Biographical Profile of Pvt. John Wesley Burks, 125th U.S. Colored Infantry

John Wesley Burks, Company Muster-in and Descriptive Roll
John Wesley Burks, Company Muster-in and Descriptive Roll

Pvt. John Wesley Burks
125th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry
Born 1837, Jefferson County, Kentucky
Died May 31, 1915,
Jefferson County, Kentucky

John Wesley Burks, was mustered into Co. B, 125th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry in Louisville, KY on February 28, 1865, as an 18 year old farmer from Louisville for a period of three years. He was promoted to corporal on February 12, 1866 and was present at every roll call until he was sent on escort duty to Fort Craig, New Mexico from October 26, 1866 to March of 1867. He was later also assigned scout duties on July 17, 1867. Fort Craig was home to Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and 38th and 125th Infantry. After the Civil War ended, troops stationed at the Fort were used in conflicts with Indians deemed at the time to be hostile.

His military record included an enclosure for a single court martial charge. “Conduct injudicial to good order and Military discipline,” specifically that he “became so drunk as to be unable to attend roll call” on September 1, 1867, while at Fort Craig, New Mexico. This was noted as a violation of the 44th Article of War. He was mustered out of the army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on December 20, 1867 at the rank of private, though there was nothing in his record about his demotion. He was due to collect $39.47 cents for a clothing allotment and a $200 bounty.

He returned to Kentucky after the war and was living in Louisville when he applied for his pension on September 4, 1891. He married Charity Purnell in Louisville in 1873. Together they produced seven children, Emma, John, Halla, Louise, Jane, and twins Lizzie and Ella. John W. Burks died on May 31, 1915 in Louisville, KY. He is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. 

Author’s Note

I was so moved by the richness of the research materials and admittedly more than a little stunned at how even the official documents and forms themselves contributed to the dehumanization of enslaved persons, that I crafted a half dozen poems connected to the life of U.S.C.T., John Wesley Burks. The first is a persona poem in response to the official US Federal Census Slave schedule that allowed a space for the name of the owner, but none for the names of the actual enslaved persons. The second poem is taken from the actual language in Matilda Burks’ will and centers on how casually she redistributes the children of her “negro woman Grace” followed by a third poem which is written in the voice of Grace and offers her imagined response. The fourth poem is inspired by John W. Burks’ actual Death Certificate and how little information was available about him at his actual death. The fifth effort is an erasure poem, arrived at through redaction, which is deconstructed from an 1832 advertisement for the Executor’s Sale of John Burks’ property. The result imagines an alternative and more progressive outcome of the sale. The final poem is in the voice of the soldier himself, who had been promoted to corporal a year after enlisting. He served as an escort and scout at Ft. Craig, New Mexico, and in this final persona poem comments on the origin of the term “Buffalo Soldier.” I offer these poems in honor of the researchers, and soldiers who they are helping to breathe life back into by uncovering their important stories.

Frank X Walker 

1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedule featuring John Wesley Burks' enslaver, Matilda Burks.
Matilda Burks, 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedule

Slave Inhabitants in District 1, Jefferson, KY, USA

(1850 US Federal Census-Slave Schedules)


To the man keeping the ledger

our age, our sex, and our color

was more important 

than our names. 


He counted 48 of us  

from 6 moons to 60 winters, 

including 4 fugitives 

from the state a Virginny


The good news:

None a us be deaf & dumb, 

blind, insane or idiotic.


The bad news: 

All a us be property

a Matilda Burks.

Image of Matilda Burks’ Will, December 7, 1857
Matilda Burks’ Will, December 7, 1857

After My Decease, a Last Will and Testament 


I give and bequeath all my silver ware and plate 

of every description, also all my beds, bedsteads, 

bed clothes, and household and kitchen furniture 

to be split equally 

amongst my 3 sons and daughter.


I give and bequeath to my daughter Nancy 

my fortepiano 

and also my negro woman Grace 

and her youngest daughter Harriet. 


I also give to my son John 

all my pictures

and also my negro boy Alfred,

son of the above mentioned Grace. 


I give to my son James

my negro girl Sally

daughter of the above mentioned Grace.


And to Charles, I give my negro boy Wesley. 


Should the said Grace or any of her increase 

or any other slave of mine 

which shall become the property 

of any of my children 

prove troublesome and unmanageable 

from their improper conduct 

then it is my wish that such slave or slaves 

so offending shall be sold 

and the proceeds of such sale or sales 

be appropriated to the purchase 

of other servant or servants 

to supply the place or places of those sold.


In witness where of I have hereunto set my hand 

and affixed my seal this seventh day of December 

in the year of our Lord 1857. 

Signed, sealed and acknowledged 


-Matilda Burks

Mother to Mother


I believes you believe 

all this ink and chicken scratch 

show off your love for your children 

and how generous you can be.

And that may be so.


But it easy to be generous

when you gone.


What use a dead body got

with silver and slaves?


While I thank you for the gift

of the giving over a my Harriet

with me, I feel no such kindness for

the ploughing up of the rest a my children.


And the added threat a being sold away

for daring to say anything 

but yes mam’n and yassa boss

have me dreaming a setting 

the back a my hand

and fixing my own seal.


You can shackle my seeds

but you can’t shackle my dreams.


-Above Mentioned Grace


John W. Burks, Death Certificate
John W. Burks, Death Certificate


Certificate of Death, of J.W. Burks, May 31, 1915



don’t no


don’t no


don’t no


don’t no


don’t no


They say

Nephritis, acute uremia 

but I don’t no 

Newspaper notice of executors’ sale for the estate of John Burks
Newspaper notice of executors’ sale for estate of John Burks
"Erasure", by Frank X Walker inspired by John Wesley Burks archival documents
Erasure, by Frank X Walker
John Wesley Burks’ Military Record
John Wesley Burks’ Military Record

Buffalo Soldiers

  “Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival…”

-Bob Marley


This Kentucky boy and ex-slave

was on escort duty 

in New Mexico

when Congress officially graced 

Black troops 

out west with the name. 


But Black soldiers of the 9th Calvary 

and the 38th and 125th Infantries 

had already earned the nickname 

from the warriors we fought against. 


Some say it was simply our wooly hair 

reminding them of their sacred beasts 

but them that know the truth 

believe they saw something similar 

in the spirit, character, nobility, 

toughness, and power of both.


Frank X Walker

The first African American writer to be named Kentucky Poet Laureate, Frank X Walker is Professor of English and African American and Africana Studies and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington where he founded pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. He has published eleven collections of poetry, including his latest, Masked Man, Black: Pandemic & Protest Poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, which was awarded an NAACP Image Award for Poetry and the Black Caucus American Library Association Honor Award for Poetry. He is also the author of Last Will, Last Testament, winner of the Judy Gaines Young Book Award, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, winner of a Lillian Smith Book Award, and Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, which he adapted for stage. Voted one of the most creative professors in the south, Walker, a Danville native, coined the term “Affrilachia” and co-founded the Affrilachian Poets. A Cave Canem fellow, his honors also include a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry.

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