Frederick Burnham was a product of the American west. He was born in 1861 on an Indian reservation in what is now Minnesota, the son of a Kentucky-born missionary and outdoorsman and his English wife. When their village was attacked during the Dakota War of 1862, Fred’s mother, knowing she couldn’t move quickly enough while carrying him, hid Fred in a corn shock while she fled to another homestead; Fred spent the night there under the stacked corn even as the Indians ran by, and was unharmed and sleeping upon her return the next day. Over the years, he inherited his father’s love and skill for outdoorsmanship, and was proficient in the use of a rifle by the time he was eight. Around 1870, Fred’s father slipped on some ice while carrying an armload of wood; the falling wood left him with serious injuries and a case of consumption from which he could not recover. The family moved to California, where Fred’s father died in 1873. Fred’s mother and 3-year-old brother Mather returned to Iowa the next year, while Fred remained in California. Calling upon the skills instilled in him by his frontiersman father, Fred decided at the last minute to remain in California to earn money to support the family, for which he now considered himself responsible. Fred was all of 13 years old at the time.
Over the next ten years, Fred tracked Indians, hunted buffalo, chased outlaws, guarded stagecoaches, scouted territory, and served variously as a guide, messenger, prospector, cowboy, and deputy sheriff. He learned his craft under the tutelage of a man named Holmes, who had scouted with the greats of the American west, including the legendary Kit Carson. He read whenever he could, learning of the Mexican War, and the life stories of Hannibal, Cyrus the Great, and African explorer Dr. David Livingstone. He saved some money and attempted to finish his formal schooling, and after he married his childhood sweetheart Blanche he attempted to settle down and man an orange farm, but he didn’t take well to either one and ultimately returned to the west and to scouting. However, by 1884, he decided that the Old West had become too boring and decided to head out to more adventurous lands, so he moved to Cape Town and joined the British South Africa Company. Blanche, their son, and Blanche’s brother Ingram all went with him, and before long they relocated north to the area around Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe.
Before long, the British South Africa Company became embroiled in war with the Ndebele nation (also called the Matabele), led by Lobengula, who commanded a force of 10,000 men, 2,000 of which had British-made Martini-Henry rifles, compared to the 700 or so in the BSAC. Tales were quickly spread of advancing hordes of African warriors, perpetrating acts of unspeakable slaughter. When British administrator Leander Starr Jameson ordered the capture of King Lobengula, Burnham was one of fourteen soldiers to stage a daring midnight raid on the Ndebele camp; they had trouble, however, identifying which of the laagers (wagon forts) was the King’s, and by the time they figured it out they had been spotted. Ndebele warriors, armed with assegai spears and elephant guns, sprung from every direction as the raiding party rode for their lives. They took refuge near a giant anthill, when Major Allan Wilson discovered that three of their party were missing. Wilson ordered Burnham, the party scout and the only one capable of seeing in the dark, to recover them; while another man held his horse, Burnham tracked the missing men’s horses back by feeling their hoofprints in the black mud with his fingers.
The fourteen men of the raiding party met up with twenty others sent as reinforcements, but within minutes they were attacked by the Ndebele. Burnham, along with two others named Ingram and Gooding, were sent for aid, and engaged on a frantic zigzagging ride under constant attack before reaching the base - which itself was under attack by a large force of Africans. Major Forbes, commanding the British troops there, could not send reinforcements to the raiding party, and aside from Burnham and his two fellow messengers, Wilson and the smaller party were killed to a man. A Ndbele witness later stated that the last five men, sensing the end was near, stood up and defiantly sang “God Save the Queen” until they, too, were killed.
For this action, Burnham’s name became well known; a play entitled “Burnham, the American Scout” played in two separate theaters in London. In the field, his exploits contined. At one point, he was guaranteed safe passage by a treaty, which was then ignored by an African princed name Latea; Burnham snuck into Latea’s camp late at night, kicked down a fence, broke into his hut, and held him at gunpoint until he acquisced, telling the Prince “We may all be killed, but you will be the first to die.” He escaped capture by dropping down between the oxen of a moving cart, then rolling off the road behind the rear guard, and at other times was able to sense Boer or Ndebele scouts invisible to others, leading some to believe he had senses bordering on the supernatural.
The Burnhams were the parents of the first white child born in Bulawayo, a daughter named Nada, which is Zulu for ‘lily’, but when the Second Matabele War began in 1896, the city was besieged, and the family was trapped inside. Burnham, along with a companion named Armstrong and a Major named Baden-Powell, volunteered to sneak into the enemy camp and assassinate their M’Limo, or “Mouthpiece of God”. This was almost a suicide mission, as the African leader was secreted in a cave above a village filled with 2000 Ndebele warriors, and the lands were heavily patrolled. Baden-Powell was called away at the last moment, but Burnham and Armstrong succeeded in crawling so close to the town that they could smell dinner cooking; Burnham fired one shot from his Lee-Metford rifle, killing the high priest instantly.
The entire Ndebele town was alerted by the gunshot, and by the two women who coincidentally had discovered the intruders’ horses at that very moment. The two men lept upon their horses and again Burnham found himself being led on a frantic chase, pursued by hundreds of angry Ndebele warriors. He and Armstrong survived, however, and returned to Bulawayo; before long, the British were able to sue for peace against the Ndebele, whose morale was sapped by the loss of their M’Limo.
During the War, Burnham became friends with then-Major Robert Baden-Powell, who almost accompanied Burnham and Armstrong on the mission. He taught Baden-Powell much about outdoorsmanship, woodworking, and scouting, and the ways of the American west and of the American Indians; Baden-Powell even adopted from Burnham a Stetson hat and neckerchief which would soon become his trademark. Baden-Powell would use much of Burnham’s information when he would later create the Boy Scouts and, with his sister Edith, the Girl Scouts.
Unfortunately, young Nada died in Bulawayo from the hardships of the Siege. Burnham and his wife would move back to California, then he later served as a scout in the Yukon Territories. In 1902, his youngest son Bruce, sent away to live with relatives in London, drowned in the Thames River. Fred Burnham eventually retired to California, and after his wife Blanche died in 1939, 83-year-old Fred remarried his 29-year-old typist Ilo. They retired to Santa Barbara, where Fred died of a heart attack in 1947, at the age of 86. His only surviving child, Roderick, became a geologist and served in World War I. Rod's son, also named Frederick, served in Vietnam, and his son, Lt. Russell Burnham, is a Physician Assistant in the US Army, and was named the 2003 US Army Soldier of the Year (pictured below), and the 2007 US Army Medical Corps NCO of the Year. Russell was also an Eagle Scout.
Links and Sources:
”Burnham, the Scout”, in Pearson’s Magazine, vol. 12, July-Dec 1901.
"Veteran Scout", by E.B. DeGroot, in Highlights magazine, July 1944.
Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis, 1906. Now in the public domain, and available on Wikisource.
Photo of Fred Burnham is a family photo released into the public domain, and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Lt. Russell Burnham courtesy of the US Army.
Drawing of the Matabele War from unknown source; retrieved from this site.