The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett

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At the Jesse James family reunion in 2002, living descendants in the family of Peter Burnett appeared. They were seeking knowledge of the Burnett family’s connections to the Jesse James family. Stories of a connection had come down in their family lore.

To date, no specific connection with the James family, or with Drury Woodson James, Jesse’ s uncle and founder of Paso Robles, California, has been found. Given D.W. James social and political connections, it remains highly likely some connection existed. Is also is highly certain that Peter Burnett would have known Rep. Coleman Purcell Younger of Santa Cruz, California, the husband of Burnett’s niece, Rebecca J. Smith, among other Burnett-Younger kinships.

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“Ancestry & Kinship of Peter Hardeman Burnett”

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BOOK REVIEW: Nokes, R. Gregory, The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California

(Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2018) pp.ix-270, several photos and maps, appendix A-D, notes, bibliography, index, ISBN 978-0-87071-923-5, paperback, $19,95.

By Nancy B. Samuelson

Peter Burnett may not be a name that is familiar to many people these days. It seems a pity that he has been largely forgotten. He was a man of some rather significant achievements in the states of Missouri, Oregon and California. I have been interested in him for some time and was pleased to see that someone had finally written a book about him. However, I found that the author chose to judge Burnett by today’s standards of political correctness and ignore or belittle his many real accomplishments.

R. Gregory Nokes
R. Gregory Nokes, author of The Troubles Life of Peter Burnett

R. Gregory Nokes is a journalist and is a competent writer but the book will appeal more to a general audience than to historians or scholars. He did do a fair amount of research and has discovered a number of Burnett’s letters that have never been made public before.  He has also thoroughly researched Burnett’s other writings, and there is a considerable amount of this material.  There is no evidence, however, that he consulted any contemporary newspapers reports of the actions and events in Burnett’s life.  Nor did he dig very deeply into family connections and the accomplishments of many other members of this talented Burnett family and their near kinfolks.

The author makes much ado about Burnett’s contributions to the deplorable “Lash Law” in Oregon that Burnett helped put on the books. But little is said about the almost immediate revision of the law and the fact that the law was never once enforced. Many, in fact, most other states and territories had similar or worse laws on the books concerning African Americans and other minorities. Nokes is highly critical of Burnett in many ways and this detracts from the contributions Peter Burnett did make.

Peter Burnett was almost completely a self-educated man. He was born into a poor family in Tennessee but the family soon moved to Missouri to better themselves. Burnett was able to become an attorney and established a good law practice and engaged in several business enterprises. He was one of the men responsible for getting the U. S. Congress to approve the Platte Purchase that added a considerable amount of territory to the northwestern section of Missouri. Some of Burnett’s business enterprises were not successful and he soon turned his eyes to the Oregon Territory. He “boomed” Oregon and organized the first major wagon train to travel to Oregon in 1843. He was active in the organization of the Oregon Territorial Government and was Oregon’s first Supreme Court judge.

When word came of the discovery of gold in California, Burnett once more decided he could improve his fortunes by going to California. He took the first wagon train from Oregon to California and achieved a fair amount of success in mining for gold in California. He then moved to Sacrament and went back into the legal business. He took over some of the real estate sales for John Sutter and was well on the way to repairing Sutter’s finances until Sutter, Sr. fired him in a huff. Burnett did bolster his own finances as well from his sales of Sacramento real estate.

Burnett then turned his hand to helping get a state government organized in California and was overwhelmingly elected as the first Governor of California. He later resigned from this office to pursue his business interests. He later went into the banking business in San Francisco and was president of one of the most successful banks in California. Peter Burnett died a wealthy and highly esteemed man.

Burnett was completely honest, a rare quality in the hectic days of Gold Rush California, a deeply religious man, and a devoted husband and father. All of his children that survived were successful and talented people. His sons-in-law were attorneys and served in state government as did some of his grandchildren.

An item of interest to Wild West buffs was completely missed by the author. Burnett had close connections to the Younger and Dalton families. His brother, George William Burnett, was married to Sydney Ann Younger, an aunt of the Younger boys of James-Younger gang fame. Sydney Ann’s half-sister, Adeline, was the mother of the Dalton brothers of Dalton gang fame.  George William Burnett served in the Oregon legislature for some time and his son George Henry Burnett served on the Oregon Supreme Court from 1911 to 1927, twice serving as the Chief Justice of the court. Peter Burnett also maintained close social relations with Coleman Younger, the uncle of the outlaw Younger brothers, in Santa Clara County. California for a number of years.

This book is certainly worth reading and it inspired me to dig even deeper and to see what else I could learn about this fascinating man. Peter Burnett is worthy of more study so we can fully appreciate his contributions to our history.

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Tuesday October 19th, 2021
Stray Leaves Daily

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Tuesday October 19th, 2021
Stray Leaves Daily

☞Today in Old-West History -- On today’s date 119 years ago, Sunday, October 19, 1902, notorious Old-West outlaw & fiddle player James Hardin “Uncle Jim” Younger (1848-1902) met his earthly demise at the age of 54 when he committed suicide by gunshot whilst on parole at Saint Paul, Minnesota.

☞Requiéscant In Pace, Jim Younger.

☞Jim Younger was one of the central figures of a band of the most desperate outlaws the Old West ever knew -- the infamous James-Younger Gang, which was formed by Jim’s brother Cole Younger along with Frank & Jesse James.

☞Jim Younger joined the Confederate Army during the War Between the States (1861-1865) & served with Quantrill’s Raiders. In 1864, he was captured by Union troops & was imprisoned until the end of the War.

☞After the War, Younger worked on various ranches until he joined the James-Younger Gang in 1873. When his brother John was killed at Roscoe, Missouri in 1874, Jim left the gang & went out west where he worked on a ranch in San Luis Obispo, California.

☞In 1876, Jim returned to the gang, & on September 7 he participated in a bank robbery that became known as the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. During that robbery he was shot & captured. The James brothers escaped, but Cole, Jim, & Bob Younger were shot up by a posse, arrested, & sentenced to long terms in the state penitentiary at Stillwater, Minnesota, where they were afforded celebrity status.

☞Jim Younger’s fiddle was one of the few possessions that he was allowed to have with him in prison, & he played it often. As time passed, Jim noticed that a little bird would appear most every day in the window of his jail cell. It seemed as though the bird came to listen whenever Jim played his fiddle. Jim was lonely & he befriended the bird which he named “Swipsy.” The bird would fly into the prison cell & Jim would always try to have crumbs to feed Swipsy. One day, a fellow prisoner killed the little bird just for spite. Jim then painted a picture of Swipsy on the back of his violin to remember his little feathered friend.

☞In 1898, the prison warden allowed the prisoners to throw a Christmas party at his own home, with Cole Younger portraying Santa Claus & Jim Younger playing his fiddle.

☞Paroled in 1901, Jim became engaged to his long-time lover Alix Mueller; however, because of the terms of his parole he couldn’t marry her.

☞On October 19, 1902, after a failed attempt to sell tombstones & then insurance, Jim Younger locked himself in his room, wrote a suicide note to Alix, picked up his revolver, & blew his brains out.

☞In 2013, Jim Younger’s fiddle, which was played by him at the famous 1898 Christmas party at Stillwater Prison, was sold at a Dallas, Texas auction for over $11,000.

☞The left-hand photograph depicts the image of Swipsy the Bird that Jim Younger painted on the back of his fiddle. The right-hand photograph depicts an undated studio portrait of Jim Younger.
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Tuesday October 5th, 2021
Stray Leaves Daily

For Drury Woodson James, founder of Paso Robles, CA., and all his descendants, PASO ROBLES FOUNDERS' DAY 2021. ... See MoreSee Less

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