John Palmer Bourke was born in Lightford, County Mayo, Ireland, in 1791. He engaged as a clerk with the HBC and sailed from Sligo, Ireland, on the Robert Taylor in 1812, along with the first group of Selkirk settlers. He remained at York Factory during the winter and went to the settlement at Red River in 1813, where he acted as storekeeper for the colony.
The following three years were marked by increasing hostility from the NWC, including the first destruction of the settlement in 1815. The settlers fled the area, but returned under the leadership of Colin Robertson. On 17 March 1816, Bourke was with a party of men led by Robertson who took possession of Fort Gibraltar, the NWC post at Red River. By April, relations between Robertson and Semple were deteriorating and Robertson left the settlement.
On 19 June 1816, Bourke started out with Governor Semple’s party to confront the Métis at Seven Oaks, but was sent back for the cannon. When he and Hugh McLean were returning with the cart and cannon, they could see that Semple’s party was surrounded and being fired upon. Bourke sent McLean and the cart back, but continued himself. Getting closer, he realized the futility of continuing, but was wounded as he made his retreat. The settlers were forced to abandon the colony and fled north in eight boats. Two days into their flight, they came upon a crew of NWC men led by Archibald McLeod. The settlers were detained at Netley Creek, where Bourke was taken prisoner along with four others. He was taken to Montreal where he and four other men were tried in 1818 for the destruction of Fort Gibraltar. They were all acquitted.
He returned to the colony, still employed as a clerk by the HBC and served at posts in the Red River area. In 1824, George Simpson took him out of the HBC and transferred him to the service of Capt. Robert Pelly, the new governor at Red River, a position he held until 1826. In 1832-33, with the backing of Governor Simpson, he took part in an expedition to the US to procure sheep for the settlement.
Bourke and Nancy Campbell, daughter of trader John Archibald Campbell, were married by the Rev. John West at Red River on 11 June 1821. They had been married previously by contract. They had nine children. About 1838 he purchased the HBC experimental farm property in present-day St. James where he farmed until his death in 1851. He is believed to have been buried in St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery. Nancy died in 1887, at the age of 95, and was buried in St. James Anglican churchyard.