Frederick Burnham 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, and a true product of the American west.. When Indians attacked their village 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 upon his mother's return the following day, she found him unharmed and sleeping. Over the years, he inherited his father’s love and skill for outdoorsmanship, and became 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. The following year, Fred's mother decided to return the family to Iowa, but Fred, then 13 years old, considered himself responsible for the family, so he decided to stay in California, where he would call upon his frontiersman skills to earn money for their support.
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. Fred 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 manage an orange farm. Fred did not take well to the domestic life and ultimately turned back to scouting, but by 1884 even that was too boring for him. Fred, Blanche, their son, and Blanche's brother Ingram all moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where Fred joined the British South Africa company. Before long, they moved north to the area around Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe.
In 1893, 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. Locals began to quickly spread tales of advancing hordes of African warriors perpetrating acts of unspeakable slaughter. When British administrator Leander Starr Jameson ordered the capture of King Lobengula, fourteen soldiers including Burnham staged a daring midnight raid on the Ndebele camp. Infiltrating Lobengula's camp, they had trouble identifying which of the laagers (wagon forts) was the King’s, and by the time they figured it out, Ndebele guards had spotted the party. Warriors armed with assegai spears and elephant guns sprung from every direction as the raiding party rode for their lives. After taking refuge near a giant anthill, Major Allan Wilson discovered that three of their party were missing, so he 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.
Once again reformed, the fourteen men of the raiding party met up with twenty others sent as reinforcements, but within minutes another group of Ndebele attacked the group. Major Wilson once again dispatched Burnham on a dangerous scouting mission, this time running for aid along with two other men named Ingram and Gooding; after engaging in a frantic zigzagging ride under constant attack, they reached the nearest British base, only to discover that it too was under attack by a large force of Africans. Major Forbes, commanding the British troops there, could not send reinforcements to the raiding party. Devoid of assistance, Major Wilson and the remainder of his party had no chance of survival, and Ndebele warriors killed them to a man; a Ndebele witness later stated that the last five men, sensing the end was near, stood up and defiantly sang “God Save the Queen” before being killed.
Burnham achieved a level of fame for his actions in the Ndebele conflict—a play entitled “Burnham, the American Scout” played in two separate theaters in London—but in the field, his exploits continued. At one point, a treaty guaranteed him safe passage, but an African prince named Latea refused to honor it; Burnham snuck into Latea’s camp late at night, kicked down a fence, broke into his hut, and held him at gunpoint until he acquiesced, telling the Prince “We may all be killed, but you will be the first to die.” He escaped capture at various times by dropping down between the oxen of a moving cart or 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’. When the Second Matabele War began in 1896, African warriors besieged the city, trapping the family 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 considered 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 their dinner cooking; Burnham fired one shot from his Lee-Metford rifle, killing the high priest instantly.
The entire Ndebele town sprung into action, alerted by the gunshot. At virtually the same moment, two village women coincidentally discovered the intruders' horses and raised a hue and cry, drawing Ndebele warriors to the scene in droves. The two men lept upon their horses and sped away in yet another frantic horseback 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 had almost accompanied Burnham and Armstrong on the mission. He took Baden-Powell under his wing and taught him 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 later recall much of Burnham’s information when he would 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.
The family of Fred Burnham survives through his only surviving child, Roderick, who became a geologist and served in World War I. Rod's son, also named Frederick, served in Vietnam, and his son, Lt. Russell Burnham, became a Physician Assistant in the US Army, and was named the 2003 US Army Soldier of the Year, 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.
The color image of Wilson's Last Stand is from a collection of cigarette cards in the George Arents collection in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library.
"The Father of Scouting", © 2015 by James Husband