There aren’t many places where Oregon pioneer Peter Burnett is esteemed for his role in western history. But Oregon City, California, is one of them. No, that’s not a misprint. There is such a place and it’s connected in history to Oregon’s Oregon City.
The other Oregon City is eight miles north of Oroville in California’s Butte County, in what was once highly productive gold mining country. A historic marker credits Burnett for leading a wagon train of 150 Oregon miners who “arrived here in autumn of 1848 to establish the town of Oregon City.”
Lucy Sperlin of the Butte County Historical Society said because of this author’s interest in Burnett, who led the first major wagon train to Oregon in 1843 and was elected first governor of California in 1849, a visit to their Oregon City was a must. She led the way.
The town is on a high, flat butte known as Table Mountain and is reached from Oroville via a twisting 20-minute scenic drive on Cherokee Road overlooking Lake Oroville, the reservoir behind Oroville Dam.
A covered two-lane bridge leads into town. The nearby dam and reservoir have flooded many of the once-productive mining areas along the Feather River.
Only a handful of people live in Oregon City now, but it was once a boom-town of a thousand or so inhabitants, boasting stores, saloons and a dance hall. Miners worked the nearby Feather River and the creeks and streams that crisscross the area, finding abundant gold. Quartz mining followed. But when the gold ran out, the town headed toward ghost town-oblivion, although it never quite got there.
While most of the original structures in Oregon City are gone, streets remain with names such as Oregon Gulch Road and Oregon City Trail, which wind among a gentle forest of oak trees. Ground ruptured from mining activity is evident nearly everywhere. There is also a cemetery with dozens of graves, many dating to the mid-1800s.
One building that does remain is the oneroom Oregon City School, built in 1877 to replace an earlier structure — the first school had a canvas roof. The school held classes until 1922, when it closed for lack of students. It is maintained in reasonably good shape by the Butte County Historical Society.
Several California schools named for Burnett have recently changed their names because after becoming aware of his racist policies as governor. But there has been no such reaction in Oregon City. A large, black-and-white portrait of Burnett is on one wall of the school under a chart displaying the alphabet in cursive script.
Burnett tells in his autobiography how he organized the wagon train to California when he became convinced that reports of gold strikes at Sutter’s Mill and elsewhere were accurate. “I at once went into the streets of Oregon City (Oregon). . .. in eight days we had organized a company of one hundred and fifty stout, robust, energetic, sober men, and fifty wagons and ox-teams and were off for the gold mines of California.’’ He had only recently been elected to Oregon’s first Territorial Legislature, but resigned.
In the process, Burnett opened the first wagon road between Oregon and California, connecting the Applegate Trail in Oregon to the partially completed Lassen Cutoff in California. People in Oregon had been among the first outside California to learn of the 1848 gold discoveries, and it is said that fully two-thirds of Oregon’s white male population headed south seeking their fortunes.
Burnett did not himself stop to mine at Oregon City. He continued on to the Yuba River where he mined for a time at Long’s Bar. But 50 or so of the men traveling with him, hearing of gold strikes in the area, stayed behind and settled into the new town they named for the town they left in Oregon. While many soon returned to Oregon with ample gold in their pockets, other miners flocked to the region, and the town grew.
As for Burnett, he soon tired of mining and left his Yuba River claim. He went farther south to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River. There he helped establish the city of Sacramento and, just a year after arriving in California, won election as governor.
Burnett has been widely reviled elsewhere for his racist policies — he wanted the West to be exclusively populated by whites, excluding blacks and Chinese, while predicting Native Americans would all perish in wars with whites. Along with such tone-deaf missteps as changing the traditional day of Thanksgiving from a Thursday to a Saturday, his racism has overshadowed the significant contributions he made to the development of the early American governments in both Oregon and California.
But if Burnett’s egregious policies touched residents in California’s Oregon City, they have long since been forgotten, or overlooked. What is remembered is the wagon train captain and future governor who brought the men who built the town.
Oregon City’s heritage is observed each Memorial Day weekend when residents gather from Oroville and other nearby towns for a community steak and chicken barbecue near the school.
R. Gregory Nokes, former reporter and editor for The Oregonian, is the author of “The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California,’’ published in 2018 by Oregon State University Press.