Major Frederick Russell Burnham was the well-rounded badass we all aspire to be. He panned for gold in the Yukon, excavated ancient artifacts in Mexico, and hunted bandits across the American Southwest. He was the swashbuckler’s swashbuckler, commanding respect and admiration from such figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Cecil Rhodes, and Ernest Hemingway. (The latter of whom had purchased film rights to Burnham’s autobiography shortly before his death.)
Packing the presence of a giant into a 5’4″ frame, Burnham was named the Father of Scouting by the Boy Scouts of America and received the Distinguished Service Order from King Edward VII.
The major got the memo early that if you’re going to live your most exciting life, you better start at a young age. At two years old, he found himself in the thick of the Dakota War of 1862. With Sioux warriors closing in on his house and his father on an ammo run to the nearest town, Burnham’s mother hid him in a bundle of green corn husks and fled to the woods. Returning the next day to a burned-down house, Burnham’s mother found him safely wrapped in the husks, with him noting in his autobiography, Scouting on Two Continents, “I had faithfully carried out my first orders of silent obedience.”
He was caught in his first gunfight at 10 years old (no one was killed) and by 13 worked as a mounted messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Company to provide for his family after his father passed away. When he was 18, a seasoned scout and frontiersman took Burnham under his wing, teaching him how to survive forest fires and flash floods, find water in the desert, keep time at night, and how to double-back and cover his tracks. He learned to endure the mental strain that comes with months of isolation and how to find food in virtually any situation. “One of our favorite ways of preparing food for long hard rides without fire in dangerous country,” Burnham wrote, “was to dry venison and grind it to a powder, then mix it about half and half with flour and bake in a loaf that would fit our cantenas or leather saddle pockets.”
After serving as a scout and tracker for the U.S. Army in the Apache Wars, Burnham briefly tried to settle into a simple life as an orange farmer in California. That didn’t pan out. He was soon drawn to Africa as the new frontier to find work and adventure. While doing a casual 1,000-mile trek by mule from Durban, South Africa, to present day Zimbabwe, again, he found himself in the midst of war and, again, his skills were put to use, this time as chief of scouts for Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. He served in this position in both the First and Second Matabele wars.
Afterward, Burnham took a brief sojourn to Alaska in 1899, looking to stake his claim in the Klondike gold rush, before receiving a telegram requesting he serve as chief of scouts in the Second Boer War. Upon reading the message, he was on his way to Africa “within an hour.”
It was at this time that he crossed paths with Winston Churchill, who had just escaped from a Boer prison and recounted the story to Burnham. Burnham, however, was unimpressed, later writing, Churchill’s “moves were restricted by the handicap of physical weakness which made a 20-mile run at night entirely beyond his power.”
Routinely patrolling behind enemy lines, Burnham, too, was captured by the Boers. Twice, in fact. He escaped both times.
After the war, he briefly returned to the U.S. when his friend and proclaimed adventure novelist Sir Rider Haggard introduced Burnham to a series of development projects that led him to Mexico. There, Burnham discovered the Esperanza Stone, which he believed to hold Mayan inscriptions, while working on an irrigation project on the Yaqui River. Haggard would later write, “In real life [Burnham] is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”
After a lifetime of scouting, globetrotting, and adventure-seeking, Burnham made his fortune when he struck oil in California in 1923. Not to be overlooked, however, were his myriad conservation efforts, which included founding the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection and serving as an original member of the California State Parks Commission. Burnham died in 1944, though his legacy lives on today: His great-grandson, Captain Russell Adam Burnham, is an Eagle Scout who won the U.S. Army Soldier of the Year Award in 2003.
Burnham is deserving of a deeper dive. Want to read more? Check out A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham, by Steve Kemper.