Richard was the son of Jonathan and Elizabeth Byrd Burleson and was the younger brother of Rufus C. Burleson. He was born in Decatur, Alabama and died in McLennan County, Texas on December, 1879.
He was reported to have qualified for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but his father withdrew his claim on the appointment in favor of James Longstreet, the son of a poor widow, who later became one of the foremost generals in the Civil War. Burleson graduated from Nashville University in Tennessee in 1842. That same year, he was ordained to preach as a Baptist minister. He served as pastor of the Athens Alabama Baptist Church for the following two years, after which he served as pastor of Tuscumben Baptist Church another four years. Richard married Sarah W. Leigh in 1847. From 1849 to 1855, he served as principal of the Baptist Female Institute of the Muscle Shoals Association after which he moved to Austin, Texas and served as pastor of a church there. His wife, Sarah Leigh died in 1854 and he married Mary Frances Halbert in 1857.
His degree was in the field of science, and at the request of his brother Rufus, he became professor of Natural Science at Baylor University at Independence, Texas in 1857. He later moved to Waco, Texas upon accepting the position of Vice President of Waco University, again joining his brother Rufus Burleson there.
In 1874, he was selected by Governor Richard Coke to serve as a member of the first Geological Survey of the State of Texas. The assignment of the group was to assess the mineral wealth of the state. During his tenure, he identified oil fields near Tyler and salt deposits near Grand Saline. Following this assignment, he returned to the faculty of Waco University, serving as a professor in the science department until his death on December 21, 1879.
Byrd was regarded as a fine scholar in theology, botany and astronomy and was an accomplished and well regarded educator. He was described as being frank, candid, gentle, sympathetic and tender, all qualities that served him well as a pastor and professor. Burleson was deeply religious. At a bedside service held shortly before his death, Richard requested that the 23rd Psalm be read and that those gathered sing “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.”
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