Copyright © by Toucan Valley Publications, Inc. | Source Citation


1st Governor of
California, December 20, 1849 - January 9, 1851

Born:  November 15, 1807, in Nashville, Tennessee

Died:  May 17, 1895, in San Francisco, California

Marriage:  Harriet Rogers (1828), 3 daughters, 3 sons


The State of California’s first governor actually took the oath of office before California became a state. A state constitution had been adopted and the first legislature, meeting in San Jose in December 1849, installed Peter Burnett as governor, hoping that the U.S. Congress would soon accept California as a state. That did not happen until September 9, 1850.


Early Life

Burnett was born in Tennessee but grew up in Missouri. He worked as a hotel clerk and a store clerk before becoming a lawyer. He then served as a district attorney in western Missouri (1839-42), but resigned to go to Oregon.



Burnett organized a wagon train that left Missouri in May 1842 and arrived in Oregon in October 1843. He became a member of the Legislative Committee of Oregon and helped to shape the territorial government there.

Farming in Oregon did not suit him. In 1848 Burnett headed for California as captain of another wagon train, the first to enter California from the north. This wagon track was followed by many people heading south during the gold rush. Burnett spent several months mining for gold at Long’s Bar on the Yuba River, and then worked at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. In September 1849, as California was hoping to become a state, Burnett declared himself a candidate for governor and easily won the election.



Under Burnett’s direction, county governments were organized and a court system was established. Burnett was against slavery and wanted California to be a “free” state, but he did not want African-Americans to have citizenship or to live in the state.  Burnett was not a popular governor and there was much criticism of his leadership. Even his suggestion that Thanksgiving be changed from the fourth Thursday to a Saturday in November was rejected. In January 1851 the legislature accepted his resignation as governor.


Later Years

Burnett went back to being a lawyer. He served for a year (1857-58) on the State Supreme Court. From 1863 to 1880 he was president of the Pacific Bank of San Francisco. Burnett lived in San Francisco until his death in 1895. He wrote Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer in 1880.


Go to Top