He gained wealth and prominence and ultimately became governor.
At California’s South Fork American River on Monday, January 24, 1848, James Marshall was directing his work crew in the construction of a sawmill for his employer John Sutter when his eye caught the glint of sunlight on yellow flakes in the tail race. This fleeting moment constituted the initial condition for the chaos, the gold fever, soon to impact the lives of millions of men and women worldwide.
After taking further samples and conducting basic tests, Marshall and Sutter determined they had indeed found a rich concentration of placer gold. Sutter,eager to finish the mill and retain his land holdings, was anxious to keep the find quiet, as he knew others with more materialistic dreams would do almost anything for the wealth and power to be had in possessing the gold.
Beyond personal dreams were particular circumstances that weighed on prevailing ideas about the value of gold.The sheer quantity of gold in the alluvial deposits created excitement. The gold would also end the shortage of specie that had restricted economic development and created the Panic of 1837. That panic and the impoverishment of settlers was fresh in the minds of many. Others had found gold in California before that day in January 1848, but this strike would prompt a fevered response known as the California Gold Rush.
The exhilaration caught hold when Samuel Brannan, newly returned to San Francisco from Sutter’s Mill, rushed excitedly about town raising expectations of fabulous wealth for the taking. Brannan himself was to become very rich, not from mining, but by selling supplies to the miners who arrived daily from every corner of the globe. They were drawn by the lure by instant riches, at first an all male cohort—good men, bad men,rich men, poor men.
Not until August 1848 did credible news of the bonanza arrive in Oregon Territory,which officials had organized that same month. Peter Burnett, born in Tennessee in 1807 and raised in rural Missouri, was among the remarkable men who through pioneering and peaceful farming had wrested Oregon Country from Britain. In the five years since he had organized a wagon train west from Missouri, Burnett had experienced great changes in his life.He had succeeded in farming and almost single-handedly revised the laws of Oregon. The religious climate in Oregon was competitive and at times bitter in the clash between Canadian Catholics and American Protestants. Against the grain in a display of his characteristic independent-mindedness, Burnett became a Catholic.He also claimed to have lost his youthful yen for great wealth. But a legacy of debt from Burnett’s failed entrepreneurial businesses in Missouri continued to haunt him in Oregon. So after serious consideration he succumbed, as did the majority of Oregon’s healthy males, to the promise of wealth in Gold Rush California.
That fall he organized and captained the first wagon train from Oregon to California. Others had set out on horses trailing pack mules, as it was thought to be impractical to bring wagons over the Cascade Mountains. But in early September, emboldened by Burnett’s leadership, “one hundred and fifty stout, robust,energetic, sober men” set out south in 50ox-drawn wagons. Eight weeks later, on November 5, they would arrive at Long’s Bar camp on the Yuba River. The stretch from Oregon City to the California border on the established Applegate Trail was relatively clear. From that point on the wagoners had to forge a road through the mountains to the Sacramento Valley.
At the border near Tule Lake they entered territory uncharted except for hearsay or vague references in newspapers.At first they traversed a rocky moonscape country in which crevasses and loose rocks posed a hazard to wagon wheels.On reaching the North Fork Pit River,however, they were greatly surprised to discover a newly graded, negotiable wagon road.
After eight days of following the new road they caught up to trail pioneer Peter Lassen and the remnants of his wagon train. Their supplies exhausted, the pioneers were emaciated and close to ultimate disaster. Burnett recalled the fortitude of one lone old woman who was still driving her ox forward when his men overtook her. “Have you got any little flour?” she asked. “Yes, madam,plenty.” The woman replied with emotion, “You are like an angel from Heaven!”and let loose an earsplitting cry of joy.
After sharing provisions with the starving wagoners, Burnett instructed Lassen and party to fall in behind his group, as the Oregon party had ample supplies and a group of brawny men who could force the wagon road through the heavily timbered forest almost as fast as the oxen could travel. This particular Lassen party would make it through the mountains. Burnett’s wagon train arrived in the Sacramento Valley without having lost a single member of the party. “The worst part of the road from Oregon to California is the pass through the Umpqua mountains, called the Kanyan, on Applegate’s route,” Burnett reported in a published letter about the journey. Through good planning, skill and not a little luck he had beaten the hazards of rough terrain, winter chill, wary Indians and, not least, the divisiveness prevalent among hard put pioneers. The rescue of Lassen, a seasoned explorer, and the difficulties of later emigrants, many of whom suffered loss of life and goods to both Indians and natural causes while following Burnett’s trail blazing route, attest to the magnitude of his achievement and quality of his leadership as captain of the train.
Burnett quickly surpassed his Oregon Territory successes in those early Gold Rush days, a period historian Kevin Starr refers to as “a case study in the fast-forwarding of history.” Having reluctantly left his family in Oregon, Burnett was free to devote all his time to opening a claim with his nephew. His wife and children would join him later, arriving by coastal steamer. With typical planning he had brought along a suitable plank for a gold-sifting rocker mechanism. With hard work, and gold worth $16 an ounce, he made good money. But he was not content to earn his grub stake as a working miner.
And so the ever-restless Burnett journeyed that winter by wagon to Sacramento. There he forged an alliance with John A. Sutter Jr., son of the famed John Sutter, the enigmatic figure who had come to Sacramento in 1839 to found the farming and trading colony of New Helvetia (see Western Enterprise in the February 2015 Wild West). Ironically, in the fortune-making rush spawned by the discovery of gold on the elder Sutter’s own land, his workers had deserted him, and both his finances and the settlement had collapsed. Seeing the handwriting, Sutter had deeded his remaining land to his son. Burnett, using his lawyerly acumen, maneuvered to delay creditors’ claims and became the younger Sutter’s land agent in burgeoning Sacramento. As land agent he was paid in kind and thus came to own a large amount of real estate. The wealth he acquired in turn enabled him to later pay off the debts from his Missouri days.
Within three months of his arrival in California he was also heavily involved in politics. The Weekly Alta California published the results of a January 8, 1849, meeting at which he presided and in no uncertain terms demanded a freely elected provisional government for California. In the campaign that followed he eloquently promoted, in word and deed, liberty, anti-slavery and natural law. In a well-researched book let for the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Burnett explained how in practice slavery was destructive of the body politic. His analysis of slave states bears clear parallels to present-day failed Eastern European nations, which were also structured with a powerful elite and a large body of unmotivated citizens.
Burnett did not propose a mere body of positive laws but based his demands for liberal democracy on the transcendental principles of natural law. Thus we find him writing in April 1849, “Have the people of California any rights? …Have they not certain rights, founded, based on and implanted in man’s very nature?” His formidable legal reputation in Oregon had followed him to California. In August 1849 Military Governor Bennett Riley (a brevet brigadier general) appointed Burnett a judge of the Superior Tribunal. The other
three justices in turn chose him to be chief justice. In October the California Constitutional Convention set the election for governor, and a convention caucus unanimously nominated Burnett. In a field of distinguished candidates he handily won election to become the first state governor of California, serving from December 20, 1849, to January 9, 1851.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.