fire itself, just like when you got a good fire going in your chimney, it'll pull it right up and out and that's what was happening in the hottest part of that fire, there was a wind blowing into the fire and the fire itself was eating there, drawing it into itself and there was this roaring sound that you could hear all around you. And I'm telling you, yeah, if hell is hell, it was like that fire that we felt and saw and smelled all around us on that night and that morning--that morning north of Tuolumne in August 1903. Now that, that was something I've never seen in South Carolina, ain't never seen in my life that fire in Yosemite.
So there I was in Yosemite Valley. And I was alone. And all of my friends that I was used to having around me that I was comfortable with and they were comfortable with me and we could share everything with each other, anything with each other, get drunk over whisky, get drunk over a woman, get drunk over a horse that bucked you off and you try to pretend that didn't happen, they were all gone. They were all in San Francisco. And I had a little cabin in the shadow of Sentinel Rock. And I just did what that guardian Mr. Harlow wanted me to do, I was just there to make certain that when he had something to enforce he has someone who had his back and that was me. That's why I was there. Well, one day, I was just out riding, just making the presence of the 9th Cavalry felt. Oh, well, I was just by myself. And there weren't very many people around because it was winter. Dead of winter in Yosemite. And I knew that there were clouds up, I could see them kind of massing up above Yosemite Falls and way well behind Half Dome and Cloud's Rest. Ain't that a name, Cloud's Rest? Like even the clouds get tired trying to climb their way over these mountains. Well, these clouds weren't tired. They were angry. And I looked at them and I said to myself, there's a storm in there. But I figured I could get back. Get back to where I--I've had a nice comfortable bed for the first time in a long time instead of a bedroll. And now the wind come up. And it was soft at first and then they got a little bit harder and then more insistent. And it picked up, you know, picked up a little bit of what was on the ground meaning, some of the leaves that have fallen--that had fallen on top of the snow. They were moving around a little bit because it had been a while since we had snow. But it was still was cold enough that the snow that had fallen was still there. And everything was moving around a little bit. The trees were starting to talk. They are starting to whisper to each other like, "Hey, something's coming. You ready? I'm ready. Hold on deep. We're in for something." And I should have listened to the trees because that's what they were probably telling me. They're telling me a storm was coming. And I've been through some storms in South Carolina growing up around Spartanburg but nothing like this because that wind started to sing. It became kind of a howl and you could hear it coming down through ravine and through canyon and through the trees themselves that pretty soon, the trees not only sounded like trees, they sounded like the ocean sounded that time when I was on the Logan. It was just a roar of wind and the trees and branches started coming down and my horse was getting unsettled. But I knew I couldn't get unsettled on my horse otherwise we both would get unsettled and I'd be flying through the air because my horse would buck me off, running right back to the corral. So I stayed calm on my horse but I wasn't calm. And I tried not to let my horse feel my unsteadiness in my legs because they could pick that up right from your legs and right from how you--on top of them. And I was--I was a bit nervous because I've never seen anything like this. And I--it was so loud I could barely hear myself talk and think. And I was talking to my horse saying, "It's all right. It's all right. Come on, it's all right. We're going on back now." But he was just moving his head around and I looked up and I saw Yosemite Fall, what was left of it blowing sideways in the wind. That was something ain't never seen that before. And the wind just started picking up. Actually, the trees were coming down around me here and there. And it was something. And one nearly got me. And the thing is, after a bit when I got out into the open away from the trees, I stopped being afraid. When I was out in the open, the wind was fully hitting me and I saw these clouds, these white clouds blowing in and I remember that--that's not a cloud, that's snow itself blowing in with this wind. When I saw that coming in and I saw the canyon walls disappear. That's right. Sentinel Rock went under those clouds. It disappeared like a cloak, like a white cloak was being pulled over it. And the falls disappeared and Half Dome was invisible, hidden beneath that white cloak. All that was around me was just this white and every once in a while you could see the gray of the granite trying to peek through to see what was going up, if the valley was still there. And the snow was starting to--it's starting to pile up around me. And so it's already a couple inches on the ground. Ain't nothing, I'd never seen snow land so fast, so deep and build up so deep. And the wind, the whole time, was just blowing and the trees were singing and there's a crackle of branches hitting the ground around me. It was something, something I've never seen before. But I could tell--I could tell after a bit, I couldn't quite see where I was going because it was all just snow. It was all just white. It was a blizzard. It was a blizzard. And ain't no blizzards in South Carolina. Ain't no blizzards in Spartanburg. But there was snow above me, around me, beneath me, all over me. All I could see was the color white. And all I could do was to be calm. Loosen up in the reins because I knew my horse could get me back. So I loosened up in the reins, I said, "We're going home. Take us home." And my horse kept moving and I couldn't even see where we were going. And I couldn't hear anything but the sound of the wind and it was just screaming around me. But eventually, I saw something up ahead and I knew what it was. It was a cabin. Yeah. And it was a little lean-to a half or--well, more than a lean-to actually for the horse and I got off my horse and I tied him up and he was all right. He was just happy to be there. And I got him a little bit of hay. Yeah. And he was alright with that but not much of the hay stayed there. A lot of it was taken by the wind. I guess the wind was hungry too and it was looking for something to eat. Then I went inside, closed the door and that was not an easy thing to do. And I had started a fire before I left, it was almost out but I got it going again. And I could just hear it wailing out there and that wind and you could hear it off in the distance. Sometimes the tree coming down because those oak trees, they don't give. They just give completely. They don't bend very well. They hold on and hold on until they can't hold on no more and they come crashing to the earth. And every once in a while I'd hear the sound of a tree coming down and I'd even hear a thunder off in the distance. Thunder even though it was snowing. It was something. And all of that sound just went from one cliff to the other cliff. It sounded like--it sounded like the end of the world. But at the same time, when I sat there by the fire and I was safe and I was warm, oh, I have never felt so alive as when that storm first started leaning into me, leaning into the world, leaning into Half Dome, leaning into Yosemite Falls, leaning into all that granite and that granite gave way under the weight of the sky. Never seen anything like that before or felt anything like it. It was, I'm telling you true, it was electric and it felt like it. That's the only word I could think of. That's the word I've been hearing. Electric. Yeah, that's what it was. Yosemite was electric.
It is Sergeant Bowman again. You know, ways back between--well, this would have been about October 1903, that's when I got the news. It was news I wasn't expecting to hear. Sometimes that can be good and sometimes that can be bad. But the timing was funny because you see, soldiers are only in Yosemite and it don't matter if we're talking colored soldiers or white soldiers, but colored soldiers are only in Yosemite during the summertime from where the snow starts to melt, to where it starts to fall again, about May through October. And this is October I'm talking about, October 1903, and I was back in Camp A.E. Wood and we're all getting ready. I mean, Troop K, Troop L, all getting ready to ride back to the Presidio of San Francisco. And from that point on, I had no idea where we were going to go and what was going to happen to us, what was going to happen to me. You know, there's always that sense of loss when you're a soldier. You get these attachments to the men around you and they become as close or closer than your own family because, you know, your life is in their hands and their life is in yours, and that makes them your brother. And so I got to me another family when I joined the cavalry. And so we're all thinking together, we're going to be leaving together, right now together, getting to San Francisco together; and whatever is the next day bring, you're going to face it together. And when you face it together that gives you resolve, that gives you strength, that gives you courage because you're all together, you are family, you're cavalry, you're Troop K, you're Troop L. And so, when the lieutenant pulled me over to one side on that morning, that particular morning, I was a little bit nervous about what he want, this is Lieutenant Resnick. And he told me that I was going to be on what is called the TAP Service. You know, I felt something just dropped beneath me right inside my gut, because I didn't know what was going to be, what he's going to say next. And I said, "Well, sir, what's that mean? What do you--what do you want me to do?" He said, "There's the guardian." I said, "What's that?" He said the guardian, Mr. George Harlow in Yosemite Valley. He was--he requested if he can have a soldier who could help him with his duties in Yosemite Valley. And I think I told you folks that, well, the Valley itself in the Mariposa Grove don't belong to the National Park; it's part of the State of California. And Mr. Harlow work for the State of California. So he requested a soldier to help him during the winter. And the lieutenant looked at me, he says, "Well, you--you're the man I'm thinking to be good for this duty." You know, when a lieutenant asks you to do something, when an officer asks you to do something, you have several choices. The choice that--the thought I had on my own mind was this choice, saying, "I'm sorry, sir, you know, I appreciate this request and I'd like to oblige you but you see, there's this really nice woman I met when we were in San Francisco after we got off that Logan and we were garrisoned at the Presidio, I met this really nice woman and she misses me. She misses me dearly and to be honest with you, sir, I miss her too. So I've been looking forward to the ride back. Those 14 days, I figure, we're going to fly like ain't nothing at all, because I'm going to see that woman again. So I'd like to oblige you. I'd like to stay here and help, Mr. Harlow, but you see, I can't do that because I want to get back to San Francisco and meet up with her. So I'm basically saying no, I can't do that." Now, that what's I was thinking but if I had said those words, that's called, well, possibly getting court-martialed, disobeying a direct order and potentially leaving the United States Army but that's what I wanted to say. But instead, I knew the military, the army had become my life. It was more than $13 a month, it was more than having the company of the men around me and having command, being a sergeant. It was more than all of that. It had become part of me. It was in my blood. So, as a sergeant I had to respond not as a man, not as a human being, so the part of me that was a sergeant, that was the strongest part, looked at him and said, "Well, thank you, sir. I know it wasn't an easy decision but, you know, you could have picked another man for this particular assignment but you picked me, so I'm all right with that." You know, it don't--it won't bother me seeing everyone ride on off out of here, ride out and looking all that--looking as pretty as you will be on columns of two riding out the Yosemite. That ain't--that ain't going to be bother me because I'm thinking I'm doing what the lieutenant wanted. I'm sticking behind here and I'm going to stay with that--what's his name? Harlow, that's right. I'm going to stay with Mr. Harlow and I'll make certain that what needs to get done gets done, so I'll be all right. You get on back to San Francisco. It's a pretty city but I'll be all right here in the winter when the snow is falling and filling up ravine and gulley, and canyon. I'll be all right here. It'll be cold but I'll be warm enough because I know that I did my duty. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine with that, sir. Thank you for the opportunity to stay behind here in Yosemite all winter long." Well, he got what I was saying but--and he understood that something else was going on but all he did was just smile at me, give me a salute, I saluted back. And then next day, I rode Yosemite. But you see, I've never been to Yosemite Valley before. And Yosemite Valley in the minds of many people is Yosemite. And I didn't quite understand that before I rode into the valley because I had only seen it off at a distance up from that area called Glacier Point. I've seen it a little bit from there. And it was pretty from up there but being away from it, being above it ain't the same thing as being in it. And when I rode into Yosemite Valley down the Wawona Road with Bridalveil Fall off to one side, and I'm going deeper and getting deeper into it and there's El Capitan and I'm fully seeing it now off the one side, biggest piece of rock I ever have seen in my life. When I saw that and felt it rising up as I was going down, it was all getting bigger and higher, rising up around me and the shadows were as black as night and I'm riding into the warmth of that space, and it felt like an embrace to be in that place, in that space; and I realized that there is something in this world that is so much bigger than you are and yet you're a part of it. That's what it felt like. I didn't feel like I was diminished to nothing. I was still there, a speck of something, a bit of fire, god himself, a little bit of god in all of us, and I felt it was still there burning in me but it felt like it was almost nothing in that space, in those shadows, and I looked up and I saw Ribbon Fall to one side and Bridalveil to the other. And El Capitan right there in the sun and I just started riding into that green, cool space and I've never felt anything like that. You know, I--from time to time when I was a boy in South Carolina, I wonder what it would be like to ride a mule into church. I never had the thought at the time but that's what it felt like, I was riding a mule because that's what I was riding at the time. And that mule being safe, we were riding into--into church, into a cathedral in the--into god's country but it wasn't up high, it was now down low right here, god everywhere, god not just up on the mountain top, god here in the deepest places of the world itself. And that's what it felt like, riding into Yosemite that I was riding my mule into a cathedral and that's the best way to describe it but it was a cathedral that was alive, who's the ground of it was green with grass and rock, and the sides were gray and white, and the sparkles coming out of the rock. I didn't know what it was but the sun we had is just right, you could see it shining. And there was a calm breeze and those oak trees, in the shade of them, when you went under was like another waterfall but a darkness itself cooling you at the neck, on the--on the--on the shoulders and on your face, and then the wind would pick up and take that sweat right off your brow. Oh, I thought I had passed over entirely into that better world. And I remember thinking at the time because remember, when I was coming down that old road, I was still a bit upset about not seeing my friend back in San Francisco, but I forgot all about--well, I forgot mostly about her when I rode down that road into Yosemite because it was then that Yosemite Valley, it got into me. And I stand or sitting a little bit taller in the saddle. When I felt that, when I saw what was around me, I realized how lucky I was. I stopped feeling alone. I stopped feeling abandoned. I realized, huh, this was all good. This was all good. And that's Yosemite Valley and, huh, you know, ain't nothing like it. Ain't no place like it but it's not just a place, it's something that's within you after a bit, and that valley became who I am and who I may one day be. It was future, it was the present and it was the past; and all of it was flowing within each other and became everything. Huh, if you ain't been there, you got to get there. And so, I tell you that Yosemite Valley is something else.
This is Sergeant Bowman, Troop K, 9th Regiment of Cavalry. I've talked about quite a few different things and you've been listening and you've been listening good. But I never explained what a Buffalo Soldier actually is. I didn't hear that word, that phrase, when I first enlisted. All I knew was I was a soldier in Troop K, 9th Regiment of Cavalry. It was during the Indian Wars that that name come about, the name Buffalo Soldier. You see these Plains Indians, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, or the Kiowa, all these Plains Indians had never seen or rarely saw a colored man. And when you're fighting a colored man, you're up close and he can see you and you can see him. Well, a colored man saw someone not all that different from him, you know, tribal people and the colored man come from tribal people. And that Indian, that Cheyenne, that Plains Indian, when he looked and saw that colored man, he saw his hair on his head and of course he was thinking about, I might want to remove that hair from his head. I might want to do that right now with that man in front of me who's trying to take my land away from me. And the colored man is not thinking he's stealing someone else's land. He's taking someone else's land. He's helping someone else that he don't even know, remove a land from people who've been on it for so long. It's--you can't separate the land from those people. He ain't thinking that. No one's thinking that. They both are thinking, how do I survive the next second and not getting myself killed? Well, that Indian, that Plains Indian sees that the hair on these colored soldiers is just like the hair, that matted cushion between the horns of a buffalo. Now, think about that, the buffalo is sacred to the Plains Indian. Everything that Indian needs comes from the buffalo is more than just an animal. It's more than just something with four hooves moving on some dusty plain. It's a church. It's a cathedral. It's something sacred and yet at the same time it's like walking into a store, when you walk up to buy some. Everything that you need is in that buffalo. Food is in that buffalo. Shelter is in that buffalo. It's more than just an animal. It's all those things, all wrapped up into something that's 2,000 pounds of trouble. So, when you take away that buffalo, you're taking away more than what you can actually see in front of you, hear in front of you, smell in front of you if you were in the presence of that animal. You've taken away someone's culture, someone's meaning about what life actually is. And no one ever explained that to me. I had no 2nd Lieutenant telling me what I was removing, when I removed the buffalo from this world, but that's what I was taking away. So, for those people, those more than Plains People, for the Cheyenne, to actually look at a Buffalo Soldier and call him a Buffalo Soldier and the name became one and the same. That 9th Cavalry, the 10th Cavalry became Buffalo Soldiers and they gave us that name. The people, who are trying to take away the buffalo, kill the buffalo and kill the Plains Indians. Those people, they call them Buffalo Soldiers. Now, growing up in South Carolina, growing up in Spartanburg, I got a lot of names that were called to me. I've been called a nigger. I've been called worse than nigger. But to think that someone gave me and my men, my troop, my regiment a name that was based on something sacred to them, dear to those people, to their culture, I because can't wrap my mind around that I have received a compliment from the people we are trying to kill, to remove, to exclude, to annihilate. That's the word Lieutenant taught me annihilate, meaning ain't nothing left. But you know what, you can't very easily get rid of a culture to such degree there ain't nothing left. There's always something left behind and that something makes it really hard to sleep at night and to wake up without having a tear in your eyes thinking about what you've done, what you're doing and what you're going to do on the following day. Yeah. Yeah. I think about that. Every time I hear those words, Buffalo Soldier, I think about what they mean. I think about the past. I think about who I am and someone who is African and Indian, that's right. Those people on the plains weren't my people. They weren't Cherokee, they weren't Chalaque, they weren't Seminole, but they were people not all that different from those I left behind in South Carolina, those I called family. Huh.
This is Sergeant Alizy Bowman again. You know, sometimes, I get kind of tired of talking about myself. I found myself an interesting person to talk about. But sometimes, you know, the world is bigger than who you are. The other people, they're out there in it. And I figure, I should say something to you about someone that I really admire. I don't know him very well because he's an officer. And if you are an enlisted man, even if you are a sergeant or non-commissioned officer, you only can know what the officer is so well. There's just kind of--there's a space between you as an enlisted man and the officers under which you serve. And that space ain't as big as the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne or Yosemite Valley but that space is still there and it's deep. And there's something cold moving at the bottom of it and that coldness separates you from him. But still even from that distance, you can appreciate when someone is doing something that is important and they've achieved something, that's important. I'm talking about Captain Charles Young. Now, I don't serve and have not served under Captain Young because Captain Young, you know, he's with the Troop I and Troop M down in Sequoia National Park, but I ran into him almost literally. And the Logan, the Logan was the transport ship that took us from the Philippines where we were in the--engaged in the Philippine War. It took us from the Philippines back to the United States back to San Francisco. And, you know, I told you, I may have mentioned I'm from South Carolina and in South Carolina, you don't have there a many opportunities to get on a big ship like that Logan that US Logan. And it don't agree with me. What I mean is the being on a boat don't agree with me. What I'm saying is being in the ocean on a boat don't agree with me. Being on a boat in the ocean in a storm definitely did not agree with me. And so, one evening, I was in the Logan and I was in a sorry, sorry shape. And I was leaning over the rail and part of me was on that boat and part of me was going into the ocean itself and I was just letting it all out because I tell you right now, I ain't a sailor. I'm a cavalryman. And so, what the army thinks that I'm going to be comfortable being in something that makes me think I'm a sailor. So I'm losing a bit of myself from time to time and I'm just basically a mess. And I hear something behind me in the wind, because the wind is blowing and the ship was moving back and forth and there's all that salt from all that water blowing in my face, and it's cold and warm at the same time. You can figure that one now. And I hear foot steps and I feel that someone behind me and I turn around and there he is, Captain Charles Young. And he's looking at me and I'm looking at him, and I just started smiling because I've never been that close to him before. Because we are--we're all together, you know, Troop K, Troop L, Troop I and M, they're all right there, you know, and this is 1902, like late in the season '02 in the Fall. And Captain Young is right there in front of me. And I smile, then I extend my hand to him because I'm meeting the man. He's a legend, a legend in the--in the 9th Cavalry, you know, Captain Charles Young right there. So I extend my hand and say, "Captain Young, how are you, sir? I'm always wanting to meet you." And I extend my hand and I notice he didn't extend his and I couldn't quite figure out at first why because I was so exited to see him. And then I remember, I've been getting sick up till that moment. And I've been wiping all--well, you know, while I was wiping away from my mouth every time I kind of heave over that rail. And so when I extended my hand and he was just staring right at it. He's staring at me because some of it went all over in the ocean, some of it on that rail. I'm going to tell you it was bad. And he looked at me and I looked to him and I just said, "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean no disrespect. I'm just happy to see you." And he just looked at me and said--he said, "Soldier, I'm sad to see that you--that being out here in the ocean ain't agreeing with you but I'm not going to take you a hand right now. I want you to clean yourself up. Get yourself in shape because there's worse things in the world." That's what he said, "There's worse thing in the world than being on a boat. And if you're a cavalryman, you know what I'm saying is true. So, even though you're sick, you got to take care of yourself. You got to clean yourself up because you represent more than just yourself. You represent your troop and you're regiment. And you cannot afford to have someone see you in such a sorry state, because people form an opinion about you every single moment you are alive in this world. They did it for me. They formed an opinion about me. They think they know me and they haven't even met me. That's the world we both…
How are you doing? This is Sergeant Bowman. You know, I've talked quite a bit but sometimes you can talk a lot and not say the thing you need to say. I've been talking to you about being here in Yosemite. You know, when I found out that, you know, Yosemite is something--is something new and it's something different. It's a National Park. I didn't really know what that was until we got here. And in my mind, a National Park is something so pretty you want to--you want to put it in your pocket, you want to take it home with you, but taking any bit of Yosemite home with you is illegal. And that's--well, the job was for the 9th Cavalry in Yosemite began in '03, but also this year right now, 1904, the key people had taken pieces of Yosemite away. Now, you think you can't take granite away. You think you can take a piece of Half Dome and put it in your cell and just ride off with it. But folks got that in their mind and sometimes little things add up to something much bigger, the little pieces of things add up to something much greater. So you got to make certain that the whole idea on National Parks because it was an idea before it ever became something real in this world. You want to make certain idea on National Parks, don't get carried off like dust gets carried off by the wind or leaves in the Fall, get blown away and never come around again. So that is the job, so we had our headquarters down the Camp A.E. Wood, near the South Fork of the Merced. It sounds something special but it wasn't really, just a bunch of tents and a few buildings here and there, that's about all there was to it. It's in that area, that's pretty quite called Wawona. And that was the headquarters, so that's where Captain Nas was. He's right there but we had the job of going away from that Camp A.E. Wood out into the wild, out into the mountains, out to where there weren't very many people. And when there aren't very many people around you, you feel you have the freedom to do whatever you want and a lot of folks felt that they could still do that even after Yosemite become a National Park, because they had all these people in Mariposa County, who are used to, who are accustomed to, who felt right to come into the mountains and shoot the deer, they call them mule deer around here. They shoot the deer for food. And before it was a park, they'd come up into the mountains and they actually cut trees down for firewood, and that's all right because man taking care of his family is all right. Providing food for his family is all right. Cutting trees down for firewood is all right. All of those things were all right until the park was set aside. October 1st, 1890, then all of a sudden with a stroke of a pen from President Harrison, all those things that had been right were all wrong, and it was just our luck, troop case luck, 9th Cavalry luck to show up in Yosemite and have to tell all those people that what they've been brought up to believe was right was now wrong. Now, that ain't easy duty to tell someone who feels vague in their rights, to tell them they're all wrong. But that's the job. And what that job meant was patrolling Yosemite. Now, Yosemite is about 1500 square miles all the way down to the South Fork of the Merced on the west side. All the way over to the east…
You know, I want to tell you this is--this is Sergeant Bowman but I got some interesting to tell you, at least I think it's interesting. I want to tell you about the first time I ever saw horses. Now, that may sound a bit strange considering I grew up, well, in--I grew up in South Carolina. I grew up with mules around me and a few horses. So, you'd think growing up in a place where you see horses around you, you hear horses around you, you smell mules around you. You think growing up like that, with that, around that, then you would know what a horse is, what a mule is. And I thought I did when I was a little boy growing up in South Carolina. But it took me joining the army, the U.S. Army, becoming a cavalryman that led me on a path that took me to the place, to an experience I didn't think I'd ever have. I didn't even know it was there. You see, it was during the Indian Wars, the 1880s. And well, we were on patrol in the southwest, in Arizona, not too far from Fort Huachuca where we were garrisoned at the time. And there are these Indians that we were after and I got to admit they were after us as well. And some of them got a few of us and few of us got some of them. That's how it works in war. And you're always kind of uneasy when you know there are people out there that you can't see, that you don't know that are trying to kill you. Well, I was on patrol and something happened I can't remember what, but I got separated from my men, and I was moving my horse, my horse, not anyone else's. This horse knew me and I knew that horse, and we're moving down this dry gully and the country around us was red as blood, all that sandstone. And we're moving down and I'm wondering, this is not a good place to be moving down this little gully because I could tell, water come down through here and it'd come down with plenty of forest. But it was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was beating down and it was hot, and my horse was sweating and I was sweating, and I was tired and I was scared. And being scared is a good thing to be when you're in the war because you are awake when you're scared, and you're looking and you're listening and you're watching to see if something that you don't expect to be there is going to be there. And so, I was quiet as I was moving down to that gully. And I thought a shot was going to ring out and I heard something above me out of that gully up over a ridge. And I started scrambling my way up over that ridge and I was careful because I didn't know what was there. And then I heard a sound that I knew, well, it was a sound of horse snakes, a sound that's deep in its throat, and I think you heard it too. And that sound was mirrored by another sound just like it off a little bit away from me. And I moved up, got closer, and I peaked over that edge of all that sandstone and I looked down. And right down there in this open flat space that was rock but was also grass. In the shade of the--of the rock itself, there's a little bit of moisture and--well, there were horses there. But they were unlike any horse or horses I'd ever seen because you see, those horses that I was looking at, they was called mustangs. They were--they were wild horses. And you see I ain't never seen a truly wild horse before. All the horses I ever saw, all the mules I ever saw, all of those animals had been broken. They had a bit in their mouth. They had leather strap around their heads. There were reins pulling them one way, reins pulling them the other. And all they knew, all they knew was someone else that didn't know anything about them, telling them, showing them, making them feel what to do. If they wanted to move forward, we move them forward. If we wanted them to stop, we stop them. They had no decision-making at all. The choices were made for. It was kind of like being colored in the south. Plenty of choices I made for you. Someone else you ain't got control of got control of you, and it's telling you to stop, to move forward, to go to one side or the other, to lie down, to get up, get up comes sunrise, those--that force you can't even feel is telling you to get up. So, I know what it's like to be a mule in South Carolina, to be a horse in Spartanburg. So, when I'm looking at these mustangs, I'm looking at these wild horses. I saw some I ain't ever seen before. Because I remembered looking and thinking, that horse right there, there's a stallion in the center of it all. And that stallion in the center of it all put color of the earth itself. I could just tell if that particular horse had never tasted metal in its mouth. Had never felt the bite of leather around its neck and had never felt a human being on top of him, and the weight of that on top of him. And what that weight actually meant, this horse, those horses were wild and you could see it in their body. The way they hold themselves, held themselves, you could tell they were free. They were free in a way that I have no way. I can't tell you what that's like because I never felt it myself, but I knew looking at them that they were truly free. And when I felt that in myself, in my bones, in my heart, and in my blood; and I looked at them and I said, "Well, this is freedom in front of me. This ain't a horse. These aren't horses." This is freedom itself just standing there grazing at that little dried out patch of grass. This is freedom in front of me grazing of the earth itself. And when I looked at them I knew them for what they were, I remember--I started crying and I couldn't figure out why am I crying, it's just a bunch of wild horses but I cried because I saw it in front of me something I didn't have. I couldn't go left or right when I wanted to. I mean, I could right now because I lost all the men I was riding with. But my life, in my life I couldn't do, but they so easily would do. They were quiet with the wind. They felt the sun on them. There's nothing between them and the sun and God Almighty. And then when the wind blow, it just blew their horse hair, moving back from their--from their heads like water. It just moved back around them and they were alive in a way I dream and still dream to this day of being that alive. Yeah. I'm telling you right now that right there in Arizona, right there and then was the first time in my life I had ever seen a horse. And I can tell you what happened after that. First, I breathe the sign of relief that there weren't Indians down there, these Indians we were fighting. But I didn't expect to see freedom on the other side of that little ridge of sandstone, that bright red rock that looks like the bones of the earth itself. I didn't expect to find that. And I tell you right now, when you're out in the mountains, when you're out in the desert, you never know what you're going to find and you never know what's there. It may find you and claim you for itself. Freedom found me on that day. I got a glimpse of it. I could see it. I could smell it. It was right there so close. And I could touch it but I knew it'd run off and I'd never be able to catch it; and I tell you right now, that's freedom. Freedom is wild horses who know you're there but no, they can get away from you whenever they want and you never, never get the chance to get on top of freedom, put a bit in his mouth, pull it to one side and start to canter away across that--across that desert, across that dried, parched out something that ain't got a name, except if you speak an Indian tongue. Yeah, I'll never forget the first time I ever saw horses.
Last updated: March 2, 2015