|Chapter 7 Social Studies: Only in America|
In November 1807, Peter Hardeman Burnett, who was a writer and an historian, was born in Nashville, Tennessee. Burnett left us with a picture of his early life in Tennessee and Missouri.
While he lived in Tennessee, Burnett met his wife, Harriet W. Rogers. When he moved to Missouri, Burnett arrived there with little money and with a wife and child to support. He wanted to work as a lawyer, but he did not want to study. Therefore, he took a job as a clerk to earn money to get his family out of debt. After 15 months, Burnett took another clerk position. Eventually he learned enough about the laws of Missouri to be granted a license to practice law. However, he again became indebted, owing his partners over $28,000.
Burnett wanted to travel to the Oregon country for three reasons. He wanted to pay his debt; his wife was sickly, and the doctors believed that change of climate might improve her health; and the government had just passed the donation land claim. Burnett began enlisting others to make this trip west with him. The Great Migration of 1840 was a good opportunity for people to own land and a start new life. At this time, Great Britain and the United States claimed Oregon, and having U.S. citizens living there strengthened the U.S. claim to the area.
In spring 1840, Burnett and his party started west. Burnett was chosen captain of the train of wagons but resigned after only a few weeks. There were between 500 and 700 people in the party with 113 wagons. He believed that keeping the group together was going to be impossible.
On the journey west, the travelers encountered Indians who seemed to be friendly but leery of what was going on. The Indians stole horses and drove off cattle to make the wagon train pay to get them back. If the Indians had had something other than bows and arrows for fighting, they easily could have knocked down the adobe forts that the travelers passed.
The missionary Marcus Whitman was a member of the Burnett wagon train. When the wagons reached Fort Hall, Whitman volunteered to pilot the group on to Walla Walla. He went ahead and left notices for the others to follow. When the group reached Grande Ronde, an Indian sent by Whitman guided the train to Whitman's mission near Walla Walla. On November 10, 1843, the weary travelers arrived in Oregon City.
In Oregon, Burnett settled in an area know as Linn. He set up a small farm and took an active roll in organizing the new political structure of the territory. By 1844, he was a member of the legislature, and, in 1848, he became a supreme court judge. He was happy in Oregon, but the call of gold from California caught his ear. Because he still had a sizeable debt to repay, he moved south.
Burnett and the men who went south with him were some of the first men to travel to California by wagon. Although the trip was filled with hardships, all the men survived. In California, Burnett set up a camp in which he met several persons that he had known in Missouri, including his brother-in-law.
He worked for a short time in the gold mines, but eventually his knowledge of the law brought him to managing the Sutter family's affairs and businesses in New Helvetia. He became an advocate for the rights of the people of California and helped them reach statehood.
A constitutional convention was called, and Burnett was elected the first governor of the state of California. He served as governor for a little over a year. During his time as governor, Burnett set aside November 30, 1850, as a legal holiday-Thanksgiving. All official businesses were to stop and give thanks. Many New Englanders had memories of their loved ones and past Thanksgiving days. Others thought it was a good time to eat and drink all that they wanted to. Because turkey was scarce in California, most miners had jackrabbit on the table.
After he was governor, Burnett went into private law practice and, in 1857, was appointed a supreme court judge. In 1858, he resigned his judgeship and took a position as a bank president in San Francisco, where he remained until his death in 1895.