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January 31, 2022

Many would enjoy the adventure of a bicycle expedition to Yellowstone National Park.  But imagine doing it in 1896, before pavement, lightweight cycles, and modern camping equipment.  The Buffalo Soldiers who made up the volunteer Bicycle Corps of the 25th Infantry Regiment were up to the challenge!

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

An iconic photo from Yellowstone’s early history depicts 8 soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment posing with bicycles on Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs.  These men were not stationed in Yellowstone, but rather cycled from Missoula to the Park and back!  The regiment had been based at Fort Missoula since 1888, and although the ranks were composed of Black men, the officers were white.  The 25th was one of four regiments (also including the 24th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry) that were made up of Black soldiers—these were the Buffalo Soldiers1.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps pose on Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park.
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps pose on Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Pvt. John Findley, front left, was the primary bicycle mechanic for the unit, and so carried a heavy toolbox attached to his handlebars.  Photo by F. Jay Haynes, 1896.  Montana Historical Society Research Center, Haynes Foundation Photograph Collection, H-3614. Used with permission from the Montana Historical Society.

Bicycles as a means of military transport in the U.S. Army was suggested by Lt. James Moss, an officer in the 25th Infantry, following the example of some European armies.  Bicycles offered several advantages over horses—they didn’t require food or water, didn’t make as much noise, and could be repaired if they broke down.  His proposal to test the concept was approved by Army leadership, so Lt. Moss began training volunteers from the 25th Infantry Regiment.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps walk their cycles up Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps walk their cycles up Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by F. Jay Haynes, 1896.  Montana Historical Society Research Center, Haynes Foundation Photograph Collection, H-3615. Used with permission from the Montana Historical Society.

The Bicycle Corps pedaled into action for the first time in early August 1896, starting with a four-day, 126-mile ride in the vicinity of Missoula, Montana.  This might not sound spectacular, given that Ironman Triathlon bicycle legs cover about the same distance, but remember, this was 1896.  The roads were not paved, and the one-speed bicycles, custom built by A.G. Spalding & Co. of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, each weighted over 30 pounds.  Importantly, unlike the Ironman, the soldiers also had to carry food, utensils, weapons, ammunition, clothes, repair parts and tools, bedrolls, and tents—well over 100 pounds all told!

After a few days of rest, the Bicycle Corps began their next expedition on August 15—to Yellowstone National Park and Fort Yellowstone, a journey of over 300 miles that took just over 8 days.

After 2 days of rest and reprovisioning at Fort Yellowstone, the Corps set out on a tour of the Park on August 25, stopping at Lower Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin (where they observed Old Faithful, Giantess, and Castle Geysers all erupting at the same time), West Thumb, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls, returning to Mammoth Hot Springs on August 29.  After 2 additional days of rest, during which the iconic photo and several others were taken, the soldiers headed back to Fort Missoula, riding in on September 8—a total journey of nearly 800 miles.

As part of his official report, Lt. Moss recorded that the trip through Yellowstone included 132 miles completed in 19 hours of actual bicycling.  The slowest pace was between Upper Geyser Basin and West Thumb, when the soldiers had to cross the Continental Divide—twice!  The fastest time was between Fort Yellowstone and Norris Geyser Basin.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps ride on an inactive portion of Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps ride on an inactive portion of Minerva Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by F. Jay Haynes, 1896.  Montana Historical Society Research Center, Haynes Foundation Photograph Collection, H-3616. Used with permission from the Montana Historical Society.

Although there are no records of what the soldiers themselves thought, Lt. Moss recorded that “The soldiers were delighted with the trip…thought the sights grand…and seemed to be in the best of spirits the whole time.”  Moss also remarked on “the moral effect of the seething water, the roaring of the geysers and the sulphuric fumes.”

Even the Yellowstone journey was just a warmup.  In 1897, Moss organized 20 soldiers of the 25th Infantry on a 40-day, 1,900-mile ride from Fort Missoula to St. Louis.  A planned ride to San Francisco the following year was canceled owing to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, and the 25th Infantry was deployed to the Philippines.

Although never based in Yellowstone National Park, Buffalo Soldiers had a profound and lasting impact on the early national parks.  Serving under perhaps the first Black officer, Charles Young, they were rangers and interpreters in places like Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, helping tourists and even blazing trails—for example, to the summit of Mount Whitney.

The next time you drive—or cycle!—around Yellowstone National Park, think of the challenging conditions that faced the intrepid Buffalo Soldier bicyclists of the 25th Infantry Regiment, who completed a tour of the park after riding from Missoula and carrying their own provisions, spare parts, and equipment.  And the challenges were not purely physical and logistical—of course, they also faced discrimination and were paid less than their white counterparts.  But wherever they went, the men of the 25th distinguished themselves, with one Montana newspaper editor remarking, “The prejudice against the…soldiers seems to be without foundation for if the 25th Infantry is an example of the [Black] regiments there is no exaggeration in the statement that there are no better troops in the service.”

The 8 cyclists of the Yellowstone expedition were Sgt. Dalbert P. Green, Cpl. John G. Williams, Pvt. John Findley, Pvt. Frank L. Johnson, Pvt. William Proctor, Pvt. William Haynes, Pvt. Elwood Forman, and Musician William W. Brown.

For more information on the exploits of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps, see:

 

1Following the Civil War, Congress passed legislation to reorganize the military and included these regiments of Afro-Americans, many of whom were among the approximately 180,000 African Americans who previously served in the Union Army.  From 1867 to the early 1890s, these regiments served at a variety of posts in the southwestern United States and the Great Plains regions.  It was from one of these regiments, the 10th Cavalry, that the nickname Buffalo Soldier was born. Indigenous tribes of the American plains who fought against these soldiers allegedly referred to the black cavalry troops as "buffalo soldiers" because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled a bison’s coat, and because of their fierce nature of fighting.  The nickname soon became synonymous with all African-American regiments formed in 1866.