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A few years ago while researching material for a book, I ran across the name of a man from my home state who had served in South Africa in the Boer War: John Fillmore Blake of Bolivar, Missouri.
Although a native-born American, West Point graduate, and U.S. Army veteran, he is remembered from the Boer War as a commander in the famed Irish Brigade of the Boer Army. Yet he was neither glory-seeker nor soldier of fortune -- or even a great hero for that matter. He was an adventurer, and his life reads almost like a script for a Hollywood movie, with one exception.
The fascinating story of Lieutenant John Fillmore Blake's life began to emerge from photographs, records, and other documentation at West Point (he was a graduate of the Class of 1880); Forts Lowell and Bowie in the Arizona Territory; the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; and his autobiography, West Pointer with the Boers, published in 1903, a year after returning from South Africa at the conclusion of the war. He died in 1907 at age fifty-one, but he had managed to fill his half century of life with an amazing array of adventures.
From the Apache Campaign of 1880-1886 come tales of service with his West Point classmates. While serving in the 6th U.S. Cavalry, M Troop, he fought against Apaches led by Loco, Benito, Chatto, Victoria, and the famed Geronimo. He left the U.S. Army in 1889, bored with life (regular army life couldn't match the exciting years of the Apache Campaign) and looking for more adventure.
In late 1893 he set out for South Africa, arriving on the docks of Cape Town in early 1894. He soon headed north toward the British colony of Rhodesia, exploring the Transvaal and southern Rhodesia and mining for gold on the Rand. There he joined a group of Irish miners, who later formed the Irish Brigade under the leadership of John McBride.
Because Blake's life was divided into two distinct parts -- his life and military career in the American West, and his South African adventures -- this book is divided into two sections as well. From an unremarkable beginning in a small, rural Missouri town, John Fillmore Blake's fascinating life offers a "true adventure" definitely worth recounting.