How many of us can name the first governor of California?
Well, now you can. He was Peter Burnett, Oregon pioneer, Oregon’s first supreme court judge, trailblazer to California, and first governor of the Golden State. He was handsome, ambitious, and the kind of man other men gravitated to as a leader. He was also often his own worst enemy.
The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett, by R. Gregory Nokes (Oregon State University Press, 2018), is the first ever biography of this fascinating man. I heard Mr. Nokes speak to the Butte County Historical Society a couple of weeks ago, and couldn’t wait to read his book. There are heroes and villains in history, and then there are forgotten men like Peter Burnett: intelligent, attractive, complicated men, full of contradictions, who failed as often as they succeeded.
Peter Burnett came from a poor family in Tennessee, but he had rich relatives. It gave him a life-long thirst for wealth, the kind of wealth that allowed a man to own slaves to do his work for him. As a merchant in Missouri, he went deeply into debt. He studied law, helped defend the Prophet Joseph Smith in court, and served as a district attorney. But debt continued to plague him and he decided to “light out for the territory.”
He organized the first large wagon train to set out for Oregon in 1843. Possibly he took two slaves with him, the record is unclear. He was elected captain of the wagon train, but he found the duties vexatious and one week later he resigned, a portent of his future political life. In Oregon he quickly rose to prominence and served on the first legislative committee. Notoriously, he promoted legislation that would bar African-Americans, slave or free, from residing in Oregon. Known as the “lash law,” the act provided that a severe whipping would be given any black person who did not leave Oregon within a prescribed period. Burnett would take his prejudice with him to California.
Oregonians were among the first to hear of the gold discovery and Burnett quickly organized a wagon train for California. Some of the men with him settled in Butte County, where they founded Oregon City on Table Mountain, but Burnett went on to Long Bar on the Yuba River. Soon he realized that the greatest wealth could be gained in real estate and he partnered with John A. Sutter, Jr. to sell lots in Sacramento. It made him a wealthy man.
Elected to a two-year term as governor in 1849, Burnett could not even make it that long. He resigned in January 1851, after serving not much more than a year. Once again his focus had been on making California a “whites-only” state, but the legislature did not back him up. He went on to serve on the California supreme court, where he maintained his racist reputation by ruling against Archy Lee, a slave claiming freedom in a free state. Luckily for Archy, a lower court circumvented Burnett’s ruling, which was widely criticized in the newspapers.
Although he later wrote a lengthy book of his recollections and had a fairly successful second career in banking, Peter Burnett was soon forgotten in the political world, and is barely mentioned in California history. Greg Nokes has brought him back to life, complete with all his controversies and contradictions. His book is a window into early California politics and business. In spite of his flaws and his failures, Peter Burnett deserves to be remembered for his successes in pioneering and his place in Oregon and California history.