Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Peter Hardeman Burnett: California's 1st Governor And A Noted Racist


So who gets to be memorialized? In California, there are several schools and streets named after the state's first governor. But what about the Native Americans and Black people he terrorized? Well, this week we are profiling statues, memorials and buildings that deserve a second look to see who we honor in America and who we have allowed ourselves to forget - today Peter Hardeman Burnett. As governor of California, he endorsed the genocide of Native Americans. He also tried to pass a law outlawing African Americans in the state. Author Gregory Nokes has researched and written extensively on Burnett. His book is called "The Troubled Life Of Peter Burnett," and he joins us now.


GREGORY NOKES: Well, hi. Thank you very much, Ailsa. Pleasure to be here.

CHANG: So let me ask you - I mean, before Burnett made it out here to California, he was a young man pushing west. Tell us how he came to live in Oregon first.

NOKES: He was a self-taught attorney living in Missouri, and he had a fairly distinguished career there. He was one of the defense attorney for Joseph Smith after the Mormon War in 1838. But he wanted to be rich, and he made all these investments and went heavily into debt. And he heard there was free land out in Oregon. So he organized his own wagon train, which actually was the first major wagon train, in 1843 to come to Oregon.

CHANG: And he enters politics in Oregon. And in his role, I understand, in the Legislature there, he uses a law that bans slavery in Oregon to actually allow slavery there. How did he do that?

NOKES: Well, he did. It was a very tricky maneuver in his party - come from a slave-owning family, brought a couple slaves of his own into Oregon, although one of them drowned on the way. And Oregon had all - previously passed a law banning slavery outright. So he passed what became Oregon's first exclusion law, banning African Americans from coming to Oregon. There'd been no such law before.


NOKES: And as part of the exclusion law, there was this tricky provision that slave owners would have to free their slaves after three years. And that was unusual wording. It, by implication, allowed slave owners to have slaves for three years.

CHANG: Right.

NOKES: And so this was changed rather quickly, but it did create a window for some slave owners to bring slaves to Oregon in that period.

CHANG: Well, the gold rush, of course, brings them to California. He helps found the city of Sacramento. He is elected the first governor of California. And he was able to get laws and policies on the books that effectively subjugated Native Americans in this state. What were those policies?

NOKES: One of those was a law passed in 1850 called the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. And that word protection I underline because it provided for apprenticing native children to white people - or they could obviously be used as servants or slaves - and then for a vagrant Indian - so-called vagrant Indians to be hired out to the highest bidder. And it pretty much is like slavery in that period. And this apparently involved as many as 20,000 Native Americans - were used in that way.

CHANG: And there were also massacres that occurred during his tenure as governor as well - right? - massacres of Native Americans.

NOKES: Oh, yes. Right. (Unintelligible) you know, the one that stuck out in my mind that I wrote about was the Bloody Island massacre in Lake County in 1850 when as many as 300 Pomo Indians, innocent Indians - men, women and children - were massacred by the U.S. Calvary (ph). And he had no comment on these or just kind of didn't call out troops to defend them. So in that sense, it was kind of a passive endorsement of extermination.

CHANG: Well, it seems that Burnett has been reduced to a footnote in California history. I mean, I grew up in California. I never learned about him. A lot of people don't know his name despite passing places that bear his name daily. Why do you think that is?

NOKES: He must have made a tremendous first impression because we've only touched on a few of the offices that he held over the years. People followed him, but he didn't deliver on his promises. Now, I should say that probably much of the population in the West at that time - the white population - were hostile to African Americans. But the idea that they would have a governor who seemed to have that as his only agenda has caused him to be pretty much forgotten. So you have in California - you have these lists of governors of California, and Burnett is always at the top, the very first governor. You think that'd be a point of distinction, but not much is known about him.

CHANG: Gregory Nokes - his book from 2018 is called "The Troubled Life Of Peter Burnett."

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

NOKES: Thank you so much, Ailsa. I appreciate the call, and I appreciate your interviewing me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.