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Frederick Russell Burnham – An American Scout

Although I grew up in Scouting, it was not until just a few years ago that I learned the story of Frederick Russell Burnham.

Burnham’s story is an amazing tale, that could only have happened in the 19th century. He served as an Scout for the United States Army during the Indian wars and later emigrated to southern Africa where he served as chief of Scouts for British Forces fighting the Matabele and Boers. Eventually, he was awarded the rank of Major by King Edward VII and invested into the Companions of the Distinguished Service Order, the highest military honor bestowed upon an American in the Second Boer War.

During this period he worked with Lord Baden-Powell, teaching him woodcraft. Lord Baden-Powell put them to immediate use in his campaign and when he later started the Scouting movement, those lessons became integral parts of the program.

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What I find most amazing about their friendship is that Lord Baden-Powell adopted the Stetson and Neckerchief worn by Burnham. When Lord Baden-Powell created Scouting, a multi-use uniform item was the neckerchief. As this was not a common item of British military garb, I had always wondered how it and found itself into the Boy Scout uniform which was initially based upon military clothing. Conversely, during the Indian Wars in particular, you’d find a US Army Cavalry Trooper wearing a neckerchief which could be used for a variety of tasks, on the trail and in camp. Once I learned about the Burnham connection, I realized the neckerchief had come full circle, from the United States, to England, and then back to us.

But he did so much more than give us a neckerchief. Burnham participated in the early Scouting movement and was a lifelong friend of Lord Baden-Powell.

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

I’ve read several books on him, but my favorite is “A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham” by Steve Kemper. Be sure to check it out. And please, share the story of the American origin of the Scout neckerchief.

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8 Responses to “Frederick Russell Burnham – An American Scout”

  1. Dev says:

    This is way cool. Had no idea. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  2. james says:

    Very cool… always interesting too see just how thing evolved

  3. DI says:

    Read “Scouting On Two Continents”, he had a very interesting life!

  4. pbr549 says:

    Ive been doing some reading lately about Rhodesia and South Africa and came across a snipet of information about Burnham and Lord Baden-Powell.

  5. Michael Bane says:

    Hi guys…
    I just wanted to let you know that Richard Mann from FIELD AND STREAM and I built our last June African “Scout Rifle Safari” around Burnham. As you know, Burnham was HUGE influence on Col. Jeff Cooper. In fact, the case can be made (and I made it on SHOOTING GALLERY) that Col. Cooper in many ways built the Scout rifle for Burnham — the rifle Burnham would have carried if it had existed. We filmed at Ft. Richmond, about 3 hours from Kimberly, with Ft. Richmond Safaris. Ft. Richmond is also home to the remains of an English fort…the very fort where Burnham was dispatched for his adventure behind Boer lines. In fact, the Wayland family (Geoffrey Wayland was our PH) has owned the land since 1867, and some of the houses from that period are still standing. Family legend has it that they hosted Burnham in one of those houses after his return from one particularly hair-raising adventure. I closed my 2-part SHOOTING GALLERY special with a quote from Burnham…my favorite, BTW: “Sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization, religion. For I would have been and am at heart a splendid savage, nothing more.” Saying those words out in the bush at an African sunset made me cry.

    Michael B

  6. Doc10024 says:

    American Hippopotamus is a great short read on FRB.

  7. pyronaute says:

    If you are a Scout, or ever were a Scout, it is essential to know that the idea for Scouting was born in the region of Africa former known as Rhodesia. Everyone needs a hero, even someone as iconic as Baden-Powell. B-P’s hero was Frederick Russell Burnham. It was Burnham’s prowess as a scout and an outdoorsman that inspired B-P.
    I only learned of this wonderful connection between these two legends a little over a year ago. There is a song by Rhodesian musician John Edmond called “Shangani Patrol” with a line in it referring to ‘the Yankee tracker Burnham’. This led me to research Burnham and learn as much as possible about him.
    He is genuinely one of the most significant founders of World Scouting and was a huge benefactor of the BSA. He received the Silver Buffalo Award in the 1930’s in recognition of his contributions. His fascinating life story needs to be told to every Scout so they can have a new hero worthy of their admiration.
    Thank you for this unsolicited promotion of a legendary American.