Burton was born in Anderson, Indiana, in Madison County. His father worked for a newspaper and met his mother when she wrote columns for the paper as a student. As a child, Burton moved to Massachusetts, where he hiked around a ridge called Bob's Hill. This ridge would be the setting of most of Burton's later books. After the death of his mother, Burton and his father eventually moved to Aurora, Illinois. Burton attended East Aurora High School, where he graduated in 1880.