PBS ‘The Big Burn’ sheds light on Buffalo Soldiers history

After a lightning storm ignited more than 1,000 fires across 22 national forest in Idaho and Montana on 26 July 1910, William Greeley hired as many men as he could. It wasn’t until 7 August, that the federal government sent aid to the U.S. Forestry service. President Taft sent 4,000 troops to the Rockies, including seven companies of Buffalo Soldiers. This was the first time the Buffalo Soldiers had been sent to fight fires and their arrival in state of Idaho nearly doubled the black population. Although the soldiers played a relatively small role in the fire, and don’t play a major role in the documentary “The Big Burn,” the Buffalo Soldiers had an undeniable role in the shaping of the West and the changing of attitudes.

Even Buffalo Soldier historians were somewhat surprised to learn of the Buffalo Soldiers participation in this historic event admitted Major Charles Williams,  historian and former member of the United States Army currently serving as the chief docent for the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston. Williams is one of the historian talking heads in “The Big Burn” documentary.

“We knew about the 1893 bicycle experiment that wanted to see if horses could be replaced. That was a journey from Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri,” he explained. Unfortunately, “the army didn’t too the accomplishments (of the Buffalo Soldiers) or the newspapers ignored the accomplishments because of the attitudes, but now people really want to know that they did.”

When the museum was invited in 2010 to participate in the 100th anniversary of the Big Burn, “We learned about the story then. The National Forest Service told us about it.” At that time, Williams had the opportunity to meet the author of the book the documentary is based on, Timothy Egan.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum was founded in 2000 by Vietnam vet and African American military historian Captain Paul J. Matthews. The museum is totally devoted to the preservation of a legacy and includes period artifacts such as sabers.

Williams served in the Marine Corps before college. After finishing his bachelor’s in biology with a minor in physical education at Prairie View A & M University  in Prairie View, Texas, Williams was then commissioned in the U.S. Army and served active duty for 2-3 years and stayed in the reserves  as a major for about ten years. He ended his federal service with the Department of Labor after 34 years with OSHA. In retirement, he became involved with the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum through his relationship with Matthews, saying “He was the one who first exposed me to the Buffalo Soldier legends. As a hobby, he began to collect memorabilia and stories for over 30 years.”

Williams confessed, “I first hear the term ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ from my dad. We had relatives on the west coat and traveling by car to the west coast, the route that we took as historically the same route that was protected by the Buffalo Soldiers.” According to Williams, that route was Interstate 10, from Houston all the way to El Paso.

“A lot of people confuse the Buffalo Soldier period with the Civil War. In 1863, President Lincoln ordered the Army to open up service to blacks. ” Yet while U.S. colored troops were part of the Army at “the end of the Civil War, they were mustered out. It was the policy not to allow blacks to serve as a professional soldier.” Yet “the black soldier fought in every major war,” he stated. “All that changed in 1866 when Congress ordered the military to add all-black segregated.”

That resulted in the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 24th and 25th infantry regiments. “The Buffalo Soldier era would last from 1866 up through the end of segregation–that ended the era of the Buffalo Soldier.”

“The name Buffalo Soldier was derived from contacts between the 5th Calvary and the Native American Cheyennes above Oklahoma…The Cheyenne called them wild buffalo out of respect for their fierce fighting ability. The buffalo was highly revered amongst most Native American tribes because the animal provided food, shelter. They could get 200 items just from the buffalo alone. The buffalo was very important to them…Other stories associated the appearance of the black soldiers–the hair and the complexion.”

Williams stated that for the most part the Buffalo Soldiers found themselves protecting settlers moving West. Because of the racist sentiments still seething in the South, it wasn’t considered appropriate to place them anywhere east of the Mississippi River.

“Not only did they become Indian fighters, they were tasked with other jobs. Without the jobs that the Buffalo Soldiers did on the Western frontier, it would have taken another 50 years to settle. They were tasked with mapping and searching for water sources. They were tasked with protecting railroad workers. They were tasked with protecting telegraph linemen.”

Yet not a lot was written about the Buffalo Soldiers in newspaper and other media. So the museum was both surprised and delighted to learn about the soldiers and their role in “The Big Burn.” The Army and the Forestry Service kept good records, it is just knowing where and when to look. The Buffalo Soldiers 25th Regiment has been garrisoned in Spokane, Washington. “According to accounts, they must have arrived around August the 14th…In some of the accounts given, they were spread out from Wallace, Idaho by train to Missoula, Montana. They immediately went in to fight the fire.”

Elements of the 25th set up on a baseball field in the town of Wallace. The Indio company participaed in establishing the evacuation plan, putting women and children on the train…they kept order; they kept the looting down.”

They could not have been prepared for the Big Burn. “No one has been exposed to this type of firefighting.”

Firefighting in the Rockies is nothing like firefighting today. They didn’t use cars. The Ford Motor Company had just come out with the Model T in 1908, so the mass production of automobiles had just begun. The Wright Brothers had their first flight in 1903. The first operational helicopter was built in 1936. That meant in 1910, firefighters would look into the rugged mountainous terrain and “ride by mule a half a day or a day to where they saw a fire or saw smoke.”

The Buffalo Soldiers weren’t unfamiliar to national parks. “In 1903 through 1904, the 9th Calvary was assigned to protect the country’s early national parks–Yosemite and Sequoia National parks. The 9th Calvary came back from the Spanish-American War and was garrisoned at the Presidio in San Francisco. They protected Yosemite and Sequoia from poachers, people who would illegally take timber out of the parks or illegally graze cattle in the parks. They established trails in the parks.”

Williams said that the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is always looking for more information, more artifacts the help to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers in the American West. If you have any information about Buffalo Soldiers participating in historical events, please contact the museum.

Otherwise, sit down and watch how soldiers and forestry service rangers faced “The Big Burn” and changed how America fights fire.

The Big Burn” premieres on “American Experience” on Tuesday, 2 February 215 9 p.m. ET. Check local listings. After the original broadcast, it will be available VoD.

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