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Peter Burnett

Peter H. Burnett
1st Governor of California
In office
December 20, 1849 – January 9, 1851
Lieutenant John McDougall
Preceded by Bennett C. Riley
Succeeded by John McDougall
Personal details
Born (1807-11-15)November 15, 1807
Nashville, Tennessee
Died May 17, 1895(1895-05-17) (aged 87)
San Francisco, California
Political party Independent Democrat
Spouse(s) Harriet Rogers
Profession Author, lawyer, politician
Religion Roman Catholicism

Peter Hardeman Burnett (November 15, 1807 – May 17, 1895) was an American politician and the first state governor of California, serving from December 20, 1849, to January 9, 1851. He was also the first California governor to resign from office. Burnett previously served briefly during December 1849 as the territorial civilian governor of California.

Personal background

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, but raised in rural Missouri, Burnett received no formal education, but educated himself in law and government. After owning a general store, he turned to his law career; in defending a group of Mormons — including Joseph Smith — who were accused of treason, arson and robbery. Burnett requested a change of venue for the court proceedings, and during transportation to the next venue, the defendants escaped.

In 1843, Burnett became part of the exodus of Easterners moving Westward, moving his family to the Oregon Country (now modern-day Oregon) to take up farming in order to solve growing debts in Missouri, an agricultural endeavour that failed. While in the Oregon Country, Burnett began his forays into politics, getting elected to the provisional legislature between 1844 to 1848. In 1844, he completed construction of Germantown Road between the Tualatin Valley and what became Portland.[1] It was during his time in Oregon that Burnett, a traditional Southern Protestant, began to question the practices of his faith, drifting his religious views more to Roman Catholicism. By 1846, Burnett and his family made the complete transition from Protestant to become Catholic.[2]

While in the Legislature, and later in the Provisional Supreme Court, Burnett proposed and openly advocated one of Oregon's first exclusion laws, preventing African-Americans from moving to the territory. Blacks who remained would be arrested and flogged every six months until they finally would leave.[3] The measure successfully passed, with similar exclusion laws adopted by the Legislature over the next several decades. Oregon's Black exclusion laws would remain in effect until 1926 when referendums removed the clause from the Oregon Constitution. The barring of Blacks from voting remained effective until 1927.[4]

Upon news of the discovery of gold in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848, Burnett and his family moved south to participate in the rush. After modest success in getting gold, Burnett envisioned a career in law in San Francisco, a rapidly-growing boomtown thanks largely to the Gold Rush. On the way to the Bay Area, Burnett met John Augustus Sutter, Jr., son of German-born Swiss pioneer John Sutter. Selling his father's deeded lands in the near vicinity of Sutter's Fort, the younger Sutter offered Burnett a job in selling land plots for the new town of Sacramento. Over the next year, Burnett made nearly US$50,000 in land sales in Sacramento, a city ideally suited due to its closeness to the Sierra Nevada and the neighboring Sacramento River's navigability for large ships.[5]


In 1849, Burnett announced his intentions to return to politics. 1849 saw the first California Constitutional Convention in Monterey, where territorial politicians drafted documents suitable to admit California as a state in the United States. During the 1849 referendum to adopt the California Constitution, Burnett, now with name recognition in Sacramento and San Francisco, and a resume that included the Oregon Provisional Legislature, decided to run for the new territory's first civilian governor, replacing the string of military governors and bureaucracy from the U.S. military. Burnett easily won the election over four other candidates, including John Sutter, and was sworn in as California's first elected civilian governor on December 20, 1849 in San Jose in front of the California State Legislature.

In the first days of the Burnett Administration, the governor and the California Legislature set out to create the organs of a state government, creating state cabinet posts, archives, executive posts and departments, subdividing the state into 27 counties and appointing John C. Fremont and William M. Gwin as California's senators to the federal U.S. Senate. Despite home proclamations and bureaucratic reorganizations that recognized California now as a U.S. state, the U.S. Congress and President Zachary Taylor had in fact not even signed authorization of statehood for California. Part of this miscommunication was due to California's relative remoteness to the rest of the U.S. during the time, but also to over-enthusiastic attitudes by politicians and the public alike to get California into the Union as quickly as possible. Following long contentious debates in the U.S. Senate, California was admitted as a state on September 9, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. Californians did not learn of their official statehood until one month later, when on October 18, the steamer Oregon entered San Francisco Bay, with a banner strapped to her rigging reading "California Is Now A State."[6]

During these advancements into statehood, Governor Burnett's popularity among the State Legislature, the press and the public plummeted. Relations between the Legislature and Burnett began to immediately sour in early 1850, when bills pressing for the incorporation of Sacramento and Los Angeles as city municipalities, with Los Angeles being a special incorporation due to its earlier pueblo status during the previous Spanish and Mexican rule, passed the State Assembly and Senate. Burnett vetoed both bills, citing special incorporation bills as unconstitutional, and that reviews for municipal incorporation were best left to county courts. While the Legislature failed to override Burnett's veto of the Los Angeles bill, it did however successfully override the Sacramento bill, making Sacramento California's first incorporated city.[7]

As in Oregon, Burnett pushed for the exclusion of Blacks from California, raising the ire of pro-slavery supporters who wanted to import the Southern slave system to the West Coast. His proposals were defeated in the Legislature. From Burnett's First Annual Message to the Legislature, December 21, 1849:[8]

Similarly, Burnett also pushed for heavy taxation on foreign immigrants. An 1850 Foreign Miners Tax Act, signed into law by Burnett, required every miner of non-American origin to pay US$20. In addition to these proposals and laws, Burnett also argued heavily for increased taxation and for the expansion of capital punishment to include larceny.[5]

Characterized as an aloof politician with little support from the Legislature by the San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles press, Burnett grew frustrated as his agenda ground to a halt, and his governance style increasingly criticized. He became a regular fixture of ridicule in the state's newspapers and on the floor of the Legislature. With little over a year in office, Burnett, the first governor of the state, became the first to resign, announcing his resignation in January 1851. Burnett cited personal matters for his departure. Lieutenant Governor John McDougall replaced Burnett as the Governor of California on 9 January.

Peter Burnett founded the city of Oregon City in Butte County, California.[9]

Post governorship

One year after leaving the governorship, Burnett was finally able to repay the heavy debts he had incurred in Missouri nearly two decades before. He entered a number of careers, serving briefly as a justice in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery at Santa Clara, California.


Peter Burnett's legacy is largely mixed. While regarded as one of the fathers of modern California in the state's early days, Burnett's openly racist attitudes towards Blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans have blackened his name today. Burnett's period in the Oregon Provisional Legislature helped facilitate the exclusion of Blacks from the state until 1926. One of his Oregon proposals was to force free Blacks to leave the state, and to institute floggings, every six months, of any who continued to remain.[10] Also, his open hostility to foreign laborers influenced a number of federal and state California legislators to push future xenophobic legislation, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act thirty years after his departure from the governorship. Burnett was also an open advocate of exterminating local California Indian tribes, a policy that continued with successive state governmental administrations for several decades, where the state offered US$25 to US$50 for evidence of dead Natives.[11] From Burnett's Second Annual Message to the Legislature, January 7, 1851:[12]

San Francisco's Burnett Avenue near the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is named after him.

The Burnett Child Development Center, a preschool in a predominantly black San Francisco neighborhood, had been named for Burnett. However, when Burnett's racist positions were rediscovered, the school was renamed in 2011 to the Leola M. Havard Early Education School, in honor of San Francisco's first African-American principal.[10]


External links

  • California State Library
  • The Bancroft Library
  • He wrote this book in 1860 and can be read for free at Google Books The path which led a Protestant lawyer to the Catholic Church

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