A Splendid Savage

Written by Steve Kemper
Review by Marina Maxwell

During the 1862 Dakota War, a mother hides her baby in the corn patch from marauding Sioux. The family’s home is burned but the sleeping Fred stays safe. This fortuitous start in life sets the tone for this monumental biography on Frederick Russell Burnham, every chapter of which could inspire a thrilling novel on its own.

As a teenager living on his wits, Burnham learns tracking and survival skills, chases Apaches, dodges bullets, and mines for silver. As white civilization encroaches on the West, he embarks on some of his greatest derring-do in Southern Africa. One of only three controversial survivors of the legendary last-stand Shangani Patrol, later he is appointed Britain’s Official Scout during the Boer War and again puts his life on the line as spy and saboteur. His international reputation is enhanced when his friendship with Lord Baden-Powell results in the world-wide youth scouting movement. After years of risky prospecting ventures in the Klondike, West and East Africa and Mexico, he finally strikes oil in California. Like his friend, Teddy Roosevelt, he turns conservationist and establishes early wild-life protection bodies.

A Splendid Savage is a meticulous look at Burnham, his ideals and relationships. (His long-suffering wife Blanche almost deserves a biography of her own.) Although some of his opinions may not sit easily with modern readers, he was an exemplar of his age and must be judged accordingly. Capable of unbridled optimism and almost superhuman physical resilience, Burnham remains a contradictory yet magnetic figure. Congratulations to Steve Kemper for giving him the superb biography he deserves.