Few men in this generation so well merit the reverence due Texas pioneers of the Republic age as the venerable subject of this review and few men now living have had as intimate a connection with the civilizing agencies of its frontier, as a Commonwealth, as he. From the age of sixteen until past forty he mingled with both the radical and the conservative elements of society in the atmosphere of the Rio Grande, retiring to the peaceful and quiet zone of the state when the meridian of life was reached.
>While Mr. Burnam’s advent to Texas dates from 1844, his connection with the northern part of the state dates from 1876, when he settled at Blue Grove, in Clay county, where he occupied himself with stock-raising and farming. Retiring from this in 1882, he came to the townsite of Bowie, where he has since been a factor in its everyday affairs. Mason, Jones and Strong and Burnam were the first merchants to establish themselves in the new town, and Mr. Burnam’s building, occupying the Allen corner, was the third store building erected here. The latter put in a stock of dry goods and groceries and conducted the business for two years, and when he retired he purchased the tract now owned by Dr. Younger and planted it to orchard and devoted himself to fruit-growing for some twelve years. Upon disposing of this he moved to his farm near Newport, but in a few months he sold it, came back to Bowie, purchased his present modest home and retired from active life.
Joseph Burnam was born in Natchitoches parish, Louisiana, March 13, 1830. His father, William Burnam, was a Kentuckian who went into Louisiana as a young man and there married a French lady, a Miss Boulyou, who passed away in 1841. Her children were: William who died in Texarkana, Arkansas, leaving a family; Joseph, our subject, and Delze, who died in Burnett county, Texas, as Mrs. George Holman. Upon the death of the mother the father brought his children into Arkansas where, in 1842, he also passed away, and later Joseph and his sister came to Texas.
In 1822 Captain Jesse Burnam, an uncle of our subject, came to Texas and settled in Lafayette county, on the Colorado river twelve miles below LaGrange. He and his sons helped in the struggle for Texas independence, in which one son was slain in battle. To this uncle, Joseph and Delze Burnam went and with him the sister went into Burnett county, where she married, reared a family and died. Joseph remained with the uncle until friction arose between himself and his cousins to an extent that he could not tolerate it, and, at fifteen years of age, he cast the die and launched his independent career. He went to Crocket, got the job of “riding the mail” between there and Washington on the Brazos and thus earned the first money of his life. He carried the mail until the Mexican war broke out when, in 1846, he joined the Second Texas Mounted Riflemen, Captain John L. Hall. At the company election he was made a corporal and their muster- in occurred at Isabella Point. The command crossed the river at Brownsville and Matamoras was soon captured.
In this war the Mexicans were on both sides of the Rio Grande river. They failed to respect the terms of their treaty with Sam Houston at San Jacinto, wherein the river was to be the boundary line between the two republics, and occupied Texas Territory in the hope that the old treaty would be abrogated and the American government forced to the terms of a bound far east of the river. But the Americans then, as now, never took a backward step and ordered Gen. Scott to hold the line. Following Matamoras came Monterey and then Saltillo and Buena Vista, in each of which Mr. Burnam participated, and in each of which the Mexicans were glad to yield, for General Taylor, although greatly outnumbered, showed them such a band of fighters as they had never seen.
Mr. Burnam enlisted for six months, but, as the war was not concluded when his term expired, he re-enlisted for twelve months. Before the expiration of this term the war ended, so far as Taylor’s operations were concerned, and he completed his service in camp at Laredo. On his release from the army Mr. Burnam went to Corpus Christi, where he arranged with some New Englanders bound for California to pilot them thither. Having learned some Spanish he chose the Mexican side of the river for his journey. They reached Chihuahua without incident, but their Mr. Burnam took sick and was obliged to abandon his charge and his trip. Upon recovery, he entered a store as a clerk there for a time and when the great Mexican fair at San Juan Lagos opened he attended it. In 1850 he came back to Texas and established himself at Columbus, and in 1852 went into the stock business at the mouth of the Colorado river. This business occupied him until 1855, when he returned to Mexico and took a position with an American merchant at Camargo. He was so popular with the natives and his service was so pleasing and profitable to his employer that he latter proposed to charge back his year’s salary and make him a third partner in the business from the start. In this capacity he remained for seventeen years, passing through the Priests’ Party Revolution and the Maximillian fiasco and other peace-disturbing imbroglios with which Mexico was afflicted so often, without becoming seriously involved himself. While in the Mexican republic, to all practical purposes he was a citizen thereof. His build, his complexion and his speech were a duplicate of the typical high-class natives and his pure Castillian tongue could not have done its work better had he been born under the influence of the Capitol itself. While the Mexican seems to place little virtue in veracity for himself, he admires it in others, and Mr. Burnam’s great popularity with the race grew out of his truth-telling practice with them and his candor and sincerity at all times.
In 1872, having prospered sufficiently to place him in independent circumstances, he announced to his partner his desire to retire and return to Texas. Notwithstanding the most attractive inducements were offered him to remain, he was determined to retire and he did so. In April, 1873, he was married, in Coryell county, and returned to Camargo on his wedding tour, closing up some unfinished business while there. Locating in Denison, he entered mercantile pursuits and closed his career there in 1876 when he entered the stock business in Clay county.
Mr. Burnam chose for his life companion Miss Vetura Kansas Harris, a native of Tennessee. She has a brother in Montague county, one at Hobart, Oklahoma, and one in Fannin county, Texas. Mr. and Mrs. Burnam have not been blessed with children but they reared an orphan girl, Leora, daughter of Dr. James, of Henrietta, Texas.
As has been shown, the life of Joseph Burnam has been a busy one and only upon the approach of the weakening effects of time did he abandon the fight. At the age of twenty years he lent his ear to the influence of the gospel and for fifty-five years he has been a member of the Methodist church.
Source: B. B. Paddock, History and Biographical Record of North and West Texas (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1906), Vol. II, pp. 22-23.