THE ARIZONA MINER AND INDIANA JONES
Mining History by Harold Hough Dec/Jan 2010
Mining, Indiana Jones, and Conan the Barbarian may not seem to have a lot in common, but if it wasn’t for a miner who prospected in Arizona and Alaska, it’s quite possible that neither of the other two would have been created – at least not as we know them today.
Fredrick Russell Burnham was born to a missionary family in 1861 on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. He survived a Sioux Indian attack before he was two years old and moved to the small community of Los Angeles, CA in 1870 with his family. When his father died two years later, he decided to stay in California instead of moving back to Iowa with the rest of his family.
For the next three years Burnham worked as a mounted messenger for Western Union in California and Arizona. At the age of 14, he signed on with the US Army as a scout for the Indian Wars. When he wasn’t tracking and fighting Indians, he would take time to prospect in Arizona and California, where he was assigned.
Although Burnham tried his hand at several jobs, including law enforcement, farming, and ranching, he kept coming back to prospecting. By the time modern teenagers are looking forward to getting a drivers license, Burnham had fought Apaches and been involved in cattle wars. In the process he had become an expert shot, a skilled tracker, and passable geologist.
Unfortunately, for this frontiersman, the Southwest had become too settled and by 1893, he was looking for a new frontier. So, he, his wife and brother-in-law moved to South Africa. His original idea was to look for gold in the territory owned by the German East African Company. But, the First Matabele War had broken out in Rhodesia and he decided to volunteer for that campaign. Although different from the Indian Wars, he had the tracking, scouting, and fighting skills that the British needed at that time.
It would be hard to chronicle all of Burnham’s wartime adventures. He fought natives and survived massacres and when the war was over, he was personally awarded a gold watch by Cecil Rhodes. With the coming of peace, he returned to his original plan of exploring for gold in the uncharted interior of Africa.
His expedition into unexplored Rhodesia was the stuff of legends. He explored the giant ruins of ancient Zimbabwe and returned with raw gold and golden jewelry owned by the natives. His expedition was so important that the Royal Geographic Society elected him a Fellow.
Burnham returned from his expedition in time for the Second Matabele War and was given the impossible task of penetrating deep into enemy territory to kill or capture the Matabele leader Umlimo. Although given a 1 in 100 chance to carry out the task and return, he took the task, killed Umlimo, and returned to British lines even though hotly pursued by natives. It was his actions that led to the end of that war. Unfortunately, during the war, Burnham's little girl Nada, died of fever and lack of proper food. This along with other causes led him to leave Rhodesia and return to California.
But the call of prospecting once again called Burnham and he soon was headed to the Yukon Gold Rush. He continued prospecting in Canada and Alaska until he got a telegram from the British asking him to help in the Boer War. As a Skagway paper noted the day after he left for South Africa, "Although Mr. Burnham has lived in Skagway since last August, and has been North for many months, he has said little of his past, and few have known that he is the man famous over the world as 'the American scout' of the Matabele wars."
Again, it would be impossible to recount all that Burnham did during the Boer War; including being captured by Boers and blowing up bridges behind enemy lines. Lord Roberts wrote in a letter of commendation, "I doubt if any other man in the force could have successfully carried out the thrilling enterprises in which from time to time you have been engaged.” When he left the army, he went to England where he had dinner with Queen Victoria and was later awarded the DSO by King Edward. He refused the Victoria Cross (the British equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor) because it would have required forfeiting his American citizenship.
Some men might have decided to rest on their laurels, but, not Burnham. He returned to Africa and explored Western Africa for a gold mining syndicate. In the process he discovered a major carbonate of soda deposit in what is now Tanzania.
Burnham then returned to America, where he worked for mining interests in Mexico. In 1908, Burnham paired up with Charles Holder to discover a major Mayan archeological site that included the Esperanza Stone. He remained in Mexico until 1917, when the Mexican government nationalized mining holdings.
Although Burnham had made a living from prospecting, he had never struck it rich until he left Mexico and returned to California. In 1923, his exploration company discovered oil in California and in the following years, he made millions in royalties. He spent the rest of his life promoting the Boy Scouts and he died in 1947.
BURNHAM, INDIANA JONES, AND CONAN
Although Burnham’s life was successful by any standard, he achieved a bit of immortality thanks to a former British bureaucrat named Henry Rider Haggard, who was stationed in Africa. When Haggard returned to England, he became a lawyer, but soon discovered that he liked writing books more than legal briefs. As part of a bet that he could write a better action adventure than Robert Louis Stevenson, he wrote a story about a lost civilization in Africa. The book was King Solomon’s Mines and the hero was Allan Quartermain, who would become the main character in many Haggard stories over the next half century. The template for the Quartermain character was Burnham, who Haggard knew. As Haggard would later write, “Burnham in real life is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”
There were many similarities between the two. Burnham became well known in Africa for his ability to track, even at night, and the Africans dubbed him “He-who-sees-in-the-dark”. Allen Quartermain was named "Watcher-by-Night." Both were described a small and wiry. Several of the Allan Quartermain books were dedicated to Burham’s daughter Nada, who died in Africa. One book, Nada, the Lilly, was named after her.
But, Burnham’s influence wasn’t to end there. In the 1970s, a young movie director, George Lucas, decided to write the ultimate adventure film. The template for his hero, Indiana Jones, was the hero of the H. Rider Haggard books, Allan Quartermain. Lucas admired MGM's 1950 film of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, starring a suave Stewart Granger as Allan Quartermain.
The H. Rider Haggard literary influence wasn’t limited to Indiana Jones. Haggard’s stories influenced many writers in the early 20th century. The style, called “The Lost World” genre, was soon picked up by many writers, including Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) and Robert Howard (Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonia).
Although there’s no doubt that Haggard would have become an author even without the influence of Burnham, it’s obvious that this hardy mining character helped to define a style of hero that will endure as long as the gold of Arizona, Alaska and Africa does.