PETER H. BURNETT.
When an aged bank president, who began life as a waiter in a backwoods
tavern, tells the story of his life, we all like to gather close about
him and listen to his tale. Peter H. Burnett, the first Governor of
California, and now the President of the Pacific Bank in San Francisco,
has recently related his history, or the "Recollections of an Old
Pioneer;" and if I were asked by the "intelligent foreigner" we often
read about to explain the United States of to-day, I would hand him that
book, and say:--
"There! That is the stuff of which America is made."
He was born at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1807; his father a carpenter and
farmer, an honest, strong-minded man, who built some of the first
log-houses and frame-houses of what was then the frontier village of
Nashville, now a beautiful and pleasant city. While he was still a child
the family removed to Missouri, then on the outer edge of civilization,
and they spent the first winter in a hovel with a dirt floor, boarded up
at the sides, and with a hole in the middle of the roof for the escape
of the smoke. All the family lived together in the same room. In a year
or two, of course, they had a better house, and a farm under some
Those pioneer settlements were good schools for the development of the
pioneer virtues, courage, fortitude, handiness, directness of speech and
conduct. Fancy a boy ten years old going on horseback to mill through
the woods, and having to wait at the mill one or two days and nights for
his turn, living chiefly on a little parched corn which he carried with
him, and bringing back the flour all right.
"It often happened," says Governor Burnett, "that both bag and boy
tumbled off, and then there was trouble; not so much because the boy was
a little hurt (for he would soon recover), but because it was difficult
to get the bag on again."
There was nothing for it but to wait until a man came along strong
enough to shoulder three bushels of corn. Missouri was then, as it now
is, a land of plenty; for besides the produce of the farms, the country
was full of game, and a good deal of money was gained by the traffic in
skins, honey, and beeswax. The simplicity of dress was such that a
merchant attending church one day dressed in a suit of broadcloth, the
aged preacher alluded to his "fine apparel," and condemned it as being
contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Fighting with fists was one of
the chief amusements. At a training, some young bully would mount a
stump, and after imitating the napping and crowing of a cock, cry out:--
"I can whip any man in this crowd except my friends."
The challenge being accepted, the two combatants would fight until one
of them cried, Enough; whereupon they would wash their faces and take a
friendly drink. Men would sometimes lose a part of an ear, the end of a
nose, or the whole of an eye in these combats, for it was considered
within the rules to bite and gouge.
In this wild country Peter Burnett grew to manhood, attending school
occasionally in summer, and getting a pretty good rudimentary education.
Coming of intelligent, honest, able ancestors, he used his opportunities
well, and learned a great deal from books, but more from a close
observation of the natural wonders by which he was surrounded. His acute
and kindly remarks upon the wild animals and wild nature of this
continent could be profitably studied by almost any naturalist. It is
surprising that one who has almost all his life lived on the advanced
wave of civilization in this country should have acquired, among his
other possessions, an extensive knowledge of literature, as well as of
life and nature. Nor is his case by any means uncommon.
When he was nineteen his father gave him a horse three years old, a
saddle and bridle, a new camlet cloak, and twenty-six dollars, and his
mother furnished him with a good suit of jeans. Soon after, he mounted
his young horse and rode back to his native State, and took charge of
the tavern aforesaid in the town of Bolivar, Hardiman County, of which
tavern he was waiter, clerk, and book-keeper. Here he had a pretty hard
time. Being very young, gawky, and ill-dressed, he was subject to a good
deal of jesting and ridicule. But he was fond of reading. Finding, by
chance, at the house of an uncle, Pope's translation of the Iliad, he
was perfectly entranced with it.
"Had it been gold or precious stones," he tells us, "the pleasure would
not have equaled that which I enjoyed."
Nevertheless, he fancied that his ignorance, his country dress and
uncouth manners caused him to be slighted even by his own relations.
"I was badly quizzed," he says, "and greatly mortified; but I worked on
resolutely, said nothing, and was always at the post of duty."
Promotion is sure to come to a lad of that spirit, and accordingly we
soon find him a clerk in a country store earning two hundred dollars a
year and his board, besides being head over ears in love with a
beautiful girl. At first he did not know that he was in love; but, one
day, when he had been taking dinner with her family, and had talked with
the young lady herself after dinner a good while, he came out of the
house, and was amazed to discover that the sun was gone from the sky.
"In a confused manner," he relates, "I inquired of her father what had
become of the sun. He politely replied, 'It has gone down!' I knew then
that I was in love. It was a plain case."
In those good old times marriage did not present the difficulties which
it now does. He was soon married, obtained more lucrative employment,
got into business for himself, failed, studied law, and found himself,
at the age of thirty-six, the father of a family of six children,
twenty-eight thousand dollars in debt, and, though in good practice at
the bar, not able to reduce his indebtedness more than a thousand
dollars a year. So he set his face toward Oregon, then containing only
three or four hundred settlers. He mounted the stump and organized a
wagon-train, the roll of which at the rendezvous contained two hundred
and ninety-three names. With this party, whose effects were drawn by
oxen and mules, he started in May, 1843, for a journey of seventeen
hundred miles across a wilderness most of which had never been trodden
by civilized men.
For six months they pursued their course westward. Six persons died on
the way, five turned back, fifteen went to California, and those who
held their course towards Oregon endured hardships and privations which
tasked their fortitude to the uttermost. Mr. Burnett surveyed the scenes
of the wilderness with the eye of an intelligent and sympathetic
observer. Many of his remarks upon the phenomena of those untrodden
plains are of unusual interest, whether he is discoursing upon animate
or inanimate nature.
Arrived in Oregon, an eight months' journey from Washington, the
settlers were obliged to make a provisional government for themselves,
to which the Tennessee lawyer lent an able hand. He relates an incident
of the first collision between law and license. They selected for
sheriff the famous Joseph L. Meek, a man of the best possible temper,
but as brave as a lion. The first man who defied the new laws was one
Dawson, a carpenter, scarcely less courageous than Meek himself. Dawson,
who had been in a fight, disputed the right of the sheriff to arrest
him. The sheriff simply replied:--
"Dawson, I came for you."
The carpenter raised his plane to defend himself. Meek wrested it from
him. Dawson picked up his broad axe, but on rising found himself within
a few inches of Meek's cocked revolver.
"Dawson," said the sheriff, laughing, "I came for you. Surrender or
Dawson surrendered, and from that hour to the present, Oregon has been
ruled by law. In the course of five years the pioneer had brought under
cultivation a good farm in Oregon, which supported his family in great
abundance, but did not contribute much to the reduction of those
Tennessee debts, which he was determined to pay if it took him all his
life to do it.
The news of the gold discovery in California reached Oregon. He
organized another wagon-train, and in a few months he and another lawyer
were in the mining country, drawing deeds for town lots, from sunrise to
sunset, at ten dollars a deed. They did their "level best," he says, and
each made a hundred dollars a day at the business. Again he assisted in
the formation of a government, and he was afterwards elected the first
governor of the State of California. At present, at the age of
seventy-five, his debts long ago paid, a good estate acquired, and his
children all well settled in life, he amuses himself with discounting
notes in the Pacific Bank of San Francisco. Every person concerned in
the management of a bank would do well to consider his wise remarks on
the business of banking. When a man brings him a note for discount, he
says, he asks five questions:--
1. Is the supposed borrower an honest man? 2. Has he capital enough for
his business? 3. Is his business reasonably safe? 4. Does he manage it
well? 5. Does he live economically?
The first and last of these questions are the vital ones, he thinks,
though the others are not to be slighted.