Major Frederick Russell "Fred" Burnham ("The King of Scouts")

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Frederick Russell "Fred" Burnham

Birthplace: Indian Reservation, Tivoli, Minnesota
Death: September 01, 1947 (86)
Santa Barbara, CA, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Edwin Otway Burnham and Rebecca Elizabeth Burnham
Husband of Blanche Burnham and Ilo K. Burnham
Father of Roderick Deane Burnham; Nada Burnham and Bruce B. Burnham
Brother of Mather Howard Burnham

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About Major Frederick Russell "Fred" Burnham ("The King of Scouts")

Frederick Russell Burnham, DSO (May 11, 1861 – September 1, 1947) was an American scout and world traveling adventurer known for his service to the British Army in colonial Africa and for teaching woodcraft to Robert Baden-Powell, thus becoming one of the inspirations for the founding of the international Scouting Movement.

Burnham had little formal education, attending high school but never graduating. He began his career at 14 in the American Southwest as a scout and tracker for the U.S. Army in the Apache Wars and Cheyenne Wars. Sensing the Old West was getting too tame, as an adult Burnham went to Africa where this background proved useful. He soon became an officer in the British Army, serving in several battles there. During this time, Burnham became friends with Baden-Powell, and passed on to him both his outdoor skills and his spirit for what would later become known as Scouting.

Burnham eventually moved on to become involved in espionage, oil, conservation, writing and business. His descendants are still active in Scouting.

Early life

Burnham was born to a missionary family on an Indian Reservation in Tivoli, Minnesota. As a toddler, he witnessed the burning of New Ulm, Minnesota, by Taoyateduta (Little Crow) and his Sioux warriors in the Dakota War of 1862. During the uprising, his mother, Rebecca (Elizabeth) Russell Burnham, hid the not-quite-two-year-old boy in a basket of green corn husks and fled for her life. Once the Sioux had been driven away the mother returned to find the house burned down. Her young son was safe, fast asleep in the basket and protected only by the corn husks.

The young Burnham attended schools in Iowa and there he met Blanche Blick, who would later become his wife. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1870. Two years later his father, the Rev. Edwin Otway Burnham of Kentucky, himself a long time pioneer and missionary along the border of the Ho Chunk (Winnebago) Indian reservation in Minnesota, died when Burnham was only 12. While his mother and his then 3 year old baby brother Howard Burnham returned to Iowa, the young Burnham stayed in California to make his own way.

For the next three years, Burnham worked as a mounted messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Company in California and Arizona. On one occasion his horse was stolen from him by Tiburcio Vasquez, a famous Californio bandit. At 14, he began his life as a scout and Indian tracker in the Apache Wars. He traveled in northern Mexico and the American Southwest, including Texas and Oklahoma, earning a living as a buffalo hunter, cowboy, and prospector, and he continued working as a scout while tracking Indians in the Cheyenne War. The young Burnham eventually went on to attend high school in California but never graduated.

In 1882, Burnham returned to Arizona and was appointed Deputy Sheriff of Pinal County, but he soon went back to cattle and mining interests. He joined the losing side of the Tonto Basin Feud before mass killing started, and only narrowly escaped death in Arizona. He returned to Prescott, Iowa, to visit his childhood sweetheart, Blanche, and the two were married on February 6, 1884. That same year, he and Blanche settled down to tend to an orange grove in Pasadena, California, but within a year he was back prospecting and scouting.

In the 1880s the American press had been popularizing the notion that the West had been won and there was nothing left to conquer in the United States. This idea changed Burnham's life. Ever the soldier of fortune, he began to look elsewhere for the next undeveloped frontier. When he heard of the work of Cecil Rhodes and his pioneers in building the Cape to Cairo railway in Africa, Burnham sold what little he owned and, in 1893, set sail to Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife and young son. He soon joined the British South Africa Company as a scout and headed north. Burnham became well known in Africa for his ability to track, even at night, and the Africans dubbed him He-who-sees-in-the-dark.

Burnham is the brother of Mather Howard Burnham, a mining engineer and spy, and second cousin of Lt. Howard Mather Burnham, killed in the American Civil War.

Military career

First Matabele War

Burnham’s first major test in Africa came in 1893 when the British South Africa Company went to war with the Matabele King Lobengula. Leander Starr Jameson had hoped to defeat the Matabele quickly by capturing Lobengula at his royal city of Bulawayo. Burnham and a small group of scouts were sent ahead to report on the situation in Bulawayo. While on the outskirts of town, they watched as the Matabele burned down and destroyed everything in sight. By the time the white troops had arrived in force, Lobengula and his warriors had fled and there was little left of old Bulawayo.

Shangani Patrol

After he found that Bulawayo had been abandoned, Jameson dispatched a column of soldiers to locate and capture Lobengula. The column, led by Maj. Patrick Forbes, camped on the south bank of the Shangani River about 25 miles (40 km) north-east of the village of Lupane on the evening of December 3, 1893. The next day, late in the afternoon, a dozen men under the command of Maj. Allan Wilson were sent across the river to patrol the area. The Wilson Patrol came across a group of Matabele women and children who claimed to know Lobengula’s whereabouts. Burnham, who served as the lead scout of the Wilson patrol, sensed a trap and advised Wilson to withdraw, but Wilson ordered his patrol to advance.

Soon afterwards, the patrol found the king and Wilson sent a message back to the laager requesting reinforcements. Forbes, however, was unwilling to set off across the river in the dark, so he sent only 20 more men, under the command of Henry Borrow, to reinforce Wilson’s patrol. Forbes intended to send the main body of troops and artillery across the river the following morning; however, the main column was ambushed by Matabele warriors and delayed. Wilson’s patrol too came under attack, but the Shangani River had swollen and there was now no possibility of retreat. In desperation, Wilson sent Burnham and two other scouts, Pearl “Pete” Ingram (a Montana cowboy) and George Gooding (an Australian), to cross the Shangani River, find Forbes, and bring reinforcements. In spite of a shower of bullets and spears, the three made it to Forbes, but the battle raging there was just as intense as the one they had left, and there was no hope of anyone reaching Wilson in time. As Burnham loaded his rifle to beat back the Matabele warriors, he quietly said to Forbes, "I think I may say that we are the sole survivors of that party." Wilson, Borrow, and their men were indeed surrounded by hundreds of Matabele warriors; escape was impossible, and all were killed.

Rhodesian colonial histories called this the Shangani Patrol, and hailed Wilson and Borrow as national heroes. For his service in the war, Burnham was presented the British South Africa Company Medal, a gold watch, and a share of a 300 acre (120 ha) tract of land in Matabeleland. It was here that Burnham uncovered many artifacts in the huge granite ruins of the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe.

Northern Rhodesia Exploration

In 1895, Burnham went on to oversee and lead the massive Northern Territories (BSA) Exploration Co. expedition which first established for the British South Africa Company that major copper deposits existed in North-Eastern Rhodesia. Along the Kafue River in then North-Eastern Rhodesia, Burnham saw many similarities to copper deposits he had worked in the United States, and he encountered native peoples wearing copper bracelets. His expeditions in Rhodesia were so important that the Royal Geographical Society elected him a Fellow. Later, the British South Africa Company built the mining towns of the Copperbelt and a railroad to transport the copper through Mozambique.

Second Matabele War

In March 1896, the Matabele again revolted against the authority of the British South Africa Company in what is now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First War of Independence. Mlimo, the Matabele spiritual leader, is credited with fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. Matabeleland defenses were in disarray due to the ill-fated Jameson Raid, and in the first few months of the war alone hundreds of white settlers were killed. With few troops to support them, the settlers quickly built a laager in the centre of Bulawayo on their own and mounted patrols under such figures as Burnham, Baden-Powell, and Selous. An estimated 50,000 Matabele retreated into their stronghold of the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo, a region that became the scene of the fiercest fighting against the white settler patrols.

Assassination of Mlimo

The turning point in the war came when Burnham and a young scout named Bonar Armstrong found their way through Matobo Hills to the sacred cave where Mlimo had been hiding. Not far from the cave was a village of about 100 huts filled with many warriors. The two scouts tethered their horses to a thicket and crawled on their bellies, screening their slow, cautious movements by means of branches held before them. Once inside the cave, they waited until Mlimo entered. Mlimo was said to be about 60 years old, with very dark skin, sharp-featured; American news reports of the time described him as having a cruel, crafty look. Burnham and Armstrong waited until Mlimo entered the cave and started his dance of immunity, at which point Burnham shot Mlimo just below the heart.

"Burnham is the finest scout who ever scouted in Africa. He was my Chief of Scouts in '96 in Matabeleland and he was the eyes and ears of my force."

— Gen. Carrington, British Army commander during the Second Matabele War.

The two scouts then leapt over the dead Mlimo and ran down a trail toward their horses. Hundreds of warriors, encamped nearby, picked up their arms and searched for the attackers. To distract the Matabele, Burnham set fire to the village. The two men got on their horses and rode back to Bulawayo. Shortly after learning of the assassination of Mlimo, Cecil Rhodes boldly walked unarmed into the Ndebele stronghold in Matobo Hills and persuaded the impi to lay down their arms, thus ending the Second Matabele War.

Klondike Gold Rush

With the Matabele war over, Burnham decided it was time to leave Africa and move on to other adventures. The family returned to California where Burnham left his wife and young son Bruce with his mother. Soon after, he and his eldest son Roderick, then 12 years old, traveled to Alaska and the Yukon to prospect in the Klondike Gold Rush. Upon hearing of the Spanish-American War, Burnham rushed home to volunteer his services, but before he could get to the fighting the war was already over. Burnham then returned to the Klondike. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt regretted this as much as Burnham and paid him a great tribute in his book.

Second Boer War

In January 1900, while prospecting in Skagway, Alaska, Burnham received the following telegram:

Lord Roberts appoints you on his personal staff as Chief of Scouts. If you accept, come at once the quickest way possible.

Although Cape Town is at the opposite end of the globe from the Klondike, he left within the hour. He would arrive at the front just before the Battle of Paardeberg. During the war, Burnham spent much time behind the Boer lines gathering information and blowing up railway bridges and tracks. He was twice captured and twice escaped, but he was also disabled for a time by his near-fatal wounds.

In a step that was unusual for a foreigner, Burnham was given a commission by Lord Roberts and the rank of captain. Burnham was first captured while trying to warn a British column approaching Thaba' Nchu. He came upon a group of Boers hiding on the banks of the river, toward which the British were even then advancing. Cut off from his own side, Burnham chose to signal the approaching soldiers even though it would expose him to capture. With a red kerchief, Burnham signaled the soldiers to turn back, but the column paid no attention and plodded steadily on into the ambush, while Burnham was at once taken prisoner. In the fight that followed, Burnham pretended to receive a wound in the knee. Limping heavily and groaning with pain, he was placed in a wagon with the officers who really were wounded, and who, in consequence, were not closely guarded. Later that evening, Burnham slipped over the driver's seat, dropped between the two wheels of the wagon, lowered himself and fell between the legs of the oxen on his back in the road. In an instant the wagon had passed over him safely, and while the dust still hung above the trail he rolled rapidly over into the ditch at the side of the road and lay motionless. It was four days before he was able to re-enter the British lines, during which time he had been lying in the open veldt. He had subsisted on one biscuit and two handfuls of "mealies" (i.e., maize).

"I take this opportunity of thanking you for the valuable services you have rendered since you joined my headquarters at Paardeberg last February. I doubt if any other man in the force could have successfully carried out the thrilling enterprises in demanding as they did the training of a lifetime, combined with exceptional courage, caution, and powers of endurance."

— Lord Roberts, Commander of all British troops fighting in the Second Boer War (1900).

On June 2, 1900, while trying by night to blow up the bridge on the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway line at Bronkhorstspruit, 20 miles (32 km) east of Pretoria and a vital link to the sea, Burnham was surrounded by a party of Boers and could save himself only by instant flight. He had all but gotten away when a bullet caught his horse; it crashed to the ground dead, crushing Burnham beneath it and knocking him senseless. He continued in a dazed state for nearly a day and when he came to his senses he found that both friends and foes had departed. Although still suffering the most acute agony, Burnham heroically crept back to the railroad, placed his charges, and blew up the line in two places. Knowing the explosion would soon bring the Boers, he crept on his hands and knees to an empty kraal and lay there for two days and nights insensible. Upon hearing the sound of distant firing, Burnham crawled toward the fighting. By then he was indifferent as to whether the gunshots were coming from the enemy or from his own people, but, as it chanced, he was picked up by a friendly patrol and carried to Pretoria. The surgeons discovered that in his fall Burnham had torn apart the muscles of the stomach and burst a blood-vessel. His survival, the doctors assured him, was due only to the fact that he had been without food for three days.

Burnham's injuries were so serious that he was ordered to England by Lord Roberts. Two days before leaving for London, he was promoted to the rank of major. On his arrival in England, Burnham was commanded to dine with Queen Victoria and to spend the night at Osborne House. A few months later, after the Queen's death, King Edward VII personally presented Burnham with the Queen's South Africa Medal with four bars for the battles at Driefontein (Mar 10, 1900), Johannesburg (May 31, 1900), Paardeberg (February 17–26, 1900), and Cape Colony (October 11, 1899 – May 31, 1902), in addition to the cross of the Distinguished Service Order, the second highest decoration in the British Army, for his heroism during the "victorious" March to Pretoria (2–5 June 1900). Burnham had been selected for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, but he declined rather than forfeit his American citizenship – a requirement at the time. Nevertheless, Burnham received the highest awards of any American who served in the Second Boer War.

Burnham's most accomplished soldiers during the Second Boer War were Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment, whom he described as "half wolf and half jackrabbit." These scouts were well practiced in the arts of marksmanship, field craft, and tactics. After the war, this regiment went on to become the British army's first sniper unit.

"Father of Scouting"

"Frederick Russell Burnham: Explorer, discoverer, cowboy, and Scout. Native American, he served as chief of scouts in the Boer War, an intimate friend of Lord Baden-Powell. It was on some of his exploits demanding great courage, alertness, skill in surmounting the perils of the out-of-doors, that the founder of Scouting based some of the activities of the Boy Scout program. As an honorary Scout of the Boy Scouts of America, he has served as an inspiration to the youth of the Nation and is the embodiment of the qualities of the ideal Scout."

— 27th Annual Report of the Boy Scouts of America (1936).

Burnham was already a celebrated scout when he first befriended Baden-Powell during the Second Matabele War. Himself a brilliant outdoorsman, Baden-Powell was a distinguished cavalry officer, and reportedly the finest pig sticker in India. During the siege of Bulawayo, the two men rode many times into the Matobo Hills on patrol, and it was in these African hills that Burnham first introduced Baden-Powell to the ways and methods of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and taught him woodcraft (better known today as scoutcraft). So impressed was Baden-Powell by Burnham's Scouting spirit that he fondly told people he "sucked him dry" of all he could possibly tell. It was here that Baden-Powell began to wear his signature Stetson campaign hat and kerchief for the first time. Both men recognized that wars were changing markedly and the British Army needed to adapt; so during their joint scouting missions, Baden-Powell and Burnham discussed the concept of a broad training program in woodcraft for young men, rich in exploration, tracking, fieldcraft, and self-reliance. In Africa, no scout embodied these traits more than Burnham. While Baden-Powell went on to refine the concept of Scouting and become the founder of the international Scouting movement, Burnham has been called the movement's father.

"Burnham is the sufficient and heroic figure, model and living example, who inspired and gave Baden-Powell the plan for the program and the code of honor of Scouting for Boys."

— E.B. DeGroot, BSA Executive (1944).

Burnham later became close friends with others involved in the Scouting movement in the United States, such as Theodore Roosevelt, the Chief Scout Citizen, and Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Scout Forester. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) made Burnham an Honorary Scout in 1927, and for his noteworthy and extraordinary service to the Scouting movement, Burnham was bestowed the highest commendation given by the Boy Scouts of America, the Silver Buffalo Award, in 1936. Throughout his life he remained active in Scouting at both the regional and the national level in the United States and he corresponded regularly with Baden-Powell on Scouting topics.

The low-key Burnham and Baden-Powell remained close friends for their long lives. The seal on the Burnham — Baden-Powell letters at Yale and Stanford expired in 2000 and the true depth of their friendship and love of Scouting has again been revealed. In 1931, Burnham read the speech dedicating Mount Baden-Powell in California, to his old Scouting friend. Their friendship, and equal status in the world of Scouting and conservation, is honored with the dedication of the adjoining peak, Mount Burnham, in his honor.

Burnham's descendants followed in his footsteps and are active in Scouting and in the military. His son Roderick enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in World War I France. His grandson, Frederick Russell Burnham II, was a leader in the BSA and a Vietnam War veteran. His great-grandson, Russell Adam Burnham is an Eagle Scout and was United States Army's Soldier of the Year in 2003.

Later in life

After recovering from his wounds, Burnham served as the London office manager for the Wa Syndicate. In 1901, while still employed by the Wa Syndicate, he left London to lead an expedition through Ghana and Upper Volta to look for minerals and ways to improve river navigation in the region. From 1902–1904, Burnham was employed by the East Africa Syndicate. He led a mineral prospecting expedition which traveled extensively in the area around Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana), and he discovered a lake of carbonate of soda in Tanzania.


Burnham returned to North America and for the next few years became associated with the Yaqui River irrigation project in Mexico. While investigating the Yaqui valley for mineral and agricultural resources, Burnham reasoned that a dam could provide year-round water to rich alluvial soil in the valley; turning the region into one of the garden spots of the world and generate much needed electricity. He purchased water rights and some 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land in this region and contacted an old friend from Africa, John Hays Hammond, who conducted his own studies and then purchased an additional 900,000 acres (3,600 km2) of this land—an area the size of Rhode Island. Burnham together with Charles Frederick Holder, in 1908, made important archeological discoveries of Mayan civilization in this region, including the Esperanza Stone. He became a close business associate of Hammond and led a team of 500 men in guarding mining properties owned by Hammond, J.P. Morgan, and the Guggenheims in the Mexican state of Sonora. Just as the irrigation and mining projects were nearing completion in 1912, a long series of Mexican revolutions began. The final blow to these efforts came in 1917 when Mexico passed laws prohibiting the sale of land to foreigners. Burnham and Hammond carried their properties until 1930 and then sold them to the Mexican government.


"To my friendly enemy, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the greatest scout of the world, whose eyes were that of an Empire. I once craved the honour of killing him, but failing that, I extend my heartiest admiration."

— Fritz Joubert Duquesne, 1933,

During World War I, Burnham was living in California and was active in counterespionage for Britain. Much of it involved a famous Boer spy, Capt. Fritz Joubert Duquesne, who became a German spy in both World Wars and claimed to have killed Field Marshal Kitchener while en route to meet with the Russians. During the Second Boer War, Burnham and Duquesne were each under orders to assassinate the other, but it was not until 1910 that the two men first met while both were in Washington, D.C., separately lobbying Congress to pass a bill in favor of the importation of African game animals into the United States (H.R. 23621). Duquesne was twice arrested by the FBI and in 1942 he, along with the 32 other Nazi agents who made up the Duquesne Spy Ring, was sent to prison for espionage in the largest spy ring conviction in U.S. history.

"I know Burnham. He is a scout and a hunter of courage and ability, a man totally without fear, a sure shot, and a fighter. He is the ideal scout, and when enlisted in the military service of any country he is bound to be of the greatest benefit."

— President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901.

During this period, Burnham was one of the eighteen officers selected by former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to raise a volunteer infantry division for service in France in 1917 shortly after the United States entered the war. A plan to raise volunteer soldiers from the Western U.S. came out of a meeting of the New York based Rocky Mountain Club and Burnham was put in charge of both the general organization and recruitment from the Southwest. Congress gave Roosevelt the authority to raise up to four divisions similar to the Rough Riders of 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment and to the British Army 25th (Frontiersmen) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers; however, as Commander-in-chief, President Woodrow Wilson refused to make use of Roosevelt's volunteers and the unit disbanded.

Oil wealth

Although Burnham had lived all over the world, he never had a great deal of wealth to show for his efforts. It was not until he returned to California, the place of his youth, that he struck it rich. In 1923, Burnham struck oil at Dominguez Hill, California. In the first 10 years of operation, the Burnham Exploration Company paid out $10.2 million in dividends.


An avid conservationist and hunter, Burnham supported the early conservation programs of his friends Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. He and his associate John Hayes Hammond led novel game expeditions to Africa with the goal of finding large animals such as Giant Eland, hippopotamus, zebra, and various bird species that might be bred in the United States and become game for future American sportsmen. Burnham, Hammond, and Duquesne appeared several times before the Committee on Agriculture to ask for help in importing large African animals. In 1914, he helped establish the Wild Life Protective League of American, Department of Southern California, and served as its first Secretary.

In his later years, Burnham filled various public offices and also served as a member of the Boone and Crockett Club of New York, and as a founding member of the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection (now a committee of the World Conservation Union). He was a founding member of the Save-the-Redwoods League, he helped lobby for and create the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge for Desert Bighorn Sheep in Arizona, and he campaigned for state parks in California. He was one of the original members of the first California State Parks Commission, serving from 1927 to 1934, and late in his life he was president of the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles from 1938 until 1940.

Personal life


At 5 ft 4 in (1.62 m), Burnham was slight, but he was also muscular and bronzed, with a finely formed square jaw. He had a boyish appearance which he used to his advantage on numerous occasions. His most noticeable feature was his steady, grey-blue eyes. Contemporary reports had it that Burnham's gaze appeared to never leave those of the person he was looking at, and yet somehow could simultaneously monitor all the details of the physical surroundings. It was also said that Burnham's eyes possessed a far-away look such as those acquired by people whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains.


Burnham would not smoke and seldom drank alcohol, fearing these habits would injure the acuteness of his sense of smell. He found ways to train himself in mental patience, took power naps instead of indulging in periods of long sleep, and drank very little liquid. He trained himself to accept these abstinences in order to endure the most appalling fatigues, hunger, thirst, and wounds, so that when scouting or traveling where there was no water, he might still be able to exist. On more than one occasion he survived in environments where others would have died, or were in fact dying, of exhaustion. To him scouting was as exact a study as is the piano, and it was said that he could read the face of nature as easily as most could read their morning newspaper. He was quiet-mannered and courteous, according to contemporaries. Their reports describe a man who was neither shy nor self-conscious, who was extremely modest, and who seldom spoke of his many adventures.


Burnham's wife of 55 years, Blanche Blick Burnham (February 25, 1862 - December 22, 1939) of Nevada, Iowa, accompanied him in very primitive conditions through many travels in both the Southwest United States and Southern Africa. They had three children together, but only one survived into adulthood. In the early years, she watched over the children and the pack animals, always careful to keep a rifle within arms length. In the dark of night, she used her rifle many times against lions and hyena and, during the Siege of Bulawayo, against Ndebele warriors. Several members of the Blick family joined the Burnhams in Rhodesia, moved with them to England, and returned to the United States with the Burnhams to live near Three Rivers, California. When Burnham Exploration Company struck it rich in 1923, the Burnhams moved to a mansion in a new housing development then known as Hollywoodland (a name later shortened to "Hollywood") and took many trips around the world in high style. In 1939, Blanche suffered a stroke. She died a month later and was buried in the Three Rivers Cemetery.

Burnham's first son, Roderick (August 22, 1886 – July 2, 1976), was born in Pasadena, California, but accompanied the family to Africa and learned the Northern Ndebele language. He went to Skagway, Alaska with his father, and then to a military school in France in 1900. In 1904, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, joined the football team, but left Berkeley after a dispute with his coach. From 1905-08, he went to the University of Arizona, joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, played the position of running back, and became the captain of the football team. He attended the Michigan School of Mines (now Michigan Technological University) in 1910, became a geologist, and worked for Union Oil as Manager of Lands and Foreign Exploration helping to develop the first wells in Mexico and Venezuela. He took time off from his job to serve in the U.S. Army in World War I and fought in France. He and his father became minority owners of the Burnham Exploration Company, incorporated in 1919 by Harris Hays Hammond (the son of John Hays Hammond, Sr). In 1930, he and Paramount Pictures founder W. W. Hodkinson started the Central American Aviation Corporation, the first airline in Guatemala.


"To the Memory of the Child: Nada Burnham, who "bound all to her" and, while her father cut his way through the hordes of the Ingobo Regiment, perished of the hardships of war at Buluwayo on 19 May 1896, I dedicate these tales—and more particularly the last, that of a Faith which triumphed over savagery and death."

— H. Rider Haggard, from his book: The Wizard (1896)

Nada (May 1894 - May 19, 1896), Burnham’s daughter who was the first white child born in Bulawayo, died of fever and starvation during the Siege of Bulawayo. She was buried three days later in the Pioneer Cemetery, plot #144, in Bulawayo, now Zimbabwe. Nada is the Zulu word for lily and she was named after the heroine in Sir H. Rider Haggard’s Zulu tale, Nada the Lily (1892). Three of Haggard's books are dedicated to Burnham's daughter, Nada: The Wizard (1896), Elissa: The Doom of Zimbabwe (1899), and Black Heart and White Heart: A Zulu Idyll (1900).

Burnham’s youngest son, Bruce B. Burnham (1897–1902), was staying with family in London when he accidentally drowned in the River Thames.

His brother Howard (1870–1918), born shortly before the family moved to Los Angeles, lost one leg at the age of 14 and suffered from tuburculosis. As a teen he lived with Fred in California and learned from his brother the art of Scoutcraft, how to shoot, and how to ride the range, all in spite of his wooden leg. Howard went to Africa and became a mining engineer in the gold mines of Johannesburg, South Africa and later wrote a text book on Modern Mine Valuation. He traveled the world and for a time teamed up with Fred on Yaqui River irregation project in Mexico. During World War I, Howard worked as a spy for the French government, operating behind enemy lines in southwest Germany. Throughout the war he used his wooden leg to conceal tools he needed for spying. From his death bed, Howard returned to France via Switzerland and shared his vital data and secrets with the French government: the Germans were not opening a new front in the Alps and there was no need to move allied troops away from the Western Front. Howard was buried at Cannes, France, leaving behind his wife and four children. He had been named after his second cousin, Lt. Howard Mather Burnham who was killed in action in the American Civil War.

In 1943, at 83 years of age, Burnham married his young typist, Ilo K. Willetts Burnham (1914–1958). The couple sold their mansion and moved to Santa Barbara in 1946.

Burnham was a descendant of Thomas Burnham (1617–1688) of Hartford, Connecticut, the first American ancestor of a large number of Burnhams. The descendants of Thomas Burnham have been noted in every American war, including the French and Indian war.


Burnham died at 86 on September 1, 1947 of heart failure at his home in Santa Barbara, California. At a private ceremony he was buried at Three Rivers, California, near his old cattle ranch, La Cuesta. His memorial stone was designed by his only surviving child, Roderick. Also buried at Three Rivers cemetery is his first wife, Blanche Blick Burnham, several members of the Blick family who had also pioneered in 19th century Rhodesia with Burnham for a time, his son Roderick, his granddaughter Martha Burnham Burleigh, and the Montana cowboy “Pete” Ingram who survived the Shangani Patrol massacre along with Burnham.


Ernest Hemingway acquired the rights to produce a film version of Scouting on Two Continents in late 1958. CBS immediately contracted Hemingway to produce the film for television, with Gary Cooper expressing an interest in playing the part of Burnham. Hemingway was already behind schedule in his other commitments and never started on the film when he committed suicide in July 1961.

Burnham was portrayed by Will Hutchins in Shangani Patrol (1970), a feature film by David Millin. Filmed on location in Bulawayo, Rhodesia by RPM Film Studios, 35 mm copies of the film are now preserved by the National Film, Video and Sound Archives, Pretoria, South Africa.

In 1933, the newly discovered Serbelodon burnhami (now Amebelodon burnhami), an extinct gomphothere (Shovel-Tusker elephant) from North America, was officially named after Burnham.

Union Oil was the official sponsor of the Major Burnham Bowling Trophy, an annual bowling event supported by the Boy Scouts of America and held in California.

On My Honor, an epic film conceived and begun by Cecil B. DeMille, was to document the founding of the Scouting movement but was left unfinished because of the legendary producer's untimely death in January 1959. In the screenplay started by Jesse Lasky, Jr., the film would have focused on Baden-Powell and the Scouting pioneers who were a major influence on Baden-Powell, including Burnham. Even after DeMille's death, associate producer Henry Wilcoxon continued to invest substantial work on the film until 1962, and Sydney Box was hired to assist with the script. Starting in 2001, producers Jerry Molen and Robert Starling began work to finish DeMille's project, including an updated screenplay by Starling based on the earlier work of Lasky and Box.

Allan Quatermain and Indiana Jones

"Burnham in real life is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance!"

— Sir H. Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard's fictional Allan Quatermain character was heavily influenced by his close friendship with Burnham. Quatermain and Burnham were both small and wiry Victorian adventurers in colonial Africa, both sought and discovered ancient treasures and civilizations, both battled large wild animals and native peoples, both were renowned for their ability to track, even at night, and both men had strikingly similar nicknames: Quatermain, "Watcher-by-Night"; Burnham, "He-who-sees-in-the-dark". But Burnham’s influence on fictional adventurers wasn’t to end there. In the 1970s, a young movie director, George Lucas, decided to write the ultimate adventure film. The template for his hero, Indiana Jones, was the hero of the H. Rider Haggard books, Allan Quatermain.

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Major Frederick Russell "Fred" Burnham ("The King of Scouts")'s Timeline

May 11, 1861
Indian Reservation, Tivoli, Minnesota
August 22, 1886
Pasadena, Los Angeles County, CA, United States
May 1894
September 1, 1947
Age 86
Santa Barbara, CA, United States