Skip to main content
  1. Life
  2. Neighborhoods
  3. Places & Faces

California’s Peter Burnett defended Mormon Joseph Smith in court

See also

Peter Hardman Burnett was born on November 15, 1807 in Nashville, Tennessee and raised in rural Missouri. The son of George Burnett and Dorothy Hardeman, Peter was self-taught during his primary years and then studied law and government.

While working as a hotel clerk, Peter earned $100/year ($1998.21 – 2012). He later doubled his salary when he became a clerk in a general store in Whiteville, Tennessee. On August 20, 1828, he married Harriett Burnett in Bolivar, Tennessee. The couple had five children. In 1829, Burnett purchased the store where he worked. However, his efforts proved to be unsuccessful and in 1830, he returned to Liberty, Missouri with 63¢ ($13.37 in 2012) in his pocket.

He began his law career in 1832 following completion of his studies. One of his first cases involved defending a group of Mormons – one of which was Joseph Smith, Jr. – who had been indicted on robbery, arson and treason. During the trial, Burnett requested a change of venue. In route to the new location, the Mormons escaped and traveled to Illinois.

Due to overwhelming indebtedness, and his wife’s illness, the call to travel westward was strong in Burnett’s ear in 1843. Joining a wagon train composed of 875 individuals; Burnett left Independence, Missouri on May 8, 1842 and followed the Oregon Trail. Serving for a portion of the journey as the train’s captain; the group arrived in Whitman’s Mission on October 14, 1843 after traveling 1,691 miles at a rate of approximately 11-1/2 miles per day.

From there, Peter and his family continued to travel to Fort Vancouver, settling on a farm near the mouth of the Willamette River. The family later moved to another farm, located where the town of Hillsboro, Oregon now stands. A leader in the new settlement, Burnett was chosen by the pioneer settlers to represent them in the Oregon Legislature in 1844. A year later, he was appointed Judge of the Oregon Supreme Court and in 1848, President Polk appointed him as one of the Justices of the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court.

While living in the Oregon Territory, Burnett was a member of the Church of the Disciples (Campbellites), which had been founded by Alexander Campbell after he left the Presbyterian faith. Later, a debate between Campbell and Cincinnati’s Bishop Purcell was published and came to Burnett’s attention. The document caused Burnett’s confidence in Protestantism to waiver and left him questioning various practices of his faith. Following his attendance at High Mass on Christmas night, he soon began to find his thoughts and views drifting in the direction of the Catholic Church. In 1846, Burnett was received by Father De Vos into the Catholic Church in Oregon City.

During the time he served in the court, Burnett proposed one of Oregon’s first exclusion laws, in an effort to keep Negroes out of the territory. Any Negro who remained in the Oregon Territory would be flogged every six months until s/he finally left. His measure was passed and remained on the books until 1926 when Oregon’s Constitution was written without the clause being added. It would be another year, however, before Negroes were allowed to vote.

The events of January 24, 1848 inspired Burnett to move again, this time in a southerly direction. On that day, the word went out in Coloma, California that gold had been discovered. Leading 150 men to the California gold fields, Burnett arrived in Yuba in early November 1848. He experienced a modest amount of success in the gold fields; then moved to San Francisco in an effort to establish a career in law.

In route to San Francisco, Burnett was introduced to John Augustus Sutter, Jr. Appointed to sell his father’s deeded lands in the area around Sutter’s Fort, John presented Burnett with the opportunity to sell plots of land in the newly established town of Sacramento. Taking Sutter up on his offer, Burnett realized an income of $50,000 in land sales over the next year ($1,359,509.42 – 2012). Sacramento’s popularity was due, in part, to the fact it was situated closely to the Sierra Nevada, in addition to the fact the Sacramento River was easy for large ships to navigate.

Burnett now turned his attention back to politics. In 1849, he attended the first California Constitutional Convention, held in Monterey. During the convention, the necessary documents were drafted which would be responsible for helping to create the state of California. By now, Burnett had acquired a good bit of name recognition in both San Francisco and Sacramento, in addition to what he already had in Oregon. Thus, he threw his hat into the ring to run for the first civilian governor, replacing the territory’s prior military governors. His was an easy win and he was sworn into office on December 20, 1849.

The first order of business for Burnett’s administration was to create the government. The territory was divided into 27 counties while state cabinet posts were being established. John C. Fremont and William M. Gwin went to Washington as California’s first US Senators.

Though many were now of the mindset California was a state, President Zachary Taylor and the U.S. Congress had not yet made it official. California’s remoteness during that time was part of the reason for the misconception on the part of the territory’s citizens; in addition to the overly enthusiastic attitudes of the politicians who were anxious to see California’s star quickly added to the blue union of the US flag. Though a goodly number of debates were required to make it happen, on September 9, 1850, the Golden State did acquire its star and named San Jose the first capital. It would be another month; however, before the citizens of the new state learned they were now official. On October 18, 1850, the steamship Oregon sailed into San Francisco Bay boasting a banner which read, “California is now a State!

During the timeframe California moved from territory to statehood, Governor Burnett experienced a downturn of his popularity level in the State Legislature, along with the press and the public. By early 1850, bills were being pushed to incorporate both Los Angeles and Sacramento as city municipalities. Los Angeles was seen as a special incorporation, due to the fact it held pueblo status under Spanish and Mexican rule. (Note: California origionally had three types of official settlements: presidio (military), mission (religious) and pueblo (civil).) Though the State Senate and Assembly passed the bills, Burnett vetoed them, stating special incorporation bills were unconstitutional. Instead, the county courts should be the ones to decide. The Legislature was unable to override the governor’s veto regarding Los Angeles; however, they did do so in favor of Sacramento. As a result, Sacramento became California’s first incorporated city.

Burnett also rattled the cages of the pro-slavery supporters, due to the fact, as in Oregon, Burnett pursued the desire to exclude Negroes from California as well; deeming them injurious to California’s society. The pro-slavery supporters, on the other hand, had hoped to import the Southern slave system to the West Coast and incorporate it in California. Burnett’s proposal was later defeated by the Legislature.

Not only did Burnett seek to prevent Negroes from entering California, he also pushed for heavy taxation on foreign immigrants. In 1850, he signed the Foreign Miners Tax Act into law. Under this law, each miner who was non-American in origin was required to pay $20 ($543.80 – 2012). Burnett also wanted to increase taxation and expand the use of capital punishment to include larceny.

With little support from the Legislature and ridiculed by the press in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco; Burnett was now characterized as an aloof politician and grew frustrated when his agenda ground to a halt. He became a punching bag for both the state’s newspapers and also for those on the floor of the Legislature. Shortly after he passed his first anniversary in office, Burnett submitted his resignation in January of 1851. Citing personal matters for doing so, Burnett left office on January 9th, and Lieutenant Governor John McDougall took over.

The following year, Burnett repaid the heavy debts he had acquired in Missouri almost 20 years earlier. During the years 1857 and 1858, he served as a Justice on the Supreme Court of California after being appointed by Governor J. Neeley Johnson. His term expired in October 1858. He also established a law practice in San Jose, acting as a proponent of Catholicism during the Victorian era. In 1880, his autobiography was published, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. He served as president of Pacific Bank from 1863-1880 and was a staunch supporter of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Peter Burnett was 87 when he died on May 17, 1895 in San Francisco. He was buried in Santa Clara’s Mission Cemetery. The legacy Burnett left is quite mixed. Though considered a father of modern California, the openly racist attitude he demonstrated towards Negroes, Native Americans and Chinese served to tarnish his name.

Advertisement