A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnhamby Steve Kemper
“Rich, detailed, and pitch-perfect, with the witty and wonderful skipping off every page.”Maxwell Carter, Wall Street JournalFrederick Russell Burnham’s (1861–1947) amazing story resembles a newsreel fused with a Saturday matinee thriller. One of the few people who could turn his garrulous friend Theodore Roosevelt into a listener, Burnham was once world-famous as “the American scout.” His expertise in woodcraft, learned from frontiersmen and Indians, helped inspire another friend, Robert Baden-Powell, to found the Boy Scouts. His adventures encompassed Apache wars and range feuds, booms and busts in mining camps around the globe, explorations in remote regions of Africa, and death-defying military feats that brought him renown and high honors. His skills led to his unusual appointment, as an American, to be Chief of Scouts for the British during the Boer War, where his daring exploits earned him the Distinguished Service Order from King Edward VII.After a lifetime pursuing golden prospects from the deserts of Mexico and Africa to the tundra of the Klondike, Burnham found wealth, in his sixties, near his childhood home in southern California. Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all. His friend H. Rider Haggard, author of many best-selling exotic tales, remarked, “In real life he is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”Among other well-known individuals who figure in Burnham’s story are Cecil Rhodes and William Howard Taft, as well as some of the wealthiest men of the day, including John Hays Hammond, E. H. Harriman, Henry Payne Whitney, and the Guggenheim brothers.Failure and tragedy streaked his life as well, but he was endlessly willing to set off into the unknown, where the future felt up for grabs and values worth dying for were at stake. Steve Kemper brings a quintessential American story to vivid life in this gripping biography.
Journalist Kemper (A Labyrinth of Kingdoms) admirably resurrects the larger-than-life figure of Frederick Russell Burnham (1861–1947) in an account chockfull of adventures that feel ripped from dime-store novels. Burnham was perhaps the greatest scout of his age—one whose courage, discipline, and strength of character were celebrated in newspapers and inspired the founding principles of the Boy Scouts—but has been all but forgotten today. He came of age during the last days of the American frontier and trained in the ways of the Apache scout. Burnham ventured from the Klondike to Mexico to Southern Africa in a constant cycle of boom and bust, seeking a great fortune or, failing that, a great escapade. The most remarkable thing about Kemper's account seems to be Burnham's uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, consistently serving as a minor player in history's unfolding: he served in the Boer War, prospected in two separate gold rushes, and turned down an invitation to join Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Kemper is well aware of his subject's racist and imperialist tendencies—attitudes he finds common for the time—but in Burnham he also sees an essential American spirit and a paragon of a bygone model of manhood. Illus. (Jan.)
Journalist Kemper (A Labyrinth of Kingdoms) offers a rollicking, gripping portrait of Frederick Russell Burnham (1861–1947), a highly skilled military scout, outdoorsman, marksman, and prospector, whose legendary survival skills helped inspire the creation of the Boy Scouts. This clearly written, well-organized, and solidly researched volume vividly describes Burham's adventurous endeavors: working as a civilian scout for the U.S. Army during the Apache Wars in the Southwest, serving as Chief of Scouts for the British Army during several wars in southern Africa, and prospecting for gold in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Kemper highlights Burnham's perpetual optimism and dedication to country and family without ignoring the period-typical racism he sometimes expressed and his evolving views on the need for environmental conservation. Burnham's life evokes a bygone era when unfettered colonialism, displacement of indigenous peoples, and environmental exploitation on wild frontiers provided vast opportunity. However, Kemper's tale occasionally glosses over the severe persecution of those native groups who Burnham helped to defeat, and whose alternative perspectives on their own history are too rarely chronicled. VERDICT Best suited to readers interested in scouting, outdoor survival skills, the history of the American West, the Apache Wars, wars in the former Rhodesia, or the origin of the Boy Scouts. Readers may also enjoy Burnham's own memoir Scouting on Two Continents.—Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI
Freelance journalist Kemper (A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, 2012, etc.) revives a legendary adventurer, "one of the only people who could turn [his] garrulous…friend Theodore Roosevelt into a listener." All but forgotten today, at the turn of the last century the exploits of the American scout and prospector Frederick Russell Burnham (1861-1947) were front-page news. Burnham lived a life of astonishing adventure "almost too far-fetched for credibility, as if an old newsreel got mashed up with a Saturday matinee thriller." Often accompanied by his "intrepid wife Blanche, who could charm high society or handle a shotgun, depending on what was needed," Burnham prospected widely in North America and Africa and tracked Apaches in Arizona and Boers in South Africa, where he scouted behind enemy lines over 100 times. He joined the Yukon gold rush and protected President William Howard Taft from an assassin. Kemper portrays Burnham as exemplifying the adventurer's virtues of courage, sacrifice, self-discipline, self-reliance, and physical and mental toughness. He was possibly the best white tracker who ever lived. War correspondent Richard Harding Davis called him "the Sherlock Holmes of all out-of-doors," and Lord Frederick Roberts, commander of British forces in South Africa, wrote, "any one of Major Burnham's adventures would provide an ordinary man with conversation for the rest of his life." In Kemper's sure and enthusiastic hands, Burnham storms through the pages of this rousing volume, outwitting determined foes and collecting mining and ranching interests on two continents that never seemed to pay off as expected. No two-dimensional action hero, the author deftly shows Burnham in the round as an embodiment of contradictions in his attitudes and actions regarding politics, wealth, nature, and family. Kemper also addresses with honesty and sensitivity attitudes about race and empire that Burnham's activities incidentally served and that he shared to some degree with many public men of the age. Thrilling adventures presented with the flair they deserve.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Meet the Author
Steve Kemper is the author of A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa and Code Name Ginger, as well as many articles for national magazines. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.
- West Hartford, Connecticut
- Date of Birth:
- November 25, 1951
- Place of Birth:
- Louisville, Kentucky
- B.A., University of Detroit, 1973; Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 1980
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Outstanding read. Found out about this book on the Art of Manliness website. Takes you back to a time in history where the daily struggles were many and the rewards were few. Fantastic!