Happy Birthday Governor Burnett!

November 15, 2011 is the 204th anniversary of the birth of Peter Hardeman Burnett, the state of California’s first – albeit brief-tenured — governor.

A native of Tennessee, Burnett served as California’s governor from December 20, 1849 to January 9, 1851.

California became a state on September 9, 1850 although didn’t learn about until October 18 when the steamer Oregon sailed into San Francisco bay with a banner saying, “California is Now a State” tied to her rigging.

“I leave the high office to which I was called by the voluntary voice of my countrymen with but one regret — that my feeble abilities have allowed me to accomplish so little for the state,” Burnett wrote in his letter of resignation.

However, during the first months of his administration, he and lawmakers did create the foundation of California’s state government.

One of Burnett’s first messages to lawmakers – there were 36 Assemblymen and 16 senators in the first Legislature – questioned whether they should pass bills before California officially became a state.

The Legislature thought they should and, eventually, Burnett signed 146 of them. Among the earliest bills approved was dividing California into counties. Originally, there were 27 counties. San Diego and Mariposa covered more than one-third of the state.

The second law passed created the Office of the State Printer, among other government agencies.

Burnett’s Official State Portrait

Burnett also signed legislation creating a State Translator – salary $8,000 per annum — whose job was to translate laws and documents into Spanish.

Salaries were set for constitutional officers. The Secretary of State and the Attorney General each received $7,000. The Comptroller was paid $8,000; the Treasurer $9,000 and the governor and Supreme Court justices $10,000.

Property taxes were levied — 50 cents on each $100 of taxable property – as were poll taxes, $5 per person on every male inhabitant over 21 and under 50 years of age.

Burnett approved a Foreign Miners Tax Act charging every non-American miner $20.

He favored taxation over debt as a revenue raiser and advocated expansion of the death penalty to larceny and robbery.

Like many of his successors, Burnett had a rocky relationship with the Legislature, which overrode his 1850 veto of a measure allowing Sacramento to become a city. The override made Sacramento the state’s first incorporated city. 

His veto of a bill allowing the former pueblo of Los Angeles to become a city stood.

“To be chosen Chief Magistrate of California at this period of her history, when the eyes of the whole world are turned toward her, is a high and distinguished honor, and I shall do all in my power to merit this distinction by an ardent, sincere, and energetic discharge of the weighty and responsible duties incident to the position I occupy,” Burnett said in his inaugural address.

Burnett saw no reconciliation with California’s Native Americans.

“That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert,” he told lawmakers on January 7, 1851.

According to the California State Military Museum, Burnett called out the militia twice in 1850.

The first time was in response to incidents at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers on April 23, 1850.

Burnett ordered the sheriffs of San Diego and Los Angeles to organize 100 men and “pursue such energetic measures to punish the Indians, bring them to terms, and protect the emigrants on their way to California.” 

The second time was in October. The sheriff of El Dorado County was told to muster 200 men and “punish the Indians engaged in the late attacks in the vicinity of Ringgold, and along the emigrant trail leading from Salt Lake to California.”

In justification, Burnett said in his January 1851 address to the Legislature:

“In these cases the attacks were far more formidable and made at a point where the two great emigrant trails enter the state. (They) occurred at a period when the emigrants were arriving across the plains with their jaded and broken down animals and them destitute of provisions. Under these circumstances, I deemed it due to humanity — and to our brethren arriving among us in a condition so helpless — to afford them all the protection within the power of the state….”

Late in Life

He advocated for excluding the rights of citizenship to Chinese immigrants:

“Were Chinamen permitted to settle in our country at their pleasure, and were they granted all the rights and privileges of the whites, and the laws were then impartially and efficiently administered, so that the two races would stand precisely and practically equal in all respects, in one century the Chinese would own all the property on this coast. This result they would accomplish by their greater numbers and superior economy,” he argued in his 1880 autobiography, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer.

Of his lineage, Burnett says:

“I am the eldest son of George and Dorothy Burnet, and was born in Nashville, Tennessee, November 15, 1807. My father was born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, September 26, 1770, and died in Clay County, Missouri, February 22, 1838. The family all spelled the name with a single t. When I was about 19, I added another t, and my example has been followed by all my brothers. My reason for the change was the opinion that the name would be more complete and emphatic when spelled Burnett.”

 Although born in Tennessee, Burnett was raised in Missouri. He was self-educated. At 19, he returned to Tennessee to become a hotel clerk with a salary of $100. He doubled that the following year by becoming a store clerk.

He married Harriet Rogers in 1820. They had six children.

In 1829, Burnett bought out the storeowner but the business failed and he moved his family back to Missouri with 62 cents to his name.

There he opened another store, operated a sawmill and a distillery, edited a weekly paper called The Far West and studied to be a lawyer.

According to one account, in 1839 he was part of the defense team for Joseph Smith and several other Mormon leaders who were charged with treason, arson and robbery. A change of venue was sought and while en route the prisoners escaped to Illinois.

Saddled with $15,000 in debts, Burnett read a Congressional report about Oregon and decided to move his family there. The wagon train of over 800 persons left May 22, 1843 and arrived in the territory in October.

Keeping to his pattern of employment success, Burnett set himself up as a farmer – and failed.

While in Oregon, Burnett began to drift away from Protestantism to Catholicism. In 1860, he described his conversion in a dense tome, “The Path which led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church.”

He became involved in Oregon politics and was elected to the provisional Legislature, serving from 1844 to 1848.

In 1844 Burnett introduced legislation that, among other things, required free African Americans over the age of 18 to leave Oregon or be subject to trial.

If found guilty, the person would “receive upon his or her bare back not less than 20 nor more than 39 stripes, to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county.”

The punishment was to be repeated every six months until the person departed. This “lash law” passed but shortly afterwards whipping was replaced with forced labor followed by eviction from Oregon.

The law was repealed in 1845 before it could take effect.

 “The object is to keep clear of this most troublesome class of population,” he wrote in a letter. “We are in a new world, under most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of these great evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.”  He argued that immigration was a privilege, not a right, and denying it did not violate constitutional rights.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused him to pick up stakes again.

He discusses the origin of the word “prospecting” in his autobiography.

“When gold was first discovered in California and any one went out searching for new placers, they would say, ‘He has gone to hunt for new gold-diggings.’ But, as this fact had to be so often repeated, some practical, sensible, economical man called the whole process ‘prospecting.’ So perfectly evident was the utility of this new word.”

He was modestly successful as a miner and thought to open a law practice in San Francisco.

But on the way he passed through Sacramento and met John Augustus Sutter, Jr., the son of the famed pioneer. Sutter the Younger was subdividing some of his father’s lands near Sutter’s Fort and offered Burnett a job selling parcels. He made nearly $50,000 in one year.

Bitten again by the political bug, Burnett was elected to the Assembly then served briefly as a Supreme Court justice and then decided to run for governor.

Oddly, his autobiography offers no reason why, little information on his campaign and scant detail of his tenure.

Of his campaign, he says:

“I arrived in San Jose about the 5th of October and left there to make the canvass, about the 20th. I reached San Francisco on the evening of the same day and remained there three days.

“When I left the city about six weeks before, I knew a large portion of the people of the place; but, upon my return, I did not know one in 10, such had been the rapid increase in the population. I was surprised to find myself so much of a stranger and I said to myself, ‘This is rather a poor prospect for Governor.’

“One of my opponents, Winfield Scott Sherwood, Esq., proposed that we should submit our claims to a committee of mutual friends and let them decide which of us should withdraw. I declined this proposition, and at once set out to speak to the people.

“I left San Francisco about the 23rd of October for Sacramento City, on board a very small steamer, the second one that ever ascended the Sacramento River. It was full of passengers and was so small that they were frequently ordered to trim the boat.

Sacramento 1850

“On my arrival at Sacramento City, I addressed a large meeting of the people. From that city I went to Mormon Island on the American River, and made a speech. From there I passed to Coloma, the point where gold was first discovered and addressed the people at that place; and then to Placerville, where I again addressed a large meeting.

“From Placerville I returned to Sacramento City on the 29th of October.

“On my way, I spent the night of the 28th at Mud Springs, in an hotel kept in a large canvas tent. They gave me a very fine bed to sleep in and treated me most kindly.

“During the day, the wind commenced blowing briskly from the south. In the evening, dense clouds began to appear and the wind increased to a gale. After we had all retired to bed, the rain began to fall heavily and the storm became so severe that the fastenings of the tent gave way and nothing was left of the frame but the main upright pole — about 30 feet high — that stood in the center, to the top of which the canvas was securely fastened, while it hung flapping around the pole at the bottom.

“The rain came down in torrents and the only way we could keep dry was to stand around and hug the lower end of the pole until daylight. This was the first hard rain of that most rainy season of 1849 -’50. (Editor’s Note: The heavy rains delayed the start of the legislative session by preventing a quorum from being assembled.) 

“I never passed a more cheerless and uncomfortable night than this. I was very tired and sleepy and frequently found myself asleep on my feet, and in the act of sinking down with my arms around the pole.

“I remained in Sacramento City until the 5th of November, when the majestic steamer Senator arrived for the first time. The banks of the river, on Front Street, were thronged with people to witness her approach. She was to us a most beautiful object. I came down on board of her, and paid $30 for my passage, and $2 in addition for my dinner.

“I passed through San Francisco, and arrived at San Jose (then the capitol)about the 8th of November.

Alviso Adobe, San Jose 1850

“After making a speech to the people of that city, I went again to San Francisco, where I spoke to an immense assemblage in Portsmouth Square.

“A platform about six feet high, and large enough to seat about 100 persons, was made of rough boards and scantling. The main audience stood in front, on the ground.

“In the midst of my address the platform gave way and fell to the ground, except a small portion where I was standing. I paused only for a moment and then went on with my speech, remarking that, though others might fall, I would be sure to stand.

“I was in the city until the 13th of November, the day of the general election, at which the State constitution was ratified, and the principal State officers, Senators, members of the Assembly, and Congressmen were elected.

“The vote for governor was as follows: Peter H. Burnett, 6,716; W. Scott Sherwood, 3,188; John A. Sutter, 2,201; J. W. Geary, 1,475; William M. Steuart, 619.”

Several accounts say the number of transplanted Oregonians boosted Burnett’s name identification. One source says he stumped the gold fields accompanied by two of his daughters.

After his resignation a little more than one year later, Lieutenant Governor John McDougall became the state’s second governor.

Burnett’s Marker

In 1852, he paid off the debt he had incurred in Missouri, some $28,000.

Returning to the practice of law Burnett founded the firm of Burnett, Ryland, Von Vonhies and Hester – the first law firm in San Jose.

He moved to San Francisco in 1863 and founded the Pacific Bank of which he was president for 16 years.

Not surprisingly, he was an active backer of the federal Chiense Exclusion Act of 1882.

On May 17, 1895 he died of old age and is buried at Mission Santa Clara.

Burnett Avenue near the haight-Ashbury in San Francisco is named after him.

In May, the Burnett Child Development Center, a preschool in predominantly black San Francisco neighborhood, changed its name to the Leola M. Havard Early Educaiton School after becoming aware of Burnett’s views on African Americans. Havard was the city’s first African American principal. 





Filed under: California History


  1. Greg: That was very interesting. Not many people know – nor did I – that at the beginning of California’s statehood, there was an official Translator to translate documents into Spanish. That’s something to ponder.

    Comment by Patricia — 11.15.2011 @ 9:13 pm

  2. Did the City of Sacramento’s first charter guarantee free water to residents?

    Comment by patrick johnston — 11.15.2011 @ 9:20 pm

  3. Greg once again you have provided a great read and shared some history that many of us were unaware of.

    Comment by Management Slug — 11.16.2011 @ 8:38 am

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