Title: No. 37.—Major John M. Burke. ("Arizona John.")

Periodical: Black and White

Date: January 20, 1888

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No. 37.—MAJOR JOHN M. BURKE

("Arizona John.")

In another part of this issue we publish a portrait of Major Burke, the general manager of Buffalo Bill's "Wild West." John M. Burke was born in New York city, in what is commonly termed "The Forties." He was early in life left an orphan, his mother dying when he was fourteen months old, his father surviving her only about ten months. From New York the fledgling was taken to the home of some relatives in Maryland, where he remained until the close of the civil war between North and South. Residing as he did in the "theatre of the war," scenes of carnage and slaughter were the companions of his early years, and to this day he bears evidences of bullet wounds and knife scars, which were regarded in those days as trophies of the fight. When the peace was ratified, young Burke's imagination was stimulated to deeds of adventure in what was then an unknown country, "The Far West."

An opportunity arose when President Andrew Johnson appointed General Green Clay Smith, of Kentucky, to the Governorship of Montana, vice General Thomas Francis Maher. This extensive State was at that time little more than a name. The approach to it was marked by many dangers. Railway communication extended only as far as Hannibal, Missouri, and boats ascended the Missouri river with difficulty. Hostile Indians crowded the banks and menaced travellers. Nebraska city was also the depôt or halting-place for settlers or others prior to crossing the great plains. In order to convey General Smith to Montana an expedition was formed, and it was at this spot that Major Frank North, the famous scout, in conjunction with Buffalo Bill, had their base of operations.

The services of these two heroes are matters of American history. Young Burke, having got so far west, soon became acquainted with these pioneers, and, being of an ardent temperament, he was suddenly imbued with a desire to imitate their habits and deeds of daring. Major North had been appointed guide to General Clay Smith, but the outbreak of the great Sioux war impeded their progress, and the troops and they were obliged to join the main body to wage war against the Indians. Colonel Cody was chief of scouts to the army, and for some time Burke careered about the western horizon in quest of fortune. Subsequently he became attached to Buffalo Bill in the capacity of attendant and adviser, and the connection then formed has never been broken. In company with Colonel Cody, he has travelled over thousands of miles of territory; indeed he has penetrated wilds and inspected sections of country that many other eastern adventurers cannot boast of.

Having seen the red man in all his varying phases, and realised the vast resources of a trackless western country, we do not wonder that he should have been a factor in the enterprise of exhibiting to the white man the elements of a primeval land. By his association with the western scouts, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill, Texas Jack, Major North, and Donald McKay, [1] he had opportunities of meeting the chiefs of the great Indian nations. He visited the red man in his lair, so to speak, and subsequently negotiated with the chiefs of Pawnees, the Omahas, the Witchitas, Dacotas, Unkapaka, Ogalhla, [2] and Cheyenne Sioux. Sitting Bull, the notorious Sioux warrior, who occasioned the United States so much trouble, and who caused the massacre of General Custer, also received a visit from "The Major," and it was owing to the marvellous persuasive eloquence of Burke that he was induced to risk himself with the "Wild West" shortly after its formation.

Such distinguished chiefs—known by repute throughout the American continent—as Red Cloud and Man-afraid-of-his-Horses, are now reckoned amongst the Major's best friends. Owing to his accurate knowledge of Indian affairs, Major Burke has been consulted by United States officials, and he was personally known to Presidents Johnson, Grant, Garfield, Arthur, and Cleveland. The leading United States generals—Sherman, Sheridan, Schoffield, Miles, Crook, Merritt, Carr, Drum, and others—are also amongst his acquaintances, and there is scarcely an official in Washington whom John M. Burke cannot claim as friend. Outside what we would term "the show business" the Major waxes eloquent about all things Western. His present hope and ambition is that he will be able to settle on some pretty far west spot, and end his days in that peaceful contentment that characterises the life of the aboriginal.

The country is being rapidly "settled up," and the Wild West has, it is admitted, been of such educational value that people in the Eastern States have ceased to believe in the "Indian bogie." Whites and Indians are now on such good terms that they regard each other as neighbours, and this confidence has been inspired by the exhibition which Mr. Burke manages in conjunction with Messrs. Cody and Salsbury. From the opening of the entertainment the Major has occupied the position of general manager, and to his marvellous magnetism it undoubtedly owes a great portion of its success.

Notwithstanding the flight of time, Major Burke's devotion to the "Chief"—Buffalo Bill—seems as strong as ever. He is a hero worshipper, who believes fixedly in all things he states, and his conversation on American topics—whether it be political, social, geographical, agricultural, mineral, or climatic—is sound, entertaining, and exhaustive; indeed it would be difficult to find a man so admirably fitted to his position, having so complete a grasp of details and generalities, and being withal so genial and so thorough. Honest, sincere, and generous, he is a friend to all the world.

When he was leaving London to come to Manchester, Lieut. Dan Godfrey, the musician, sent him his photograph, on which was inscribed the words, "Sorry you leave us, Johnny dear." To the kind and good-hearted Major all who know him are unable to do less than echo Godfrey's parting words to an American and English favourite.

Note 1: Donald McKay (1836-1899), son of Oregon fur-trader Thomas McKay and an American Cayuse Indian woman, was a frontiersman, a veteran U.S. Army scout in the Modoc Indian Wars, an actor in the Texas Jack Combination, and a translator at the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon until his death in 1899. [back]

Note 2: The Omahas are American Indians who settled in northeastern Nebraska; the Witchitas are American Indians indigenous to Kansas and later Oklahoma and Texas; Dacotas refer to Dakotans, members of the Sioux Nation of North American Indians, who originally occupied Minnesota and Wisconsin and later the Great Plains; Unkapaka is actually Hunkpapa, and Ogalhla should be Oglala, two groups of American Indians each comprising one of the seven bands of the Tetonwan (or Teton branch) of the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux Nation. [back]

Title: No. 37.—Major John M. Burke. ("Arizona John.")

Periodical: Black and White

Source: McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West , MS6.3679.16.01 (Stroebel scrapbook)

Date: January 20, 1888

Topic: European Tours

Keywords: American Indians Cheyenne Indians Dakota Indians Great Plains Hunkpapa Indians Lakota Indians Little Bighorn, Battle of the, Mont., 1876 Oglala Indians Omaha Indians Scouting (Reconnaissance) Scouts (Reconnaissance) Sioux Nation United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865

People: Arthur, Chester Alan, 1829-1886 Burke, John M., -1917 Carr, E. A. (Eugene Asa), 1830-1910 Cleveland, Grover, 1837-1908 Crook, George, 1829-1890 Custer, George A. (George Armstrong), 1839-1876 Drum, Hugh Aloysius, 1879-1951 Garfield, James A. (James Abram), 1831-1881 Godfrey, Dan, Sir, 1868-1939 Grant, Ulysses S. (Ulysses Simpson), 1822-1885 Johnson, Andrew, 1808-1875 Meagher, Thomas Francis, 1823-1867 Merritt, Wesley, 1834-1910 Miles, Nelson Appleton, 1839-1925 North, Frank J. (Frank Joshua), 1840-1885 Red Cloud, 1822-1909 Salsbury, Nathan, 1846-1902 Schofield, John McAllister, 1831-1906 Sheridan, Philip Henry, 1831-1888 Sherman, William T. (William Tecumseh), 1820-1891 Smith, Green Clay, 1826-1895

Places: Kansas Kentucky London (England) Manchester (England) Maryland Minnesota Missouri Missouri River Montana Nebraska City (Neb.) Oklahoma Texas Washington (D.C.) Wisconsin

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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