John Gregory Bourke, army officer, author, ethnologist, and folklorist, was born to Irish Catholic parents Edward Joseph and Anna (Morton) Bourke in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 1846. He lied about his age in order to enlist in the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry in 1862 and saw action at the battle of Murfreesboro, where he earned the Medal of Honor. He fought at the battle of Chickamauga, endured the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, and witnessed the destruction of Atlanta. In the summer of 1865 he was mustered out of volunteer service and entered West Point. He graduated eleventh in a class of thirty-nine in 1869 and received his commission in the Third Cavalry. He married Mary F. Horbach of Omaha, Nebraska, on July 25, 1883; the couple had three daughters.
Bourke was a well-known Indian fighter, writer, crusader for Indian rights, and anthropologist before he reported to Fort Ringgold, Rio Grande City, Texas, in 1891. He had already fought Indians in the Southwest and on the Great Plains and had served on the staff of Gen. George Crook from 1871 until 1886. He wrote several articles and six books on military history and ethnology, including his best-known work, On The Border with Crook (1891), before his arrival in South Texas.
Bourke's two-year tour of duty along the lower Rio Grande established his significance in Texas history. He became pivotal in the suppression of Catarino Garza's effort against the government of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico. The Mexican government demanded that the United States act because Garza had based his force in Texas. In turn, the federal government instructed the state of Texas, federal marshals, and the United States Army to stop the Garzistas. Initially Bourke noted that many South Texans–Mexican Americans and Anglos–openly supported Garza and that Fort McIntosh in Laredo and Fort Ringgold together mustered only two troops of cavalry and two companies of infantry with which to patrol an area of 500 square miles. Nonetheless, Bourke followed orders, and his raids on ranches suspected of harboring Garzistas earned him the undying enmity of many South Texans. During his attack on a Garzista camp at Retamal on December 22, 1891, brisk fighting occurred and a soldier was killed. County, state, and federal officials and army officers began to side openly with various political factions in South Texas, and their bitter bickering and feuds broke into the Texas and national press. Before leaving Texas in 1893, Bourke became deeply involved in the rancorous imbroglio surrounding Garza. Bourke's diaries remain a valuable source on the Garza movement.
Bourke was also a pioneer scholar of the Hispanic folk culture of South Texas and northeastern Mexico. His fluency in Spanish, his experience among the Hispanics of New Mexico and Arizona, and his background as an ethnologist prepared him to research Mexican lore, folk customs, and the utilization of plants and animals in the local materia medica. He also studied Mexican plays of the Nativity along the lower Rio Grande. His work in Texas resulted in a series of monographs, including articles in the American Anthropologist and the Journal of American Folk-Lore. His contributions to the study of Texas further enhanced his reputation as a scholar, and he was elected president of the American Folk-Lore Society in 1895. Bourke suffered an aneurysm and died in Philadelphia on June 8, 1896; he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.