Burns was named for the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The City of Burns was officially formed January 22, 1884 and was part of Grant County. The County of Harney was created in 1889, splitting off the lower portion of Grant County. Harney County was named after William s. Harney, who was the commander of the Department of Oregon portion of the US Army from 1858-1860. The temporary county seat was located at Harney City until the general election when voters would be allowed to choose the site for their county seat.
During the election, Burns declared itself the winner, claiming the most votes, but both Burns and Harney challenged the vote claiming there was election fraud. The matter was sent to the Oregon Supreme Court. However, some Burns supporters did not want to wait for an official declaration, and armed riders stole the official records from Harney City.
The Supreme Court ruled that Burns did indeed win the election by a narrow margin of only six votes. The first session of the permanent county seat was held July 7, 1890.