The 1896 ride of the Buffalo Soldiers through Yellowstone National Park


‘No better troops.’ The 1896 ride of the Buffalo Soldiers through Yellowstone National Park

By Michael Poland, Idaho Capital Sun

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.

Members of the 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps of the United States Army, Buffalo Soldiers, pictured on Main Street, Livingston, Montana. The Regiment stopped in Livingston for rations during the 1897 bicycle trip from Fort Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri. The trip was led by Lieutenant James A. Moss included Sgt. Mingo Sanders, Lance Cpl. William Haynes, Lance Cpl. Abram Martin, Musician Elias Johnson, Pvt. John Fridley, Pvt. George Scott, Pvt. Hiram L.B. Dingman, Pvt. Travis Bridges, Pvt. John Cook, Pvt. Frank L. Johnson, Pvt. William Proctor, Pvt. Elwood Forman, Pvt. Richard Rout, Pvt. Eugene Jones, Pvt. Sam Johnson, Pvt. William Williamson, Pvt. Sam Williamson, Pvt. John Wilson, Pvt. Samuel Reid, Pvt. Francis Button. The six soldiers visible in the photograph are unidentified. Reverse reads, “Livingston, Mont. Soldiers passing through Livingston and Mr. Thompson of Thompson Mercentile.” Photographer unknown, Sax and Fryer Collection. Courtesy Yellowstone Gateway Museum and Montana State Library Archives and Special Collections.

The Buffalo Soldiers who made up the volunteer Bicycle Corps of the 25th Infantry Regiment were up to the challenge.

An iconic photo (below) from Yellowstone’s early history depicts eight 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 Soldiers.

Group of black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps with bicycles posed on the side of Minerva Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. 1896. Photo by
Haynes, F. Jay (Frank Jay), 1853-1921. Courtesy Montana State Library Archives and Special Collections.

Following the Civil War, Congress passed legislation to reorganize the military and included these regiments of African-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.

In the field – the U.S. Army Bicycle Corps stationed at Fort Missoula, Montana. Corps in formation. The man riding beside the two rows of soldiers is Lieutenant James A. Moss. 1897. Photo by Ingalls, F. M. (Frank M.), 1861-1934. Courtesy Montana State Library Archives and Special Collections.

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.

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 eight 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.
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. 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 more than 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 Aug. 15 — to Yellowstone National Park and Fort Yellowstone, a journey of more than 300 miles that took just more than eight days.

After two days of rest and reprovisioning at Fort Yellowstone, the Corps set out on a tour of the park on Aug. 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 Aug. 29.  After two additional days of rest, during which the iconic photo and several others were taken, the soldiers headed back to Fort Missoula, riding in on Sept. 8 — a total journey of nearly 800 miles.

Bicycle Corps walking bicycles along a railroad track. Rolling grassy hills extend in the distance. Photo by Edward H. Boos. Courtesy Montana State Library Archives and Special Collections.

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.

Although there are no records of what the soldiers themselves thought, Moss recorded, “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.”

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

Republished under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. 

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  1. I love these photos as they clearly illustrate that gravel riding, bike packing, frame bags and handlebar rolls are not a “new fad” but have been a thing for well over a century.

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