Press Reference Library: Notables of the West/Chapter 62
BURNHAM, MAJOR FREDERICK RUSSELL, Pasadena, California, Soldier, Scout, Frontiersman and Mining Expert, was born near Mankato, Minnesota. May 11, 1861. Son of Rev. Edwin Otway Burnham and Rebecca Elizabeth (Russell) Burnham. Married Blanche Blick, at Prescott, Iowa, February 6, 1884. Three children were born, Roderick D., Bruce B. and Nada Burnham. Latter died of fever and starvation in siege of Bulawajo (Matabele campaign), South Africa.
Major Burnham is descended of a family noted in every American war, including the French and Indian wars. His father was a Kentuckian, a pioneer missionary among the Indians of Minnesota.
The family passed through the uprising of Red Cloud at New Ulm, Minnesota, and on another occasion his mother, carrying him, fled from her home and hid the boy in bushes until the Indians had been driven away.
The Major attended schools in Iowa and California, whither the family moved in 1870, but his real education was in the open.
Richard Harding Davis, writing of Burnham in Real Soldiers of Fortune, says: "Some men are born scouts, others by training become scouts. From his father Burnham Inherited his instinct for woodcraft, and to this Instinct, which in him is as keen as in a wild deer or a mountain lion, he had added in the jungle and on the prairie and mountain ranges, years of the hardest, most relentless schooling. In those years he has trained himself to endure the most appalling fatigue, hunger, thirst and wounds; has subdued the brain to infinite patience, has learned to force every nerve of his body to absolute obedience; to still even the beating of his heart."
Major Burnham's father died when the lad was eleven years old, and the son worked for two years as a mounted messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Co. He was known as the hardest rider in Southern California. At fourteen he began his life as a scout and frontiersman, and for the next few years wandered over Arizona, Mexico, California and other parts of the Southwest. In 1878 he went to the frontier of Texas as a cowboy and buffalo hunter, also doing police duty. In 1880 he moved to Arizona, and became a prospector and a scout in the Indian wars. In 1882, because of his daring, expert knowledge of woodcraft and absolute fearlessness, Major Burnham was appointed Deputy Sheriff of Piñal County, Ariz., but served only a year, returning to his cattle and mining interests, scattered from Mexico to British Columbia. About 1884, he purchased an orange grove at Pasadena, Cal., but after a few weeks of inactivity, went back to frontier life.
Major Burnham, when he heard of the work of John Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, decided to go to that country. He sailed, in 1893, with his wife and small son. The first Matabele uprising was in progress, so he went to Rhodesia and volunteered his services to the British. Here Major Burnham began the life of brilliant daring which placed him among the world's famous soldiers. His knowledge gained in the Indian wars was brought into play and he became one of the chief advisers of Cecil Rhodes and Dr. Jameson. The most historic event in the war was Major Alan Wilson's attempt, with 344 picked men, to capture Lobengula, the Matabele King, who was guarded by 3000 warriors. Burnham and Ingram were of this party and distinguished themselves. The attempt of Wilson failed, he and most of his men being massacred. Burnham, Ingram and another man were sent for reinforcements and after a thrilling trip, reached Major Forbes' command, but he was engaged in a desperate battle and unable to go to Wilson's aid. Burnham and his comrades joined Forbes and helped fight to safety. Wilson's dash was made the subject of a war drama, with Burnham as one of the heroic figures, causing great enthusiasm throughout Great Britain, and Henseman, in his history of Rhodesia, referring to it, says: "One hardly knows which to most admire, the men who went on this dangerous errand, through brush swarming with natives, or those who remained behind battling against overwhelming odds."
For his services the Government and Cecil Rhodes gave Burnham and his companions 300 square miles of land, also the chartered company gave him a campaign medal and an engraved watch.
Returning to Rhodesia in 1896, Major Burnham took part in the second Matabele uprising and distinguished himself by destroying the native King, Umlimo, in a cave in the mountains, which act put an end to the rebellion. Burnham and his companion, who broke through the native lines to get their man, had a thrilling escape.
Shortly after this Burnham left South Africa, and after a brief stay in California, went to the Klondike as a prospector. Upon hearing of the Spanish-American war he rushed back to the U.S. to volunteer his services, but was too late. Colonel Roosevelt regretted this as much as Burnham and paid him a great tribute in his book. Burnham returned to the Klondike, but in 1900, upon being offered the post of Chief of Scouts by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, joined the British army in South Africa and served through the Boer war, receiving great honors from the British people. Upon being invalided home, he was greeted by London as a hero, and commanded by Queen Victoria to dine and spend a night at Osborne House. He received the campaign medal and was presented by King Edward, personally, after the death of the Queen, with the Cross of the Distinguished Service Order. He was given the rank of Major in the British Army, presented with a purse of gold, and received a personal letter of praise from Lord Roberts.
Major Burnham is associated in the Yaqui Delta Land & Water Co.'s development of a large tract of land in old Mexico, with John Hays Hammond, companion of earlier days in the service of Cecil Rhodes.
Major Burnham is a member of the Masonic order.