The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California
Reviewed by LeRoy Johnson
This book begins with a bang. One night in 1830, a burglar broke into young Peter Burnett’s store and stole some whiskey. Two nights later Burnett allegedly set a booby trap with a rifle, and when he opened the store in the morning he found “a negro man lying on his back dead. . . . [and the] bullet had entered his forehead and produced instant death.” The burglar was a slave who worked at a local mill. An inquest ruled the killing justifiable homicide.
Burnett was born November 15, 1807, and reared in the South; his family owned four slaves. Throughout his youth he wanted to become wealthy, and to reach this goal he became an entrepreneur and tried several different ventures—but found himself spiraling into debt. He then purchased a “small library of law books” and diligently studied them while managing a store on a salary of $400 per year, and he soon received his law license. But practicing law did not bring wealth, in large part because of poor decisions in other ventures he was dabbling in.
In 1843, Burnett helped organize a large, cumbersome train of 121 wagons that left Independence, Missouri, on May 21 for Oregon Country, a new frontier where he might find wealth and get out of debt. He was elected their captain, however, a week later he resigned. This was a harbinger of how he handled many positions of authority. Nokes comments that Burnett “savored command, but he seemed unable to effectively exercise it.” He made excellent first impressions, and his imperfections were slow to catch up with him.
A year after leaving the States he was elected to Oregon’s first legislature. His committee altered the antislavery law by inserting a section that stated that slaves freed in Oregon must leave within three years. The law provided that if any “free negro or mulatto” failed to leave Oregon, he or she would receive between twenty and thirty-nine lashes. At the end of his term he did not seek reelection. But the Legislature elected him “to a four-year term as the supreme judge for Oregon’s Provisional Supreme Court.” A year after this appointment, he resigned to go into private law practice.
The news that James Marshall discovered gold at Coloma, California, on January 24, 1848, soon reached Oregon, and Burnett organized and successfully led a wagon train to the gold fields. He began the back-breaking task of washing gold but soon realized there was a “gold-fueled gravy train” he might be able to board. He left his claim and upon arriving at Sutter’s Fort, near the end of 1848, he found an old friend, a doctor, who had already boarded the gravy train and was making $600 per week treating the ailments of gold-toting miners.
Burnett decided to stay at the fort and practice law, but before doing so, Sutter’s son asked him to help manage “his father’s substantial debts before his creditors seized Sutter’s land holdings and other assets,” which included the fort. Burnett did so and soon became involved in land speculation that finally brought him wealth. This helped him secure a seat in the California constitutional convention, a stepping stone to his election as the first civilian governor of California on November 13, 1849. California entered the Union as the thirty-first state on September 9, 1850, but Burnett resigned his governorship four months later on January 9, 1851.
He again began practicing law and in 1857 the governor appointed him to the California Supreme Court. In 1858 he stepped down and went into banking in San Francisco. He died May 17, 1895.
Sadly missing from this well-researched treatise is a chapter on his wife and family. There are a few technical flaws: His map on page 20 shows Hastings Cutoff leaving the Oregon Trail at South Pass; it leaves several miles west of the pass. And his map on page 86 has Sutter’s Mill upriver instead of downriver from Coloma. I dislike books with endnotes rather than footnotes. Fanning through endnotes breaks my train of thought. Articles in the bibliography do not have page numbers, which makes it difficult to request the article through a library, and a couple of the citations in the notes were not in the bibliography.
I recommend Gold Rush historians add this book to their library. If your local library has a Western Americana section, buy and donate them a copy.
LeRoy Johnson is a retired forest geneticist. He and his wife, Jean, are noted authorities on the Old Spanish Trail. Last year, LeRoy and Tom Sutak won the OCTA Merrill Mattes Award for their extensive field and literature research on a section of the Old Spanish Trail. Their work appeared in the journal (Winter 2016–17) as “Unscrambling the Old Spanish Trail and the Southern Route: Salt Spring to Resting Spring, California.” They have again teamed-up and are working on another knotty problem: “Where is Virgin Hill”? Both these papers are timely because the National Park Service is trying to finalize the location of the Old Spanish Trail.