When Peter Hardeman Burnett shot and killed a black slave in Clear Creek, Tenn., in 1830, he surely couldn’t have envisioned a career that would lead to his election as the first governor of California 19 years later.
At age 23, Burnett had set a trap for whomever was breaking into his store to drink from his whiskey barrel. He tied a string to the trigger of his rifle perched atop a counter. The next morning, he found a dead man, a slave from a nearby mill. He faced an inquest, but was not charged.
It is notable that the man Burnett killed was African American, because Burnett’s reputation would be irrevocably tarnished by hostility toward blacks and his attempts to maintain the West as a whites-only enclave.
You might think California’s first elected governor would command a biography or two. Yet he’s scarcely mentioned in history books, a fact that’s fascinating. The only record of his early life is one he wrote in a self-serving autobiography, “Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer.” His portrait hangs with those of other governors in the Capitol, but most of the few schools named for him recently dropped his name once his racist past was revealed.
On paper, Burnett was eminently qualified to become governor in 1850—intelligent, well-read, an accomplished speaker and writer and a forceful advocate in statehood debates, publicizing his arguments through long letters in California newspapers.
People turned to him for some of the highest offices in the West. But each success seemed to portend failure. He was his own worst enemy.
Burnett was born in Nashville on Nov. 15, 1807. He came from a slave-holding background, and owned two slaves in Missouri. After multiple failures in business, Burnett turned to law, and he served as a defense attorney for Mormon leader Joseph Smith following the 1838 Mormon War.
Burnett accumulated the most impressive resume of any early leader in the American West. He was an organizer of the first wagon train to Oregon in 1843, was elected to Oregon’s provisional and territorial legislatures, and was appointed as Oregon’s first provisional supreme court judge.
He was also the developer of the first wagon road from Oregon to California’s gold fields. In 1848, he made a fortune selling lots in the new city of Sacramento on behalf of John Sutter Jr., and he donated the land that is now St. Rose of Lima Park at 7th and K streets, across from Golden 1 Center.
Burnett’s political career reached its zenith in 1849 when he was elected California governor. But his obsessive focus on race doomed him. Gov. Burnett failed to convince legislators in two sessions to enact a black exclusion law for California, as he had done while in Oregon.
When he resigned on Jan. 9, 1851, the Daily Alta California wrote, “We believe it will be a popular measure throughout the state, the most popular act” of Burnett’s tenure.
But his public life did not end. He soon gained an appointment to the California Supreme Court, where race remained part of his legacy.
As a supreme court justice, Burnett’s racism emerged in his improbable ruling in the 1858 Archy Lee slavery case. Archy Lee was a Mississippi slave brought to California by his owner, Charles Stovall. Once in the free state of California, Archy Lee rightly claimed his freedom.
But writing for the majority, Burnett ordered Lee returned to Stovall, reasoning that Stovall was ignorant of California law and entitled to an exception.
The Sacramento Union said Burnett’s ruling “caps the climax of all human absurdity,” and lower courts circumvented Burnett and freed Archy Lee.
The public’s memory of Burnett faded almost immediately after he left the court, and he died in near-obscurity in San Francisco on May 17, 1895. His dream of a whites-only enclave failed. Indeed, he surely would not recognize the diverse population of California today.
R. Gregory Nokes’ new book, ‘The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California,’ will be published in May by Oregon State University Press; firstname.lastname@example.org