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19th Century

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United States Military Ac...

The West Point Histo...

The definitive military history of the Civil War, used to teach the history of the art of war to West Point cadets.

Steve Kemper

A Splendid Savage

Here is a splendid book about an amazing life. If this work were not history, it might seem an overly ambitious adventure novel whose hero deserved a multi-volume series. I had to keep reading to find out where Fred Burnham might go next and what he might do. At age fifteen months in 1862, his mother hid him in a cornfield to escape a band of Dakota raiders during a bloody conflict in Minnesota. He waited silently for a full day before she returned. Perhaps at such a young age he already had the ability to observe quietly and not arouse an enemy—traits that served Burnham well as a scout during the Apache wars in the American Southwest and during British wars of empire in southern Africa, including the Boer War where he served as Chief of Scouts. His actions in Africa made him famous back in England where he and his devoted wife, Blanche, became the toast of London. His friends and admirers included Cecil Rhodes, Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Baden-Powell who adopted Burnham’s preferred flat-brim hat for himself and especially H. Rider Haggard whose adventure novels compare to some of Burnham’s real-life exploits.

Throughout most of his life, Fred Burnham wanted to find wealth as a mineral prospector rather than fame as a military scout. This desire would take him to the Arizona Territory, then to Africa, and eventually to the Yukon and Mexico. He always returned to southern California where his family had moved from Minnesota. By age twelve, Fred was on his own and a year later he became a freelance hunter supplying meat to teamsters who freighted for the mines and smelters in the high desert east of Los Angeles. Superb with horses and an excellent shot, Burnham soon was looking for gold in the greater Southwest where he became ensnared in the Tonto Basin Feud, spent time in Tombstone, and learned about scouting from Apaches who helped the U.S. military hunt down their fellow tribesmen.

His fascination for Africa would take him across the Atlantic and provide more adventures. Even his final decades in southern California are fascinating with a surprising resolution of his wealth seeking. A less skilled author might have turned Burnham into a cartoon hero, but Steve Kemper understands his subject and his period. He provides an appendix that expands on key controversies that affected Burnham’s reputation and most thoughtfully frames the racial context for Burnham’s life, especially in the American West and southern Africa. A fine writer has crafted an outstanding book about an astonishing life.

Clyde A. Milner II
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