Major Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick Russell Burnham

In collecting material on B-P for the Pine Tree Web, I became interested in the life and adventures of Major Frederick Russell Burnham, an American military scout who served with B-P in the Matabele Campaign of 1896. Burnham was a classic Victorian adventurer, and in that tradition looms a bit larger than life. A frontier and Indian Scout in the Southwest, he offered his services to Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company as they built the British Empire in Southern Africa. He distinguished himself as Chief of Scouts to Lord Roberts, Commander in Chief in South Africa at the beginning of the Boer War. For his services he was honored with the Distinguished Service Order and, by courtesy of King Edward VII, held the rank of Major in the British Army without having to relinquish his American citizenship.

Eleven years before the camp at Brownsea Island, Baden-Powell and Frederick Russell Burnham would talk beside a campfire on the African veldt in what is today western Zimbabwe. In a few short days, they had come to respect each others professional accomplishments and scouting skills.

"Burnham was a scout. He combined his extraordinary natural abilities, with the teachings of an old Indian scout who had served under and learned from men like Kit Carson and John C. Fremont. He became a priceless, silent, invisible eyes and ears for both the American and British military during some of our Indian and their Matabele and Boer Wars."

Ross Seyfreid, in the "Introduction" to the 1994 reprint of Frederick Russell Burnham, Scouting on Two Continents, Prescott, Arizona: The Wolfe Publishing Company, 1994.

From Frederick Russell Burnham, Scouting on Two Continents, 1926

Extract from a letter from
Lt. Gen Sir Robert Baden-Powell, K.C.V.O., K.C.B., written from Africa to his mother in 1896:

"12th June, 1896…. Burnham is a most delightful companion … amusing, interesting, and most instructive. Having seen service against the Red Indians he brings quite a new experience to bear on the Scouting work here. And while he talks away there’s not a thing escapes his quick roving eye, whether it is on the horizon or at his feet."

From William Hillcourt, Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero, 1964

"Before losing Burnham’s services, Sir Frederick decided that the American should take his chief of staff into the Matopos to acquaint him with the territory.

"Their reconnaissance turned into a three-day expedition on horseback during which Burnham and Baden-Powell climbed in among the kopjes that commanded a view of the enemy’s positions and of the Matopos in general (‘Awful country—weird, jumbled mass of bush and boulders and jagged mountains’). Baden-Powell spent much of the time drawing maps and making panoramic field sketches of the landscape, indicating enemy caves and strongholds. For the rest, he picked up from Burnham a number of scouting tricks the American had used in the 1893 war against the Matabele and as a U.S. Army scout fighting in the Apache Indian wars.

"The two men found they had much in common and struck up a firm friendship. For hours they shared their experiences and innermost thoughts as they lay, after a day’s reconnaissance, beside a tiny concealed camp fire under the stars of the African sky, before turning in for a few hours’ sleep on what B-P considered the best of beds: ‘the veld tempered with a blanket and a saddle’.

"Baden-Powell had hoped to do much further scouting with Burnham but never had the chance. Within a few days B-P was back at his desk and Burnham had left for his special assignment."

From Robert Baden-Powell, The Matabele Campaign, 1896:

"13th June.–At 4 a.m. we were off again, Burnham and I and Trooper Bradley of the Mounted Police, who knew this part of the country well….

"We got on well together, and he much approved of the results of your early development in me of the art of ‘inductive reasoning’–in fact, before we had examined and worried out many little indications in the course of our ride, he had nick-named me ‘Sherlock Holmes’. [P.S.–We had planned to do much scouting together in the future, but, unfortunately, it never came off, as he was soon afterwards compelled, for domestic reasons, to go down country.]"

The ribbon at the left displays the colors of the Distinguished Service Order. The D.S.O. was awarded to Major Burnham in recognition of his service as Chief of Scouts to Lord Roberts (Commander-in-Chief South Africa) during the Boer War, 1899-1902. The photograph of Major Burnham was taken after his service in the South African War. It shows him in British uniform wearing the Distinguished Service Order, the Queen’s South African Medal and the British South Africa Company Medal for the Matabele Campaign.

Burnham’s account of Scouting with B-P in the Matopo Hills during the Matabele Campaign.
From Frederick Russell Burnham, Taking Chances, 1944
Richard Harding Davis was an American author of romantic novels and short stories and the best known war correspondent of his generation. He was one of the most famous and idolized men of his time. Known for his fiction and plays, Davis also wrote about real people in Real Soldiers of Fortune, originally published in 1910. Frederick Russell Burnham was one of his subjects.
Burnham’s speech and account of the Dedication of Mount Baden-Powell in the Sierras in 1931. A copy of B-P’s letter of thanks is included. From Frederick Russell Burnham, Taking Chances, 1944
Baden-Powell Photo Gallery:
Early Years and Military Years
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