The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Burnham, Frederick Russell

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Burnham, Frederick Russell

BURNHAM, Frederick Russell, explorer, b. at Tivoli, Minn., 11 May, 1861. His father was Rev. Edwin O. Burnham, who was long a pioneer missionary on the border of the Indian reserve of Minnesota. Burnham's mother, Rebecca Russell, was a woman of remarkable courage, and of a sweet and gentle disposition. When a very young child he witnessed in his mother's arms the burning of New Ulm, and the massacring of the women and children by Red Cloud and his warriors. It is related that once his mother, when fleeing for her life from the Indians, hid him under a stack of corn in a cornfield, where, after the redskins had been beaten off, the little lad was found fast asleep. His ancestry is proof that Major Burnham is descended from fearless fighting stock. When the boy was nine years old the family moved to Los Angeles, Cal., where not long afterward the father died. Young Burnham, to relieve the stress of the grinding poverty that followed the father's death, became a mounted messenger, and from long hours in the saddle gained local reputation as a hard rider. He attended Clinton high school and obtained such education as the exigencies of the circumstances permitted. He was in turn cowboy, scout, guide, miner, and deputy sheriff in the West. For fifteen years this extraordinary young man roved from Hudson's Bay to Mexico, passing through thrilling adventures and wide-ranging experiences. In 1884, when he was twenty-three years of age, Burnham married Blanche Blick, of Clinton, Ia. Nine years later when he was tempted to hazard his fortune in the African gold fields, Mrs. Burnham went with him and shared her husband's life of travel, danger, and hardship. He arrived at Cape Town and was induced to become the head of the scouts in the Matabele wars and the subjugation of Rhodesia. In recognition of his exceptional services in the Matabele rebellion, the Chartered Company presented him with a campaign medal, a gold watch suitably engraved, and conjointly with two others a tract of land containing 300 square miles in Rhodesia. It was in Rhodesia that Burnham discovered the huge granite ruins of an ancient civilization. The structures, many feet wide and laid entirely without mortar, date a period prior to that of the Phoenicians. From the scenes rendered famous by Rider Haggard's imaginative “King Solomon's Mines,” the explorer brought away a buried treasure of gold and gold ornaments. Like a true soldier of fortune, Burnham's adventurous activities never ceased; and preparatory to the building of the Cape to Cairo Railway, he led an expedition to Barotseland. In the second Matabele war he was on the staff of Sir Frederick Carrington, and following the suggestion of the commissioner of the district, Burnham was dispatched to capture or kill the Matabele “god,” or prophet, Umbino, who was the moving spirit of the rebellion. The enterprise was one of enormous trial and danger, but Burnham and his daring companions brought it to a successful issue by entering the “god's” cave in the Matopa Mountains and killing him, thus terminating the war. The death of Burnham's little daughter, who had been the first white child born in Buluwayo, caused him to return to California. He then sought in the Klondike and Alaska new fields for his energy, and during two years, from 1898 to 1900, operated gold mines with vigor. In January, 1900, he received a message from Lord Roberts recalling him to South Africa to become chief of scouts of the British army in the Boer War. He was wounded 2 June, 1901, while on scouting duty to destroy the enemy's railway base, and was invalided home. For heroic services done he was commissioned major in the British army, presented with a large sum of money, and received a personal letter of thanks from Lord Roberts. On his arrival in England, he was commanded to dine with Queen Victoria, and spent the night at Osborne Castle. King Edward honored him by the personal presentation of the South African medal with five bars and the cross of the Distinguished Service Order. He made surveys of the Volta River in West Africa, explored parts of French Nigeria, Hunterland of Gold Coast Colony, and headed an expedition of magnitude for the exploration of East Africa, covering a vast territory along the Congo basin and the head of the Nile. He discovered a lake of forty-nine square miles, composed almost entirely of pure carbonate of soda of unknown depth. Major Burnham writes with the authority of complete and original knowledge on many African subjects, including the game of Africa. He is a philosopher as well as a traveler and discoverer. In an article on the “Transplanting of African Animals,” he says: “There is in Africa a wonderfully varied range of interesting animals. Most of the desirable ones could be easily introduced into our own Southwest. They would multiply where our own domestic animals cannot live. Vast tracts of our lonely deserts could be teeming with life interesting, beautiful, harmless, very useful for food and leather, displacing not a head of our own cattle or other domestic stock, offering a grand hunting-ground, a true pleasure land to all lovers of animal life. . . . In short, Africa is a wonderland of animal life to draw from. We can exclude its venomous reptiles and insects, and take the useful animals that have worked out from a hard environment a way to survive. . . . In the animal world, Nature seems to work out the essential end by means apparently harsh. If it were not for the natural enemies of the great game herds, they would increase so fast that there would be no food supply, and starvation would be their end. . . . Furthermore, it is among the sick and weak that disease is spread, and infection there may reach a point that endangers the whole healthy herd. . . . So even lions and tigers, vultures and eagles serve a merciful and proper purpose. In the countries where they are found, an animal that is born deficient in its faculties, or becomes ill or aged or wounded, is at once usefully destroyed as a means of preserving the high average of the herd.” He has the true naturalist's habits of observation, as the following brief excerpt concerning the lion testifies: “There was a time when the lion could walk out with his head up without cover. He was the king of beasts. Even now, in the interior of Africa, where there are no firearms, the lion is perfectly indifferent about taking cover. He will lie around during the day under a tree, or in the shade of a cliff, and almost anyone can get close to him. . . . Where he is hunted with a rifle, as he is in Rhodesia and in many other parts of Africa, he has acquired a cunning which matches that of the British fox.” What he has to say of the Masai will illustrate his graphic style of writing: “Every warrior is a spearman, carrying a long, heavy spear, with a blade three feet in length, made of mild steel from their own mines and forges. Their habits of night attack are to rush right through a camp with their spears without making a sound, their motto being, ‘Let the enemy do the yelling,’ and as they pass through they stab everything that moves; and if the first rush is successful, they turn and sweep through the camp a second time. After the Masai have gone through the second time, there is nothing alive.” In 1908 Major Burnham made important archeological discoveries of Maya civilization extending into the Yaqui country, as revealed by stone carvings and writings. He is now closely engaged with John Hays Hammond, the distinguished mining engineer, in diverting into the delta the entire Yaqui River, through a system of canals, for the reclamation of a vast tract containing 700 square miles of land, to find a buried city and open up mines of copper and silver. He is also associated with Hammond and another American in a scheme to import into America many kinds of South African deer. Congress has already voted $15,000 toward the plan.