Major Frederick Russell Burnham DSO - 1861-1947

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Great Canadian Heritage Discoveries

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More important Canadian antique memorabilia the Museum has preserved.


Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Scouting on Two Continents - Frederick Russell Burnham, 1934
Orig. book & jacket - Size - 15 x 21 cm
Found - Pasadena, CA
A fabulous treasure, a book classic, signed by the famous author/adventurer himself... not once, but twice...

It's even better than that; instead of a straight autograph, there are added inscriptions in each case, including one to someone who was a named special friend. And each dated as well... Autographed books of major historical players do not get better than this...

This book once belonged to the Southern California Historical Society. Probably it was signed in California, showing the extreme care that the old gent took to sign for someone special, though the infirmities of old age - he was then 80 - are starting to creep in among his letters...

But don't be fooled; within a year the widower would remarry and start a whole new relationship. Who among us would have the energy to do that.?

Boer War "Discovery of the Month" (Dec. 2003)

Great Boer War Heritage Treasure
The Field Glasses of Maj. Frederick Russell Burnham, 1900
Binoculars - Size - 8" x 12" fully extended
Found - London, UK
, CA GAGGINI, Opticien, 1 RUE DE L'ECHELLE, Paris. Leather covered barrels & shades. Strap faintly stamped MAJOR BURNHAM.
Fake or Fortune?

The Field Glasses of Maj. Frederick Russell Burnham,
Chief Scout of Lord Roberts, 1900

We are pleased to have discovered, and rescued from the trash heap of history, a most wonderful memento of a great Anglo-Boer War hero, International Scout extraordinaire, Major Frederick R. Burnham, DSO (1861-1947).

American Scout: Burnham was an American who was born in 1861 in the "Wild West," right into the middle of the terrifying Indian revolt on the Minnesota frontier of 1862. His parents - who, along with their baby, Frederick, were close to being among the several hundred whites massacred during the uprising - witnessed the mass hanging of 38 Sioux chieftains at Mankato, not far from the family farm, in 1863. Burnham's fighting spirit ran in his genes; 22 of his relatives died in the various wars of the 1860s. As a teenager he went west and fought in the Indian Wars in Arizona. (Left as he looked in 1881 as the American Army chased the Apaches across the Southwestern US.)

"In those fifteen years he roved the West from the Great Divide to Mexico. He fought the Apache Indians for the possession of water holes, 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 name of "Fred" Burnham became significant and familiar.

- From: Richard Harding Davis, "Real Soldiers of Fortune," 1910

African Scout: In 1893, Burnham went to South Africa and was hired by Cecil Rhodes as a scout for his British South Africa Company army, a personal military force Rhodes used to enforce his will upon the local African tribesmen, as he expanded his empire into the wilds of Rhodesia.

During the Matabele Wars of 1893, and 1896-97, when Burnham was heavily involved with British officers in "pacifying the natives," he won a huge reputation among them for his scouting talent. (Right, kneeling, second from the right, on campaign in Rhodesia with his British companions.)

Burnham, escaped death many times during 1893, when hundreds of whites were killed during the Matabele uprising in Rhodesia, including once when he was one of only three scouts to survive a massacre of his entire unit. He won fame, far and wide, for using his scouting prowess to sneak through thousands of African warriors into the stronghold cave of the M'Limo, the leader and inspiration for the whole African uprising, to shoot him through the heart, and then escaping. The entire Matabele revolt ended with the death of their leader.

In all likelihood he needed to carry a good set of binoculars with him at that time, when life or death depended on the ability to see approaching African warriors long before they saw him.

Were these glasses (left) the very ones he carried?

An early admirer was fellow Scout Robert Baden-Powell, who drew the sketch, below, of Burnham when they were on campaign in Rhodesia. Burnham was even invited to dine with Queen Victoria.


These binoculars must have belonged to Major Burnham because there, written clearly in ink, on the strap, was the name Maj. Burnham (right).


These binoculars are supposed to be 100 years old at least. Would ink last that long? It might; on furniture it does; on rough leather it would. But it was clear that this signature was on the shiny, protected side of the leather. Ink would never grip there, let alone last 100 years. Not Major Burnham; Major disappointment!

By examining the surface closely it began to be clear there was no surface abrasion on the ink. If it had been placed there by Maj. Burnham to identify the glasses so they wouldn't be stolen, there would have been tiny scuffs and chips off the ink, visible with a loupe. There were none. This ink had been applied relatively recently. Growing disappointment.

Using a loupe we examined every centimeter of the strap.

Then....lo and behold, there lightly stamped into the leather, were the words "MAJOR BURNHAM." We looked for sharp edges to the stamp - new stampings leave sharp edges and bits of broken leather along the ridges. There were none. In fact, the stamping had the same "age burn" as the surrounding leather.

Stamping identification on leather was a constant preoccupation of blacksmiths attached to the military in the Boer War. Saddles, straps, spurs, belts, holsters, halters, all were madly stamped because theft among soldiers was a huge and constant problem.

And kit stolen from officers was a special target for Tommy Atkins. In fact Hutton, the British General commanding the Canadians, had his very horse stolen by those irreverent Canuck volunteers.

So the stamping, like the glasses, is Boer War era. The ink signature had been added by someone in recent times because, unless you use a loupe, and go looking for it deliberately, you would never see the words MAJOR BURNHAM.

Provenance: The binoculars are in good shape. The barrels are of brass, but still completely wrapped in black leather. Often the leather on badly treated glasses is completely worn off showing the brass barrels.

The glasses have circumstantial provenance as well because they were being sold as part of an old Boer War collection of items which contained a number of things claiming association with Baden-Powell and his staff and Mafeking.

Since BP and Burnham were close friends from Rhodesia days, when they fought the Matabele in 1896-97, it is highly probable that the "Major Burnham" on the strap, is indeed none other than the famous American Scout who so mightily impressed BP and the other British officers with his scouting prowess.

Burnham's field glasses are larger than those one usually finds from the Boer War. Because officers had so many other things to carry, Boer War binoculars were often picked to be small and compact to cut down on weight. But many officers picked more powerful glasses, and presumably scouts, especially, would be among these. These are eight inches when collapsed, but a giant 12" when opened up fully with the large sunshades pulled out.

In BP's sketch above, don't look for binoculars hanging around Burnham's neck, like birders do these days, or like Michael Caine in the movies. No cavalryman ever did that, or he would have lost all his teeth in short order. Glasses were kept in belt pouches. Large glasses like Burnham's were kept in saddle wallets like those clearly drawn by BP on Burnham's horse.

American Eyes: Presumably Burnham carried these powerful glasses while doing his most famous scouting of his entire life, leading the British army of 30,000 men under Lord Roberts on their fabled March to Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

Riding fearlessly ahead into hostile territory, the celebrated American Super Scout, peered through these very eyepieces, to spy out possible Boer attacks and sudden ambushes, as the largest British Army in 100 years marched into war. (Like most binoculars used in the war, these were French, labelled, CA GAGGINI, Opticien, 1 RUE DE L'ECHELLE, Paris.

Frederick Russell Burnham - Father of the World-wide Scouting Movement

Frederick Burnham can legitimately be called the Father of the International Scouting Movement. Baden-Powell really learned much of his scouting lore from Fred Burnham. B-P was not shy in telling people that he "sucked him dry" of all he could possibly tell him, he was so impressed by this American scout. Burnham was really a major fountain head of B-P's knowledge, and the enthusiastic American's scouting spirit, infused Baden-Powell with seeing the educational possibilities of scouting and fieldcraft on many different levels.

It is then, quite proper to call Baden-Powell the Founder of the International Scouting Movement, setting up an organization which spread the scouting knowledge that he had gleaned largely from Fred Burnham, around the world. The low-key Burnham and Baden-Powell remained close friends for the rest of their, long, lives. Burnham wrote a book, "Scouting on Two Continents," that became an international classic when published in 1926.

Right, on the left, he wears the DSO, the second highest decoration in the British Army (see Medals Page) pinned on him by Edward VII for his work as Lord Roberts' Chief Scout on his "victorious" March to Pretoria.

Next is the Rhodesia medal given to him by Cecil Rhodes, and right his QSA. He is in a British Army uniform with the rank of Major, a rare honour because, as a foreigner, who retained his American citizenship, he was given special dispensation to hold a commission in the British Army.

Baden-Powell wrote home to his mother in 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."

Misc Facts: Frederick Russell Burnham 1861-1947)

Burnham spent 1897-1900 in the Yukon and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush there, before returning to Africa when the Boer War started.

After the war Burnham led mineral exploration expeditions in East Africa and the southwestern US. He became an oil exploration businessman, and promoted the establishment of wildlife parks in Africa and the US.

Burnham was a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt and was a leading American conservationist long before it became the popular thing to be.

In 1931 he read the speech dedicating Mount Baden-Powell in California, (right the mountain and the ceremony) to his old scouting friend from 40 years before. Today their friendship, and equal status in the world of scouting and conservation, is honoured, in perpetuity, with the dedication of the adjoining peak in honour of Major Fred Burnham.

This world travelling adventurer was married to the same woman, Blanche Blick Burnham, for 55 years. She travelled to Africa with him and shared the dangers of life on the frontier with him.

As a widower at 82 he married again; always young at heart; always ready for another adventure.

c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000