John R. Burke, town founder and Texas legislator, was born either in Liverpool, England, during 1792 or in Virginia during 1797, according to varying accounts. Those who claim that Burke emigrated as a child with his parents from the British Isles claim that he spent his childhood in New York City. By all accounts Burke was well-educated and spoke several languages. Before he came to Texas in the early 1840s he was probably a resident of Tennessee or Georgia. John R. Burke was an acquaintance of both Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. Burke was often addressed as "Colonel" and perhaps made the acquaintance of one or both famous men while in military service. He was a conspicuously wealthy man when he moved to Newton County, Texas, and settled the town of Burkeville on Little Cow Creek.
The town of Burkeville in Newton County was laid out by John Burke in 1844, and Burke was much involved in the early history of the town. He was a school trustee, a postmaster, and served in the state legislature from Newton County from 1853 through 1855. In 1848 a bill passed in the state legislature naming Burkeville the county seat despite the fact that the seat had already been located in the town of Newton. Pursuant to an order from the legislature John R. Burke donated the land on which the first courthouse in Newton County was built. During 1853 however there was a dispute over the deed to the land on which the courthouse stood, and following a popular election on February 7, 1853, the county seat was moved from Burkeville back to Newton.
Burke, a Roman Catholic, with Mary W. Burke, donated the land on which Burkeville's Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was built in 1850. It is unclear what Mary's relationship was to John. Burke was a stockholder in the Sabine and Rio Grande Railroad Company, chartered by the state legislature in 1854. John R. Burke died in 1855 and was the first person buried in the cemetery of the Methodist Church, which overlooks the town of Burkeville.