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Op-Ed: These two peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains honor racists. They must be renamed

Looking across Prairie Fork Canyon at the east side of Mt. Baden-Powell in 2019.
Looking across Prairie Fork Canyon at the east side of Mt. Baden-Powell in 2019.
(Robert B. Cates)

In 1952, Californians met atop a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains and christened it Mt. Burnham. They were posthumously honoring Frederick Russell Burnham, a Pasadena resident who had risen to fame as a soldier of fortune in southern Africa.

Strangely enough, this wasn’t the only mountain in the region with an African connection. In 1931, Burnham himself had organized a state ceremony to name a summit a mile away in honor of Robert Baden-Powell, a defender of the English crown in southern Africa and founder of the modern scouting movement.

These two peaks, Mts. Burnham and Baden-Powell, share more than curious allusions to distant lands and the hiking trail between them. Through their namesakes, they share a history of scouting, militarism, toxic masculinity, empire — and white supremacy.

In this time of national reckoning with the past, we need to be clear-eyed about the values manifested by these mountains and the men they honor.

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Burnham led an extraordinary life. Born in Minnesota in 1861, he worked for Western Union in California and learned to scout and mine in the Arizona Territory. He made enough money there to marry his childhood sweetheart and chase dreams of frontier adventures. “The charm of that first old tale of Africa read to me as a boy … never failed,” he wrote later in life. When Burnham learned of the push by British imperialists to “settle” Rhodesia in 1893, he and his young family set off for Bulawayo in what is now Zimbabwe.

Frederick Russell Burnham in Pasadena circa 1910.
(Burnham Family Collection)

He scouted for and defended the British South Africa Co. headed by the imperialist Cecil Rhodes (hence, “Rhodesia”). After Burnham fought in the South African War, Britain awarded him a medal for distinguished military service.

He first met Baden-Powell in Rhodesian fields. The pair shared a love for the strenuous life. As early as 1900, Burnham lobbied his friend to have the British War Office train more scouts. He urged preparedness.

Men should be trained “in time of peace,” Burnham wrote, so every brigade would be ready for “sudden war.” He wanted “to school them as first-class scouts and send them to every part of the Earth. For when one stops a moment & thinks, it is the good strong hand of the white man above that holds this empire.” Baden-Powell replied, “I need scarcely tell you that I heartily endorse every word you say.”

These ideas, when later applied to youth organizations, contributed to Baden-Powell creating the scouting movement. Burnham forever relished this claim to fame.

When Burnham returned from Africa, he saw opportunity in Mexico’s Yaqui Valley — to purchase and develop disputed Indigenous lands and then sell them for a windfall. He was following his Rhodesian playbook, which had reaped a mighty reward. Burnham was an imperial cowboy of the Theodore Roosevelt model. His far-reaching adventures made him a California celebrity with international reach.

With such influence, Burnham engraved local lands with frontier symbolism. He directed the dedication of Mt. Baden-Powell, where he gushed, “For years and years” Baden-Powell “was, like this mountain wall, holding back the endless dunes of savagery that seemed bound to bury the outposts of civilization on the frontiers of the world.”

Robert Baden-Powell, circa 1900
Robert Baden-Powell, circa 1900.
(Library of Congress)

By accepting the tributes to these two men, Californians implicitly embraced a darker side of these frontiersmen — and their unapologetic and virulent commitment to white supremacy.

Burnham wrote much on race, which he expounded on in letters from the 1890s and in two memoirs.

In 1895, he bragged in a letter to his mother of burning a brand into the neck of an Indigenous African. “He clenched his knees with his hands and … his face went through many contortions,” he wrote. If government officials were to “ever lose him they will know him when found.” Fact or fiction, what values infuse these words, written to family back home?

In 1913, he wrote to a friend to justify violence against non-Anglo races, which he equated to humanity’s rotting limbs. Better to use “the sword” to “cut off a crushed leg” than to save it, Burnham claimed. “Is a slow rotting limb less painful, even if the patient survives, than a quick strike of the surgeon’s knife?”

Baden-Powell, likewise, trafficked in vile forms of racist thinking. This, from 1896: “The stupid inertness of the puzzled negro is duller than that of an ox; a dog would grasp your meaning in one-half the time. Men and brothers! They may be brothers, but they are certainly not men.”

I could go on.

As their words reveal, Burnham and Baden-Powell understood societies through social Darwinism, the idea that certain peoples would become extinct with the advance of white populations. They were hardly alone. Movements of Euro-Americans into the West and beyond instituted these beliefs through settler colonialism, which profoundly shaped California and the broader region.

Burnham’s views remained consistent from his 30s into his 80s, from southern Africa to California. He put this philosophy into action as a rationale to justify violence against Indigenous peoples on two continents.

Allowing two mountains to carry the names of Burnham and Baden-Powell honors that philosophy and those actions.

Recent events only compound the problem. The Boy Scouts of America, which regards Baden-Powell as a founder, thrived on a culture of toxic masculinity that left it vulnerable to chauvinism and abuse. Now the 110-year-old organization is in danger of collapsing as it fights thousands of sex-abuse claims.

This issue is about much more than two men in slouch hats and khakis. It’s about the legacy of empire, the common system that shaped southern Africa, Mexico and the American West.

In southern Africa, memorials to such colonial jingoes have been contested for decades, with activism coalescing around the recent rallying cry of “Rhodes Must Fall.” In Mexico’s Yaqui Valley, there is no memorial to Burnham, no wish to commemorate his brand of imperialism.

What about us? We can see the past more clearly now, and we cannot ignore these symbols of imperial violence. Doing so perpetuates a noxious tradition.

The time has come for change. Mts. Burnham and Baden-Powell must fall.

Andrew Offenburger is an assistant professor of history at Miami University and author of “Frontiers in the Gilded Age: Adventure, Capitalism, and Dispossession from Southern Africa to the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands, 1880-1917.”


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