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Prologue: A Splendid Savage

SHE STOOD IN THE DOORWAY of the log cabin, nervously brushing her hair as dusk fell over forest and clearing. She would feel safer tomorrow when her husband returned with bullets and powder. Her mother’s old pewter, lovingly carried to this new country from England, had long since been melted down for slugs.

A flicker of movement at the wood’s edge caught her eye, then sent her heart racing: Sioux braves, painted for war.

She snatched up her infant son and fled towards the corn field. Not far into it, an awful truth struck her: she could not escape carrying her fifteen-month-old baby. The braves would run her down and kill them both. She stooped and pushed the infant into a shock of freshly-cut stalks. Don’t move or make any noise, she instructed him, until I come back for you. Then she ran.

At the brush line along the creek, she looked back. Some Sioux were entering the cabin. Others had noticed her trail. With chilling howls, they began trotting in her direction, heads tilted to study the ground.

She bolted into the cottonwoods. Youth and fear gave her feet wings. When darkness finally obscured her trail, she paused to catch her breath. Above the trees, in the direction of her cabin, the night sky glowed orange. She prayed that the green corn shocks would refuse to burn. Perhaps her child would survive, if he didn’t cry out. Later that night she reached a barricaded cabin six miles from her own.

At dawn she rushed back with armed men. They passed the smoking remains of a neighboring cabin. Near it were the scalped and tortured bodies of a man and woman. Their child lay nearby, head cracked open from being swung by the legs against a tree.

At her homestead the timbers were smoldering. She ran to the corn shock and shoved apart its scorched stalks. There lay the boy, calmly gazing up at her with bright blue eyes.

IT WAS 1862 ON THE MINNESOTA FRONTIER and the child’s name was Frederick Russell Burnham. This was the first in a lifetime of narrow escapes on violent frontiers in the United States, Africa, Mexico, and the Klondike. Burnham’s life was so crammed with adventure that his friend H. Rider Haggard, author of popular exotic tales such as She and King Solomon’s Mines, remarked, “In real life he is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”

Burnham was once world famous as “the American scout.” His expertise in woodcraft, learned from Indians and frontiersmen in the American West, helped inspire another of his friends, Robert Baden-Powell, to found the Boy Scouts. A best-selling book called Real Soldiers of Fortune (1911) by Richard Harding Davis, one of the most prominent journalists of the time, included Burnham among six larger-than-life figures profiled, along with Winston Churchill and the rogue provocateur William Walker. According to John Hays Hammond, a wealthy investor and advisor to several presidents, Burnham was one of the only people who could turn their garrulous mutual friend Theodore Roosevelt into a listener.

Burnham’s story seems almost too far-fetched for credibility, as if an old newsreel got mashed up with a Saturday matinee thriller. In fact his critics, despite thin evidence, have called him a fabricator. His life included Indian wars and range feuds in the American West; booms and busts in mining camps across African veldts, the U. S. Southwest, Mexican sierras, and Yukon tundra; explorations of remote regions in east, west, and central Africa; death-defying feats in African wars that brought him high military honors, including the Distinguished Service Order from King Edward VII; and finally, in his sixties, wealth. Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all.

In outline he resembled a comic-book swashbuckler, but he often mocked such images as melodramatic clichés. As a scout, he preferred to sidestep danger, not rush into it. He survived so many extraordinary adventures because of strenuous training and discipline, not bravado.

He was quintessentially American. His optimism, like him, was unkillable. Again and again he brushed off disappointment, failure, tragedy. He was endlessly willing to set off into the unknown and start over. His natural habitat was the frontier, a place of escape and hope and violence. “Sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization, religion,” he once wrote to his mother, “for I would have been and am at heart a splendid savage, nothing more.”

Two intermixed urges—one monetary, one idealistic—drove his restlessness: the dream of a big strike, and the desire to live on history’s leading edge, where the future feels up for grabs and values worth dying for are at stake. Burnham purposefully skated these edges as a scout, prospector, pioneer, explorer, and imperialist soldier. On many of his adventures he was accompanied by the great love of his life, his remarkable wife Blanche, who could handle a shotgun or charm high society, depending on what was needed.

Burnham believed deeply in certain values that he found among frontiersmen, soldiers, and certain native tribes—courage, sacrifice, self-discipline, self-reliance, physical and mental toughness. For him these weren’t clichés or abstractions but daily practices that could determine the fate of individuals and nations. He lamented what he saw as their decay in the twentieth century.

Alongside his admirable traits ran others that justified the subjugation of native peoples and the confiscation of their lands. Like most whites shaped by the late 19th century, including Churchill and Roosevelt, Burnham was sure that Indians and blacks belonged to inferior races. He assumed that race plus ancestry equaled something close to historic destiny. For him, this assumption explained not only the arc of his life but the larger arcs of history in which he participated. He knew that before Mexican and American pioneers swarmed into the Southwest, the ruthless Apaches had pushed out the region’s weaker tribes. If the Apaches could have annihilated the whites, they would have; they certainly tried. Likewise, in southern Africa, he knew that the belligerent Ndebeles had overrun the softer Shonas. The weak gave way to the strong, the strong gave way to the stronger. Progressive white civilization naturally triumphed over primitive native cultures, and the British naturally triumphed over cruder white cultures such as that of the Boers’.

As an agent of this triumph, Burnham believed he was furthering the highest ideals through practical actions that demanded a steep toll of sacrifice, suffering, and bloodshed. After conquest came responsibility to the conquered, what Kipling called the white man’s burden. To preserve civilized values against ever-prowling chaos and savagery required vigilance and sometimes violence. All of these values and attitudes helped shape the continent and the world we inherited.

The past is often depicted through a single lens in which the actors are portrayed as heroes or racist imperialists, victors or victims, as if historical truth is a crisp choice between fixed positions. But the past, like everything made by humans, is far more muddled and thorny than that, by turns admirable, misguided, appalling, inspiring. Much like Frederick Russell Burnham.