period. The big game he hunted and killed he sold for a few dollars to
the men of Nadean's freight outfits, which in those days hauled bullion
from Cerro Gordo for the man who is now Senator Jones of Nevada.
At nineteen Burnham decided that there were things in this world he
should know that could not be gleaned from the earth, trees, and sky;
and with the few dollars he had saved he came East. The visit apparently
was not a success. The atmosphere of the town in which he went to school
was strictly Puritanical, and the townspeople much given to religious
discussion. The son of the pioneer missionary found himself unable to
subscribe to the formulas which to the others seemed so essential, and
he returned to the West with the most bitter feelings, which lasted
until he was twenty-one.
"It seems strange now," he once said to me, "but in those times
religious questions were as much a part of our daily life as to-day are
automobiles, the Standard Oil, and the insurance scandals, and when I
went West I was in an unhappy, doubting frame of mind. The trouble was
I had no moral anchors; the old ones father had given me were gone, and
the time for acquiring new ones had not arrived." This bitterness of
heart, or this disappointment, or whatever the state of mind was that
the dogmas of the New England town had inspired in the boy from the
prairie, made him reckless. For the life he was to lead this was not a
handicap. Even as a lad, in a land-grant war in California, he had been
under gunfire, and for the next fifteen years he led a life of danger
and of daring; and studied in a school of experience than which, for a
scout, if his life be spared, there can be none better. Burnham came
out of it a quiet, manly, gentleman. In those fifteen years he roved the
West from the Great Divide to Mexico. He fought the Apache Indians for
the possession of waterholes, he guarded bullion on stage-coaches, for
days rode in pursuit of Mexican bandits and American horse thieves,
took part in county-seat fights, in rustler wars, in cattle wars; he was
cowboy, miner, deputy-sheriff, and in time throughout the the name of
"Fred" Burnham became significant and familiar.
During this period Burnham was true to his boyhood ideal of becoming a
scout. It was not enough that by merely living the life around him he
was being educated for it. He daily practised and rehearsed those things
which some day might mean to himself and others the difference between
life and death. To improve his sense of smell he gave up smoking, of
which he was extremely fond, nor, for the same reason, does he to this
day use tobacco. He accustomed himself also to go with little sleep, and
to subsist on the least possible quantity of food. As a deputy-sheriff
this educated faculty of not requiring sleep aided him in many important
captures. Sometimes he would not strike the trail of the bandit or "bad
man" until the other had several days the start of him. But the end
was the same; for, while the murderer snatched a few hours' rest by the
trail, Burnham, awake and in the saddle, would be closing up the miles
That he is a good marksman goes without telling. At the age of eight his
father gave him a rifle of his own, and at twelve, with either a "gun"
or a Winchester, he was an expert. He taught himself to use a weapon
either in his left or right hand and to shoot, Indian fashion, hanging
by one leg from his pony and using it as a cover, and to turn in the
saddle and shoot behind him. I once asked him if he really could shoot
to the rear with a galloping horse under him and hit a man.
"Well," he said, "maybe not to hit him, but I can come near enough to
him to make him decide my pony's so much faster than his that it really
isn't worth while to follow me."
Besides perfecting himself in what he tolerantly calls "tricks" of
horsemanship and marksmanship, he studied the signs of the trail, forest
and prairie, as a sailing-master studies the waves and clouds. The
knowledge he gathers from inanimate objects and dumb animals seems
little less than miraculous. And when you ask him how he knows these
things he always gives you a reason founded on some fact or habit of
nature that shows him to be a naturalist, mineralogist, geologist, and
botanist, and not merely a seventh son of a seventh son.
In South Africa he would say to the officers: "There are a dozen Boers
five miles ahead of us riding Basuto ponies at a trot, and leading five
others. If we hurry we should be able to sight them in an hour." At
first the officers would smile, but not after a half-hour's gallop, when
they would see ahead of them a dozen Boers leading five ponies. In the
early days of Salem, Burnham would have been burned as a witch.
When twenty-three years of age he married Miss Blanche Blick, of Iowa.
They had known each other from childhood, and her brothers-in-law have
been Burnham's aids and companions in every part of Africa and the West.
Neither at the time of their marriage nor since did Mrs. Burnham "lay
a hand on the bridle rein," as is witnessed by the fact that for nine
years after his marriage Burnham continued his career as sheriff, scout,
mining prospector. And in 1893, when Burnham and his brother-in-law,
Ingram, started for South Africa, Mrs. Burnham went with them, and
in every part of South Africa shared her husband's life of travel and
In making this move across the sea, Burnham's original idea was to look
for gold in the territory owned by the German East African Company. But
as in Rhodesia the first Matabele uprising had broken out, he continued
on down the coast, and volunteered for that campaign. This was the real
beginning of his fortunes. The "war" was not unlike the Indian fighting
of his early days, and although the country was new to him, with
the kind of warfare then being waged between the Kaffirs under King
Lobengula and the white settlers of the British South Africa Company,
the chartered company of Cecil Rhodes, he was intimately familiar.
It does not take big men long to recognize other big men, and Burnham's
remarkable work as a scout at once brought him to the notice of Rhodes
and Dr. Jameson, who was personally conducting the campaign. The war was
their own private war, and to them, at such a crisis in the history of
their settlement, a man like Burnham was invaluable.
The chief incident of this campaign, the fame of which rang over all
Great Britain and her colonies, was the gallant but hopeless stand made
by Major Alan Wilson and his patrol of thirty-four men. It was Burnham's
attempt to save these men that made him known from Buluwayo to Cape
King Lobengula and his warriors were halted on one bank of the Shangani
River, and on the other Major Forbes, with a picked force of three
hundred men, was coming up in pursuit. Although at the moment he did
not know it, he also was being pursued by a force of Matabeles, who were
gradually surrounding him. At nightfall Major Wilson and a patrol of
twelve men, with Burnham and his brother-in-law, Ingram, acting as
scouts, were ordered to make a dash into the camp of Lobengula and, if
possible, in the confusion of their sudden attack, and under cover of a
terrific thunder-storm that was raging, bring him back a prisoner.
With the king in their hands the white men believed the rebellion would
collapse. To the number of three thousand the Matabeles were sleeping in
a succession of camps, through which the fourteen men rode at a gallop.
But in the darkness it was difficult to distinguish the trek wagon of
the king, and by the time they found his laager the Matabeles from the
other camps through which they had ridden had given the alarm. Through
the underbrush from every side the enemy, armed with assegai and
elephant guns, charged toward them and spread out to cut off their
At a distance of about seven hundred yards from the camps there was
a giant ant-hill, and the patrol rode toward it. By the aid of the
lightning flashes they made their way through a dripping wood and over
soil which the rain had turned into thick black mud. When the party
drew rein at the ant-hill it was found that of the fourteen three were
missing. As the official scout of the patrol and the only one who could
see in the dark, Wilson ordered Burnham back to find them. Burnham said
he could do so only by feeling the hoof-prints in the mud and that he
would like some one with him to lead his pony. Wilson said he would lead
it. With his fingers Burnham followed the trail of the eleven horses to
where, at right angles, the hoof-prints of the three others separated
from it, and so came upon the three men. Still, with nothing but the mud
of the jungle to guide him, he brought them back to their comrades. It
was this feat that established his reputation among British, Boers, and
black men in South Africa.
Throughout the night the men of the patrol lay in the mud holding the
reins of their horses. In the jungle about them, they could hear the
enemy splashing through the mud, and the swishing sound of the branches
as they swept back into place. It was still raining. Just before
the dawn there came the sounds of voices and the welcome clatter of
accoutrements. The men of the patrol, believing the column had joined
them, sprang up rejoicing, but it was only a second patrol, under
Captain Borrow, who had been sent forward with twenty men as
re-enforcements. They had come in time to share in a glorious
immortality. No sooner had these men joined than the Kaffirs began the
attack; and the white men at once learned that they were trapped in a
complete circle of the enemy. Hidden by the trees, the Kaffirs fired
point-blank, and in a very little time half of Wilson's force was
killed or wounded. As the horses were shot down the men used them for
breastworks. There was no other shelter. Wilson called Burnham to him
and told him he must try and get through the lines of the enemy to
"Tell him to come up at once," he said; "we are nearly finished." He
detailed a trooper named Gooding and Ingram to accompany Burnham.
"One of you may get through," he said. Gooding was but lately out from
London, and knew nothing of scouting, so Burnham and Ingram warned him,
whether he saw the reason for it or not, to act exactly as they did.
The three men had barely left the others before the enemy sprang at them
with their spears. In five minutes they were being fired at from every
bush. Then followed a remarkable ride, in which Burnham called to his
aid all he had learned in thirty years of border warfare. As the enemy
rushed after them, the three doubled on their tracks, rode in triple
loops, hid in dongas to breathe their horses; and to scatter their
pursuers, separated, joined again, and again separated. The enemy
followed them to the very bank of the river, where, finding the "drift"
covered with the swollen waters, they were forced to swim. They reached
the other bank only to find Forbes hotly engaged with another force of
"I have been sent for re-enforcements," Burnham said to Forbes, "but I
believe we are the only survivors of that party." Forbes himself was too
hard pressed to give help to Wilson, and Burnham, his errand over, took
his place in the column, and began firing upon the new enemy.
Six weeks later the bodies of Wilson's patrol were found lying in a
circle. Each of them had been shot many times. A son of Lobengula, who
witnessed their extermination, and who in Buluwayo had often heard the
Englishmen sing their national anthem, told how the five men who were
the last to die stood up and, swinging their hats defiantly, sang "God
Save the Queen." The incident will long be recorded in song and story;
and in London was reproduced in two theatres, in each of which the
man who played "Burnham, the American Scout," as he rode off for
re-enforcements, was as loudly cheered by those in the audience as by
those on the stage.
Hensman, in his "History of Rhodesia," 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
For his help in this war the Chartered Company presented Burnham with
the campaign medal, a gold watch engraved with words of appreciation;
and at the suggestion of Cecil Rhodes gave him, Ingram, and the Hon.
Maurice Clifford, jointly, a tract of land of three hundred square
After this campaign Burnham led an expedition of ten white men and
seventy Kaffirs north of the Zambesi River to explore Barotzeland
and other regions to the north of Mashonaland, and to establish the
boundaries of the concession given him, Ingram, and Clifford.
In order to protect Burnham on the march the Chartered Company signed
a treaty with the native king of the country through which he wished
to travel, by which the king gave him permission to pass freely and
guaranteed him against attack.
But Latea, the son of the king, refused to recognize the treaty and sent
his young men in great numbers to surround Burnham's camp. Burnham had
been instructed to avoid a fight, and was torn between his desire to
obey the Chartered Company and to prevent a massacre. He decided to make
it a sacrifice either of himself or of Latea. As soon as night fell,
with only three companions and a missionary to act as a witness of what
occurred, he slipped through the lines of Latea's men, and, kicking
down the fence around the prince's hut, suddenly appeared before him and
covered him with his rifle.
"Is it peace or war?" Burnham asked. "I have the king your father's
guarantee of protection, but your men surround us. I have told my people
if they hear shots to open fire. We may all be killed, but you will be
the first to die."
The missionary also spoke urging Latea to abide by the treaty. Burnham
says the prince seemed much more impressed by the arguments of the
missionary than by the fact that he still was covered by Burnham's
rifle. Whichever argument moved him, he called off his warriors. On
this expedition Burnham discovered the ruins of great granite structures
fifteen feet wide, and made entirely without mortar. They were of a
period dating before the Phoenicians. He also sought out the ruins
described to him by F. C. Selous, the famous hunter, and by Rider
Haggard as King Solomon's Mines. Much to the delight of Mr. Haggard,
he brought back for him from the mines of his imagination real gold
ornaments and a real gold bar.
On this same expedition, which lasted five months, Burnham endured one
of the severest hardships of his life. Alone with ten Kaffir boys, he
started on a week's journey across the dried-up basin of what once had
been a great lake. Water was carried in goat-skins on the heads of the
bearers. The boys, finding the bags an unwieldy burden, and believing,
with the happy optimism of their race, that Burnham's warnings were
needless, and that at a stream they soon could refill the bags, emptied
the water on the ground.
The tortures that followed this wanton waste were terrible. Five of
the boys died, and after several days, when Burnham found water in
abundance, the tongues of the others were so swollen that their jaws
could not meet.
On this trip Burnham passed through a region ravaged by the "sleeping
sickness," where his nostrils were never free from the stench of dead
bodies, where in some of the villages, as he expressed it, "the hyenas
were mangy with overeating, and the buzzards so gorged they could
not move out of our way." From this expedition he brought back many
ornaments of gold manufactured before the Christian era, and made
several valuable maps of hitherto uncharted regions. It was in
recognition of the information gathered by him on this trip that he was
elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He returned to Rhodesia in time to take part in the second Matabele
rebellion. This was in 1896. By now Burnham was a very prominent
member of the "vortrekers" and pioneers at Buluwayo, and Sir Frederick
Carrington, who was in command of the forces, attached him to his staff.
This second outbreak was a more serious uprising than the one of 1893,
and as it was evident the forces of the Chartered Company could not
handle it, imperial troops were sent to assist them. But with even their
aid the war dragged on until it threatened to last to the rainy season,
when the troops must have gone into winter quarters. Had they done so,
the cost of keeping them would have fallen on the Chartered Company,
already a sufferer in pocket from the ravages of the rinderpest and the
expenses of the investigation which followed the Jameson raid.
Accordingly, Carrington looked about for some measure by which he could
bring the war to an immediate end.
It was suggested to him by a young Colonial, named Armstrong, the
Commissioner of the district, that this could be done by destroying
the "god," or high priest, Umlimo, who was the chief inspiration of the
This high priest had incited the rebels to a general massacre of women
and children, and had given them confidence by promising to strike the
white soldiers blind and to turn their bullets into water. Armstrong
had discovered the secret hiding-place of Umlimo, and Carrington ordered
Burnham to penetrate the enemy's lines, find the god, capture him, and
if that were not possible to destroy him.
The adventure was a most desperate one. Umlimo was secreted in a cave
on the top of a huge kopje. At the base of this was a village where were
gathered two regiments, of a thousand men each, of his fighting men.
For miles around this village the country was patrolled by roving bands
of the enemy.
Against a white man reaching the cave and returning, the chances were a
hundred to one, and the difficulties of the journey are illustrated by
the fact that Burnham and Armstrong were unable to move faster than at
the rate of a mile an hour. In making the last mile they consumed three
hours. When they reached the base of the kopje in which Umlimo was
hiding, they concealed their ponies in a clump of bushes, and on hands
and knees began the ascent.
Directly below them lay the village, so close that they could smell the
odors of cooking from the huts, and hear, rising drowsily on the hot,
noonday air, voices of the warriors. For minutes at a time they lay as
motionless as the granite bowlders around or squirmed and crawled over
loose stones which a miss of hand or knee would have dislodged and sent
clattering into the village. After an hour of this tortuous climbing
the cave suddenly opened before them, and they beheld Umlimo.
Burnham recognized that to take him alive from his stronghold was an
impossibility, and that even they themselves would leave the place was
equally doubtful. So, obeying orders, he fired, killing the man who had
boasted he would turn the bullets of his enemies into water. The echo of
the shot aroused the village as would a stone hurled into an ant-heap.
In an instant the veldt below was black with running men, and as,
concealment being no longer possible, the white men rose to fly a great
shout of anger told them they were discovered. At the same moment two
women, returning from a stream where they had gone for water, saw the
ponies, and ran screaming to give the alarm. The race that followed
lasted two hours, for so quickly did the Kaffirs spread out on every
side that it was impossible for Burnham to gain ground in any one
direction, and he was forced to dodge, turn, and double. At one time
the white men were driven back to the very kopje from which the race had
But in the end they evaded assegai and gunfire, and in safety reached
Buluwayo. This exploit was one of the chief factors in bringing the war
to a close. The Matabeles, finding their leader was only a mortal like
themselves, and so could not, as he had promised, bring miracles to
their aid, lost heart, and when Cecil Rhodes in person made overtures of
peace, his terms were accepted. During the hard days of the siege, when
rations were few and bad, Burnham's little girl, who had been the first
white child born in Buluwayo, died of fever and lack of proper
food. This with other causes led him to leave Rhodesia and return to
California. It is possible he then thought he had forever turned
his back on South Africa, but, though he himself had departed, the
impression he had made there remained behind him.
Burnham did not rest long in California. In Alaska the hunt for gold had
just begun, and, the old restlessness seizing him, he left Pasadena and
her blue skies, tropical plants, and trolley-car strikes for the new raw
land of the Klondike. With Burnham it has always been the place that is
being made, not the place in being, that attracts. He has helped to make
straight the ways of several great communities--Arizona, California,
Rhodesia, Alaska, and Uganda. As he once said: "It is the constructive
side of frontier life that most appeals to me, the building up of a
country, where you see the persistent drive and force of the white man;
when the place is finally settled I don't seem to enjoy it very long."
In Alaska he did much prospecting, and, with a sled and only two dogs,
for twenty-four days made one long fight against snow and ice, covering
six hundred miles. In mining in Alaska he succeeded well, but against
the country he holds a constant grudge, because it kept him out of the
fight with Spain. When war was declared he was in the wilds and knew
nothing of it, and though on his return to civilization he telegraphed
Colonel Roosevelt volunteering for the Rough Riders, and at once started
south, by the time he had reached Seattle the war was over.
Several times has he spoken to me of how bitterly he regretted missing
this chance to officially fight for his country. That he had twice
served with English forces made him the more keen to show his loyalty to
his own people.
That he would have been given a commission in the Rough Riders seems
evident from the opinion President Roosevelt has publicly expressed of