The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California
GREGORY NOKES (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2018. xi, 270 pp. Illustrations, maps, appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95)
Peter Burnett emerges from R. Gregory Nokes’s biography as a remarkable yet unlovely figure. One of many Americans to cross the continent to the Far West in the 1840s, he stood out for his rise to prominence that began east of the Missouri and culminated along the Pacific. But he was also particularly racist, even for his time, and his pride, inability to laugh, and unreliable friend-ship rendered him “a leader who could not lead” (p. 205).
Burnett was born in Nashville in 1807. His father was a farmer and carpenter who owned slaves by the time the family moved to Missouri in 1816. A decade later, Burnett moved back to Tennessee with wealthy relatives. Sensing that they looked down on him for his “comparative poverty;’ he responded by deciding to, he wrote, “employ my energies in the accumulation of a fortune” (p. 6). In the ensuing years, the ambitious Burnett was mostly a failure as a businessman in Tennessee and Missouri, but he did earn a law license and spent three years as a district attorney in northwest Missouri.
Dissatisfied by his slow debt repayment, he took his family to Oregon in 1843, seeking a greater income. He helped to found the wagon train he traveled with and was elected its leader, but within a week he alienated the other members and quit. Shortly after his arrival, Burnett was elected to Oregon’s Legislative Committee. Although it improved the functioning of Oregon’s government, it also, with Burnett’s support, passed a law that banned free blacks from Oregon — and mandated whipping for noncompliance (soon slightly softened to forced labor instead). He later served short stints as the supreme judge of Oregon’s provisional supreme court and in the territorial legislature.
Still seeking to pay his debts, Burnett went after gold in California in 1848. There, he met John Augustus’, Sutter, son of the large landowner John Sutter, on whose land gold had been found earlier in the year. That same year, the elder Sutter had passed his land to his son to save it from his creditors. Burnett’s job was to sell land belonging to John Augustus on the site that became Sacramento. Burnett was successful, and his venture with Sutter won him a significant amount of land in Sacramento, from which he profited heavily in the early 1850s.
As in Oregon, Burnett quickly gained political power in California. In 1849, he helped lead the effort for California to replace military rule with self-government and was elected its first civilian governor. He proved a poor choice. His animus toward blacks reared itself again in his calls that they be barred from the territory-an initiative nixed by the legislature. Typically overcautious, he also made the bold though inconsequential move of transferring Thanksgiving to Saturday. He resigned barely a year after being elected but survived politically to hold a seat on the state supreme court for two years. There, in 1858, he weighed in on the issue of slavery, writing the majority opinion in the case of a slave named Archy Lee, who had escaped after being brought to California. Burnett ruled that Lee must be returned to slavery, even though ruling this way required a less straightforward reading of the state constitution than did freeing him. After politics, Burnett enjoyed a successful career as a bank president. He died debt free in 1895. By profiling Burnett, Nokes illuminates subjects such as lawmaking and land distribution in early Oregon and California and these places’ connections to the weighty issues of race and slavery. The major flaw in this book is its tendency to take unnecessary sidetracks, such as accounts of the Donner Party or of Nokes’s search for the trail Burnett used to reach California. Burnett’s life was interesting enough not to share the spotlight with these detours.
Daniel J. Fischer University of Arkansas, Fayetteville