The Military and Yosemite
Yosemite: The Cavalry Years
David A. Smith, Historian
The Burdick Military History Project
San Jose State University
One of the best known images of the cavalry at Yosemite. Troop F, 6th Cavalry Regiment at the Fallen Monarch.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Yosemite Valley began to gain a reputation as a tourist attraction. An increase of land claims in the valley and its surrounding area posed a special problem if the region was to remain open for visits from the general public. In an attempt to reclaim the land and place it as public domain, California Senator John Conness, in 1864, introduced a bill in the United States Senate that would place the land under the protection of California. This proposed land grant included the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, and made the state responsible for "their constant preservation, that they may be used and preserved for the benefit of all mankind." The bill passed the Senate and the House of Representatives, and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on 1 July 1864. The California Legislature passed their State Park Act in the same year, and on 28 September 1864, Governor F. K. Low appointed a board of commissioners to manage the park.

However innovative Senator Conness's bill might have been, it did not adequately preserve the environment of the region. It was soon recognized that additional land would have to be set aside to protect the Yosemite Valley's watershed. Naturalist-philosopher John Muir and Century magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson lobbied tirelessly to put the preservation issue before Congress. In March of 1890, Representative Vandever of California introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for the land surrounding the Yosemite Valley to be set aside as a National Park. The bill passed without debate and was taken over to the Senate where it met with little opposition in consideration of the heavy support from the Department of the Interior and the Governor of California, Robert W. Waterman. The act was signed the following day, 1 October, by President Benjamin Harrison.

As Congress had done with the establishment of Yellowstone, the world's first national park, the Yosemite Act failed to provide for the park's management and protection. Fortunately there already was a precedent for the solution to the problem. Nearly ten years after the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the park still lacked a force which would provide for its stewardship. On 12 December 1882, Senator George G. Vest of Missouri had submitted a resolution calling for an inquiry into ways of protecting the parkland. Support for military guardianship of the park grew and even received the warm approval of General Philip Sheri den who had recently returned from the area. The result was Bill HR7595 which, in its final form, read:
Secretary of War, upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, is hereby authorized and directed to make necessary details of troops to prevent trespassers of intruders from entering the park for the purpose of destroying the game or objects of curiosity therein, and to remove such persons from the park if found therein.

The bill was approved on 3 March 1883. Recalling this piece of legislation, Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble requested that the Secretary of War send troops of cavalry to patrol the newly established Yosemite National Park. Noble found Secretary of War Redfield Proctor hesitant to act, so he appealed directly to President Harrison who assured Noble that a second request would be met with a warmer reception. On January 1891, the request was approved and the job of protecting the park was detailed to I Troop of the Fourth Cavalry which was commanded by Captain Abram Epperson Wood.

Traveling 250 mile from San Francisco to Yosemite, Captain Wood and his company entered the park at Wawona on 19 May 1891. Camp was promptly established on a flat between the South Fork of the Merced River and the Wawona Road one mile north of Wawona, and it was dubbed Camp Wawona. The camp was to be seasonal, being manned spring through the fall. Winter snows were counted on to protect the parklands from trespassers.

Captain Wood was a West Point graduate and had experience serving in the Civil War and in various Indian wars. The only training that he seemed to lack was how to manage a national park. Nevertheless, he did his best as Yosemite's first acting superintendent. His first task was to send letters to local stockmen warning them that the region would be a "Park throughout all time--it is not a temporary arrangement," and he advised them to keep their stock from violating the park's boundary. Captain Wood discovered that cattle ranchers presented only minor difficulties as they generally tried to observe the law. It was the sheepherders, especially the hired foreigners (Mexican, Portuguese, and French), who caused the most trouble. This would continue to be a problem also for the superintendents who would follow Wood.

The new superintendent felt frustrated though; he believed that his threats meant little because while Congress had given the United States Army jurisdiction to police the national parks, they had failed to provide any form of punishment beyond removal from the premises. At first, Captain Wood tried to bluff the herders into thinking he had the legal authority to arrest them, but this tactic failed when the United States District Attorney for Northern California published a report declaring that no action would be pursued if violators were apprehended. In 1892 and 1893, Captain Wood was again assigned to camp Wawona. During these years, he approached the sheepherder problem in a slightly different manner. Using a strategy which had been proven effective by the Yellowstone National Park superintendents, he began the practice of deporting the herders to one side of the park while their flocks were escorted and dispersed upon their arrival at the opposite side. This journey took four or five days, and by the time the herders were able to recover their flocks, they lost a great number of sheep to the elements. This process made the practice of grazing in the park uneconomical.

In early 1894, Captain Wood died and the command of the park passed on to Captain G. H. G. Gale and C Troop of the Fourth Cavalry. While stationed at Camp Wawona, Captain Gale requested that the camp change its name to honor the late Captain Wood. Permission was granted and Camp Wawona was changed to Camp A. E. Wood. Under Captain Gale's administration of the park, expeditions were established for the purpose of exploring and mapping the park. However, this would not be the first time the region had been surveyed by members of the United States Army. In 1871, Chief of United States Engineers Brigadier-General A. a. Humphries commissioned Lieutenant George M. Wheeler to survey all lands west of the 100th meridian. Between 1871 and 1879, the survey teams under Lieutenant Wheeler mapped and explored over one-third of the area assigned. Among the regions covered was that of the Yosemite area. Under the supervision of Lieutenant McComb, a sub-party of the expedition surveyed Yosemite in the mid-1870s, producing the first large scale topographic map of the Yosemite Valley which was published in 1883. Opposition in Congress abolished the program in 1879 due to its waste of money in duplicating regions already surveyed. In 1894, Captain Gale delegated the task of organizing a more thorough survey to Lieutenant N. L. McClure, who became the first to explore and map the canyons north of the Tuolume Rivers and was also recognized as being the first white American to view the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

During 1895, the park witnessed major developments in policies and practices of park management. In that year, Captain Alexander Rogers and K Troop of the Fourth Cavalry were detailed to assume stewardship of the park. Upon his arrival, Rogers had signs posted warning all visitors and trespassers of what could be expected if they violated any of the park rules. In the annual report to the Secretary of the Interior, Rogers stated that he had:

. . . made it clear to all the fact that the Interior Department is in earnest, and there has been a sincere effort made by all the officers on duty here to show that the duties of the troops stationed here are not in a perfunctory manner, but in such a way as to make trespassing an unprofitable thing.

Details were sent out under Lieutenants McClure, Smedberg, and Benson to drive out stock, arrest hunters and miners, and continue revising existing maps of the park. For a time, the United States Cavalry became involved in road construction within the park. A construction crew was sent out under the supervision of a non-commissioned officer to repair Tioga Road so it would remain usable for mounted parties and light wagons.

Since 1891, the sheep grazing problem had intensified in spite of the actions taken to ensure prevention. Captain Rogers felt the same frustrations as his predecessors; the government, he felt, ". . . was not going to protect its rights in the park." What Rogers recommended was that the government pass regulations containing more harsh penalties. With a couple convictions, he stated, trespassing could be effectively controlled. Meanwhile, the herders were still winning their war against the cavalry. Captain Rogers reported that:

band together and hire men who act as scouts, and from commanding points, watch trails. When the troops are seen, they give warning and the sheep, which are just inside the line, are driven out. With the small force I have (I have only 46 horses), it is very difficult to keep out the sheep;. .

Despite several actions taken, the cavalry unit failed to deter the herders from grazing in the park.

In spite of all the problems that Captain Rogers had to contend with, he distinguished himself by doing something no other superintendent had done; he suggested an increase in the size of the park. His predecessors sought exactly the opposite; they claimed that a decrease in size was necessary if the cavalry planned on effectively managing the park. While Captain Rogers agreed that the force allotted was not enough to manage the park, he thought that an increase was necessary not only to save the Yosemite Valley's watershed, but the watershed of the recently discovered Hetch Hetchy Valley. Eventually, the boundaries were increased in order to protect these and other geological features.

The command was changed once again in 1896, when Lieutenant Colonel S. M. B. Young was given the position as acting superintendent. He had B Troop of the Fourth Cavalry under his command. Colonel Young felt that urgent action was needed to curb the number of firearms brought into the park.

Due to poaching, wildlife within the park was threatened. Colonel Young established entrance stations in order to confiscate firearms from tourists entering the park. Only revolvers were allowed in the park and only under the condition that the gentlemen carrying the pistols were accompanied by a lady. The carbines of Young's own troops were confiscated when they were accused of shooting game. During the duration of their stay in the park, the cavalry troopers confiscated over two hundred firearms from visitors. Along with a depleting game supply, Colonel Young also noticed a decrease in the numbers of fish in the streams and lakes. While fishing was permitted in the park, it was a privilege occasionally abused by fishermen using guns and explosives. With the aid of the California State Fish Commission, the United States Cavalry became involved in stocking streams and lakes, planting some 55,000 fish during 1896.

Early visitors to the park did a great deal of damage to the environment. They usually let their campfires going which caused a number of forest fires. They also destroyed wildlife and left behind vast amounts of refuse. In his report to the Secretary of the Interior, Colonel Young wrote,

. . . [a] majority of campers are careless and negligent about extinguishing their fires and policing their camp grounds when leaving. The spectacle of empty tines . . . together with offal from cook fire, and other more objectionable things, is detestable anywhere, but is abominable in superlative degree when included in the view of a beautiful mountain stream. . . . Six fires occurred in July, caused by intention or neglect of campers . . . .

Among other problems connected to visitors' damage to the environment was the difficulty of prohibiting billboards advertising local businesses. Cavalry troopers tore these billboards down and replaced them with a bill of rules governing the park. These, in turn, were usually torn down by visitors or local businessmen.

In 1896, the issue of the legality of the use of the United States Cavalry in Yosemite National Park was raised. It was in that year that Secretary of Interior David R. Francis made a routine request for a military detail and was questioned by the Secretary of War, Daniel Lamont, who insisted that Francis show legal documents which would indicate that Yosemite shared the same right as Yellowstone in the provision of military forces for park protection. The Secretary of the Interior admitted that no law existed which specifically authorized detailing cavalry units to Yosemite, but was necessary to do so since the Interior Department was without means of providing protection. He also added that five years of military occupation was a strong precedent and seemed sufficient authority for granting his request. Troops were provided and the issue was dropped.

Captain Alexander Rogers returned to the park with K Troop of the Fourth Cavalry in 1897. This year was noted for several actions and recommendations, one of which was sending out patrols under the supervision of non-commissioned officers because of the lack of commissioned officers. Another important function performed during this time was a total revision of the existing map of the park. Among the recommendations made in Captain Rogers' annual report to the Secretary of the Interior was the suggestion that the Interior Department purchase all roads in the park and allot annual funding to insure their maintenance. The presence of private ownership within the park was becoming disruptive. As Captain Rogers saw it, a major step towards improving the park lay in the assumption by the government of private roads which could be properly maintained for use by the public and the cavalry units patrolling the region.

The United States' "splendid little war" with Spain began in 1898 and the United States Cavalry's involvement in the protection of the park was temporarily suspended. A special inspector for the Department of the Interior, J. W. Zeverly, assumed the position of acting superintendent. Though the Interior Department had appropriated additional funding in order to hire civilian law enforcement officials, there were still too few hired to police the park, and the First Utah Volunteer Cavalry commanded by Captain Joseph E. Caine was called in to replace civilians. When Captain Caine entered the park on 25 September 1898, he found several fires out of control and an estimated 200,000 sheep grazing. He split his unit into details of ten men, each commanded by one non-commissioned officer. It took nearly two weeks to regain control over the forest fires. Captain Caine then dispersed his patrols to scour the park for sheepherders whom he believed to be the cause of the damage. Within a few days, the patrols had captured a record twenty-seven herders. The unit's success only served to convince the government that the park could only be managed by the military, yet Captain Caine seemed not to lose faith in civilian control. Before he left the park in January of 1899, he hired two forest agents, Archie Leonard and Charles Ledig, to protect the parkland during the winter months. In Caine's own words, they were to be "park rangers;" thus he established the title for those who would later be responsible for the management of the park.

Near the end of 1898, a group of Mariposa volunteers requested that they be granted the detail of guarding the park. The offer was declined by the government, and in 1899, more troops were sent from the Presidio of San Francisco. The question of legality and guardianship of Yosemite plagued the United States Army and the Interior Department until an act was passed by Congress on 6 June 1900, specifying that the military was responsible for the protection of the national parks. The cavalry did not really want the duty; many in the War Department deemed it too unmilitary. The main argument for its continued presence was that it was the most economical method to ensure park stewardship.

The Years between 1898 and 1905 witnessed a great turnover in command. During 1899, three commanding officers occupied the position of Acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park. These officers were Lieutenant W. H. McMasters of the 24th Regiment of Infantry, Lieutenant William Forse of the Third Artillery, and Captain B. F. Wilcox of the Sixth Cavalry. Between 1900 and 1905, the officers in command changed annually. Major L. H. Rucker of the Sixth Cavalry took over in 1900; he was followed by Major L. A. Craig of the 15th Cavalry in 1901, Major C. L. Hein of the Third Cavalry in 1902, Lieutenant Colonel John Bigelow, Jr. of the Ninth cavalry in 1903, and Captain W. H. McCormack of the Ninth cavalry in 1904. These years saw no real developments in park policy or practice, though the size of the units sent to the park was increased from one troop to two.

Cavalry units usually left the Presidio of San Francisco for Yosemite in early May. Both the contingent assigned to Yosemite and to Sequoia-General Grant National Parks traveled together. Once assembly had been sounded and the band played "The Girl I Left behind," the troopers saddled up and started on the 250 mile trek. The field staff always took the lead, followed by the troops of cavalry, and then by the pack train. They would march the first day until one o'clock in the afternoon when they would stop for the night, the first day's ride being traditionally short. The route they rode took them down the peninsula and into Santa Clara. From there they would travel south through Gilroy, through Pacheco Pass, and into the San Joaquin Valley. This march took between ten to fourteen days to accomplish. When the column reached Madera on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, it split up into two groups--those units patrolling Sequoia-General grant National Parks turned south, while the remaining units continued east to Yosemite National Park.

Once in the park, the soldier's day began when the men lined up for guard post at which time the duty assignments were made. Some of the men left for back-country patrol, while some were delegated jobs to be performed around the camp. The length of duty varied; some stayed out on patrol for several days (as much as thirty), while others just spent a few hours. During their spare time, the soldiers entertained themselves playing horseshoes, craps, cards, and dominoes. Most men found their off-duty time dull and unexciting compared to the opportunities available in San Francisco. However, some troopers did not find park duty unpleasant, and a few even retired from the military to become some of the nation's first park rangers.

In 1905, Captain Harry C. Benson became the Acting Superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Captain Benson had entered the Army in 1878 as a West Point Cadet; upon his graduation in 1882, he entered the artillery as a lieutenant. He found life in the artillery a little too slow for his taste, so he transferred to the cavalry and was immediately involved in the campaign to capture Geronimo. On this campaign, he received international recognition by securing a specimen of an Imperial Woodpecker, a rare find. In 1887, he achieved the rank of first Lieutenant and accepted an appointment as a mathematics instructor at West Point. In 1891, Lieutenant Benson was transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco where he was able to participate in the annual park duty assignments. During the Spanish-American war, he acted as the collector of customs in Cuba and later in the Philippines. After he left his Yosemite post in 1908, he moved to Yellowstone National Park where he became superintendent. In 1911, he was assigned to the position of Chief of Staff, Philippines Department, where he stayed until his retirement in 1915.

During Captain Benson's first tours of duty in the park under Lieutenant Colonel Young and Captain Rogers, he had been involved primarily with revising the regional maps and capturing sheepherders. As Lieutenant Benson, he was a renowned nemesis of sheepherders, and in 1896, he captured fourteen herders in one week. An article appearing in an 1899 Overland Monthly claimed that mothers of the Yosemite "region reduces her obstreperous offspring to subjection by shouting 'Be good, or Benson will catch You!'" It was also Lieutenant Benson who devised a method (again, during his stay in 1896) to transport fish for the purpose of planting in lakes and streams. He used milk cans and lashed them to pack mules. The cans had an elaborate lid consisting of wire gauzes and hoses. Since the water had to be changed frequently, Lieutenant Benson had designed the containers so they could be refilled with minimum effort and maximum efficiency. Great success was had with these cans, and the first effort of transporting and planting fish at great distances from the hatchery located at Wawona was accomplished because of his ideas.

During his command of 1905, Captain Benson pursued a vigorous policy towards trespasser (livestock herders and hunters) in an attempt to remove them from the park. He used Captain Wood's method of driving herds out of the park and scattering them while taking the herders to Camp Wawona before releasing them. Charges were never leveled against the herders because there was no law which gave the cavalry the right to bring the violators to court. Many of the sheep were lost or destroyed by this practice, and by the end of the year, Captain Benson's troops had successfully run the herders out of the park.

There was also a major development in the construction of a trail network in the park in 1905, which until that time had only five major roads and trails. An east-west road ran from Tioga Pass to crane Flats where it met another road that ran to Big Oak Flat. A major trail ran from crescent Lake through Gravelly Ford and then south through Jackass Meadows. Other trails included one which ran through Sunrise and northward towards Mount Conness via Cathedral Lakes, and one which led out of Wawona to Glacier Point, with a branch trail leading to Sunrise. Many of the previous acting superintendents had recommended that the network of trails be upgraded and expanded, and Captain Benson was no exception. Primarily for the purpose of keeping the herders out of the park, Benson established a more extensive system of trails connecting the lush meadows of the High-country.

During the years prior to 1905, there had developed a movement favoring the recession of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees Grove to the federal government. If the parklands were united under one agency, it was thought, the quality of protection would improve. John Muir and others had favored a recession since 1895, and when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903, Muir persuaded him to use his office to give the grants back to the federal government. On the state level, there seemed to be little opposition. Governor George C. Pardee and a great many other citizens favored recession; they felt that the administration of the state parks had become too expensive. The members of the California Legislature were relieved of their burden when a bill passed Congress which expedited the recession, and on 3 March 1905, the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Trees Grove Grants became incorporated into Yosemite National Park.

The Yosemite Valley, being the nucleus of the area, had always been the ideal place to establish Park Headquarters, but the State Park Commissioners and especially the residents barely tolerated the cavalry passing through the valley on patrol, let alone staying there for any length of time. Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock directed newly promoted Major Harry C. Benson to move Camp A. E. Wood to the valley on 11 June 1906. This created two problems. The new residents and appointed guardians of the Yosemite Valley Grant were reluctant to give up the valley. As late as 28 June 1906, the cavalry was unable to move because of the mood of intolerance that prevailed in the valley. The second problem was that just the preceding year the Fourth Cavalry secured funding totaling $3,000 for the improvement of Camp A. E. Wood. Extensive repairs were made to the water system and several permanent structures were added to the camp including a kitchen, a mess hall, a quartermaster's storehouse, a commissary, a bath house, a wagon she, a laundry, and an extension of the stables. In spite of these complications, though, Major Benson moved his post into the Yosemite Valley on 1 August 1906.

The new post was established and appropriately dubbed Camp Yosemite. The barracks consisted of conical shaped tent-cabins with wooden floors. Each held four men. Their cots were set about the side, while in the center, the troopers arranged their footlockers. Using similar construction, a hospital was built across the parade ground from barracks and staffed with a small contingent of medical personnel from the San Francisco Presidio. The hospital was open to the public and was concerned more with the health of park visitors than with Army personnel. East of the hospital was the quartermaster's storeroom and commissary along with the company's kitchens and mess. These buildings were constructed of board and batten with shake roofs. The blacksmith's shop, guardhouse, officer's mess, and headquarters were constructed in similar fashion. The west end of the camp was left open and an adjacent meadow served as an extended parade ground for practicing maneuvers. Most of the construction was performed by civilian carpenters since, at the time, few among the soldiers could be considered competent in the construction of buildings.

Major Benson remained the commanding officer through 1908. His hard line policy on trespassing was supported by several simultaneous patrols consisting of two to five men, traveling anywhere from twenty to seventy-five miles during their sweeps. Another report indicated that five civilian employees had been hired full time for the park's operation. The employees included a supervisor, an electrician, a plumber, and two park rangers. These latter appointments are significant in that it was the first time that the title Park Ranger had been applied to a federal employment position; these were, in a sense, the first federal park rangers hired officially under the said title.

Major William W. Forsythe of the Sixth Cavalry assumed the position of command at Camp Yosemite on 27 May 1909, and remained in command until the end of 1912. It was during his stay that Interior Department officials began to investigate the possibility of removing the military from the national parks. In 1911, they considered the formation of a separate government bureau which would be responsible for the administration and guardianship of the parks. The conclusion which came from these meetings between the Interior Department and the War Department was that the nature of the parks had changed and that military protection was no longer a necessity. During 1912 Camp Yosemite went through some renovation. Structures of "temporary character" were added to the camp. Among the new buildings were two cottages (for officers), two barracks, and two lavatories. A new hospital was built near the camp; this hospital maintained its service even after the cavalry left the park, until 1929, when the J. B. Lewis Memorial Hospital was built.

In 1913, the long occupation of Yosemite by the United States Cavalry came to an end. Major William L. Littebrant of the First Cavalry had the command. His stay with A and B Troops of the First Cavalry was short that year, from 1 May until 10 July. By special Order Number 173 from Headquarters, Western Department, Major Littebrant was ordered to abandon his post and turn the responsibilities of the park's management over to a civilian, Gabriel Sovulewski, and five full time park rangers. An era had ended; after twenty-three years of military occupation, Yosemite National Park was to be controlled by a civilian force. The War Department was glad to be relieved of the duty. Since the 1910-11 Mexican Revolution, the Army strongly advocated cutting in half the force required to protect the parks. It was even suggested by the Secretary of War that these remaining troops be dismissed and hired by the Interior Department as park rangers.

During the twenty-three years that the cavalry guarded Yosemite, significant changes had been made both in the physical landscape of the region and in the manner in which its management developed. Whether a civilian agency could have done a more successful job is irrelevant. What is relevant is that soldiers who were not trained to manage parklands did so with some success, and in a sense, they really accomplished nothing less than to save Yosemite from environmentally dangerous practices, and left the park in a greatly improved state.

Troops of cavalry were not the only units to guard Yosemite. This historic photograph taken by Celia Crocker Thompson in Yosemite on June 12, 1899, depicts Buffalo Soldiers belonging to Company H, 24th Infantry. The weapons slung across their shoulders are "Krag" rifles rather than carbines. The soldiers are mounted because Yosemite in those days was approximately 1500 square miles. The 24th Infantry was the only infantry regiment to serve in the Sierra Nevada during the period of military stewardship of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Ninth Cavalry troops protected these California parks in 1903 and 1904. Eight troops of Ninth Cavalry served during those two summers. The caption on the negative for this photograph indicates that the subject is "the 24th Negro Infantry, Company H, taken while on way from Wawona to camp, not far from Crockers, men on horses
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Updated 8 February 2016