The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California. By R. Gregory Nokes (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2018). xii + 270 pp. Appendixes. Notes.
Bibliography. Index. $19.95, paper.
Peter Burnett’s life followed an improbable arc that ran through Missouri in its course of westward movement. Born in 1807 in Nashville, Tennessee, he left the state in his twenties after failing as a merchant. Resettling in western Missouri, he took up law, becoming Platte County’s first district attorney in 1839. But burdened by ongoing debt, he soon continued west, helping to organize the first large wagon train to Oregon Territory in 1843. In Oregon he served as a legislator and a territorial supreme court judge before joining the California gold rush in 1848.
A year later he won California’s first gubernatorial race, receiving a total of 6,783 votes in an election in which only one in six eligible voters cast a vote. As governor, his antipathy for African Americans, evident in his earlier activities as a public official in Oregon, took the form of advocacy for an unpopular exclusion law that California’s legislature refused to pass. Author Gregory Nokes concludes that Burnett’s lackluster term as governor, which ended with his abrupt resignation in January of 1851, resulted from “no single misstep,” however, but “a pattern of indecision and perceived incompetence” (p. 140). Nokes considers Burnett’s place in the history of Oregon and California as those states grappled with transplanted southerners trying in vain to align the FarWest with the South.