Peter H. Burnett

Peter Hardeman Burnett was born November 15, 1807 in Nashville, Tennessee, and died May 17, 1895 in San Francisco, California. At an early age he was taken by his father to Missouri, where amid primitive conditions of life he succeeded in obtaining an elementary education. At the age of nineteen, he returned to Tennessee where he was first a clerk in a hotel at $100 a year and next, at double the wages, clerk in a store. Soon after arriving in Tennessee, he married HARRIET B. ROGERS August 20, 1828 in Hardeman County, Tennessee, daughter of Peter Rogers. In the spring of 1829 he bought out his employer, but after 3 years of unsuccessful store-keeping, gave up and went back to Missouri, settling in Liberty. He left Tennessee owing "considerable" money on notes. He opened a store in Liberty with his brother, Glen Owen Burnett, as well as a store at Barry, operated a saw mill and a distillery, was editor of a weekly newspaper "The Far West", and all the while studying to become a lawyer.On 25 Mar 1839 the First Circuit Court was held in Platte in a log tavern and the same year Peter was admitted to the bar.In the fall of 1839/40 he was appointed District Attorney and remained so until his resignation in 1843.

Deeply concerned over the continual illness of his wife, and his mounting debts, which had come to $15,000.00, he organized a wagon train and left 22 May 1843 with a party of 800 to 875 persons, men, women and children for Oregon. The Platte City area group met first at Weston where they crossed the Missouri River through Leavenworth, Kansas. A number of smaller groups headed westward, all joined together to form the wagon train of 873 people. Peter H. was elected Captain but trouble soon arose when those who had no loose cattle objected to doing guard duty to care for them. They formed 2 companies; Jesse Applegate was elected Captain of the "Cow Column" and Peter was Captain of the rest. Oregon was a region claimed by both Great Britain and the United States and, in the absence of local law from either sovereignty, Peter H. helped reorganize the constitution, which was adopted in July 1845. When gold fever struck in CA in Sept 1848, Peter led a company of 150 men, who cut an overland trail to the mines. He later estimated that at least 2/3 of the male population of Oregon started for the gold fields. In May 1849 Peter left the mines to become the attorney and general agent of John A. Sutter, Jr. It was here he earned the money to pay off his debts in Tennessee and Missouri.

In California, Burnett was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly and took a leading part in its proceedings. He was appointed judge of the superior tribunal in August, 1849 and did good work in the framing of the State Constitution. In September he was chosen Chief Justice, and on the thirteenth of November of the same year he was elected the first American Governor of California, though California was not admitted as a State into the Union till September,1850.

When Peter was running for Governor of California, he was charged with stumping the gold fields accompanied by his two beautiful daughters and it was claimed at the time that he probably won because of the many transplanted Oregonians. His inauguration was 20 Dec 1849.

Enduring a stormy incumbency he resigned his governorship 9 Jan 1851, and resumed the practice of law as a member of the firm of Burnett, Ryland, Von Vonhies and Hester, the first law firm established in San Jose, until his appointment in 1857 as a Justice of the Supreme Court of California by Gov. J. Neeley Johnson. His term expired in October 1858. He lived many years in San Jose and then moved to San Francisco in 1863 where he founded the Pacific Bank, and was president for 16 years.

Peter H. Burnett, father of 6 children, and first Governor of the State of California , died May 17, 1895 in San Francisco, California of old age. He is buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, Santa Clara, California, Location: 5 Old, Space 111.

Information compiled by E. Sue Terhune from