Jesse Burnam, pioneer, was born into poverty in Madison County, Kentucky, on September 15, 1792. He was the youngest of seven children; his father died soon after his birth. The family moved to Shelbyville, Tennessee, in 1808, and there Burnam met Marie Temperance Null Baker, whom he married in September 6, 1812. During service with the Tennessee Militia in the War of 1812 Burnam contracted an unspecified illness that eventually drove him to seek a warmer climate. He arrived in Texas in 1821 and led his own and nine other families to a settlement at Pecan Point on the Red River. He remained there for a number of months before traveling farther into the Texas wilderness. He stopped for a time at the site of present-day Independence and finally, in 1823, settled down on the Colorado River in Fayette County.
Burnam, who was a member of the Old Three Hundred (his name was thirteenth on Stephen F. Austin's land-grant list), was ceded an area of land now in Fayette and Colorado counties. In 1824 he established a combination trading post and ferry that soon came to be known as Burnam's Crossing or Burnam's Ferry. The crossing, which Sam Houston eventually destroyed during the Texas Revolution in order to prevent its use by the Mexican army, remained for some years the most northerly settlement on the Colorado, where it was exposed to constant attack by the Karankawa Indians. In the early days attacks were so common that Burnam was forced to be ever on guard; but in the end, the White settlers of the area, led by Burnam and others, broke the Indians' resistance. Burnam served for five years as a militia captain and was instrumental in expelling the Karankawas from Fayette and Colorado counties. He participated in numerous raids upon the Indians, especially in 1823 and 1824, and in 1840 he served in John H. Moore's expedition against the Comanches.
Burnam represented what became Colorado County at the Convention of 1832 and the Consultation of 1835. He was a member of the General Council of the provisional government of the Republic of Texas and later became a Colorado County representative in the First Congress.
In May 1833 Mrs. Burnam died, leaving Burnam with nine children. Later that year he married Nancy Cummins Ross, who bore him seven additional children. Burnam and his family moved to Burnet County in 1855, where they established one of the first sheep-raising operations in the area and a large wheat farm. Burnam owned thirteen slaves in 1860. In January 1864 he split his fortune among his surviving children and retired from public life. He died in his home on Double Horn Creek on April 30, 1883, at the age of ninety-one, and was buried in the Burnam-Smithart Cemetery.