BILLINGS — When the National Parks started to be formed the late 1800’s, they weren't part of the Department of the Interior. In fact the National Park Service wouldn’t be officially formed as an agency in the department until 1916. So during the intervening years, many parks were protected and looked after by the U.S. military, and many of those military units were black.
Segregated Buffalo Soldier units served throughout the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often acted as park rangers in places like Yellowstone, Glacier, and Sequoia.
Matt Lautzenheiser, director of Fort Missoula’s Historical Musuem, says that Buffalo Soldier units did a lot for the national parks: “A lot of what they did was things like fight fires, they stopped illegal poaching and illegal logging that was taking place, illegal grazing, where people would use the open lands and illegally graze their animals there,” he said.
“Another interesting little fact,” he said. “Soldier Mountain, which is in Glacier National Park. The story is that that was actually named for the Buffalo Soldiers that fought the 1910 fires in Glacier.”
Not only did Buffalo Soldier units serve in the parks, but Colonel Charles Young became the first black superintendent of both Sequoia and General Grant national parks in California, and his men maintained the parks and built many of the roads that are still used to this day.
Robert Stewart, the superintendent of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, says these men laid the foundation for the parks we know today.
"The Buffalo Soldiers is a legacy of conservation. They were able to get the job done to preserve the national parks for the enjoyment of future generations and we're still doing that today. We, in the Park Service look at these men as the, as the forebears of the work that we do now,” Stewart said.
Buffalo Soldiers truly were the stewards of today’s national parks and it is worth remembering and giving thanks.