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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lot 13

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Item 13. Recollections by the first U.S. governor of California—“An important account of early days in Oregon, the Gold Rush, and the transition of California from a military to a civilian government” (Kurutz).

13. BURNETT, Peter H[ardeman] (1807-1895). Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer...the First Governor of the State of California. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880. xiii [1] 448 [6, ads] pp. 12mo, original blindstamped blue cloth decorated in gilt and black. Moderate outer wear and some spotting, hinges cracked, interior very fine.
First edition. Braislin 269. Cowan I, p. 30. Cowan II, p. 86. Graff 496. Gudde, California Place Names, p. 338. Holliday 152. Howell 50, California 337. Howes B1000. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 13. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 99a. Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives 76. Mintz, The Trail 66: “Burnett traveled in the same company as Applegate, Lenox, and Whitman.” Norris 446. Rocq 8471. Smith 1282. Streeter Sale 2966. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 29. Zamorano 80 #13. Burnett dedicates the work “To Col. Alexander W. Doniphan, the Xenophon of the Mexican War.” ($250-500)

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Peter Burnett, a native of Tennessee, wrote one of the most important and detailed reminiscences of California during those rambunctious early days following the discovery of gold. His is a rare instance of a gold hunter migrating from Oregon. In addition, Burnett served as California’s first elected American governor, and consequently, his recollections are an invaluable firsthand account describing California’s successful quest for the formation of a state government and its admission to the Union. Dale Morgan, in his fabulous bibliographic essay in Howard Gardiner’s Golden Dreams (Stoughton: Western Hemisphere, Inc., 1970), calls this “a highly readable, always interesting and frequently valuable memoir.” According to his preface, Burnett began writing these recollections in October 1860, quit the following month, and resumed the task in March 1878.
The first part of his autobiography covers his years in Tennessee, practicing law in Missouri, his trip to Oregon in 1843, and life in that Pacific Northwest territory. As an Oregon pioneer and a member of the “Legislative Committee of Oregon,” he played an important role in the formation of territorial government, an experience that would have immediate application in California. In July 1848, Oregon received news of the gold discovery, creating “the most intense excitement.” By September, Burnett was on his way, serving as the captain of a wagon party following the Applegate Route. During the trip, Burnett said his party overtook Old Peter Lassen, went to his rancho, proceeded to Sutter’s Hock Farm, forded the Feather River, stopped at Long’s Bar on the Yuba, and on November 5, 1848, arrived at the mines. Burnett abandoned the mines on December 19, with the realization that he could not make enough money to pay off his debts. He went to Sutter’s Fort and took a job as the agent for Sutter’s son.
Thereafter, the future governor’s recollections describe conditions in Sacramento and San Francisco and arrival of miners by sea. Military Governor General Riley, recognizing Burnett’s legal talents, appointed him to the position of superior court judge. On November 13, 1849, a resident of less than two years, Burnett was elected the new commonwealth’s first governor, beating out Captain Sutter among others. In January 1851, he startled everyone by resigning his office because of a personal crisis. Thereafter, he returned to practicing law, moving to Sacramento in December 1852. In 1857 Governor Johnson appointed him as a justice of the state Supreme Court, but apparently not liking government positions, he resigned this esteemed post a short year later. Back in the private sector, he created a fortune as the president of the Pacific Bank in San Francisco.
While individual parts of Burnett’s work are highly readable, the book suffers from the weaknesses inherent in a reminiscent account written over a long span of years. At times it comes across as a jumble of information studded with rambling digressions with little flow. Some areas lacked sufficient development; for example, his account of winning election as the first governor is disappointingly short. Interspersed throughout are long excerpts from early newspapers, his inaugural address, messages to the legislature, and transcriptions of letters. Bibliographer Robert Cowan, while offering a positive evaluation, wrote “it is offered in rather dry form.” Nonetheless, the first governor left an important account of early days in Oregon, the Gold Rush, and the transition of California from a military to a civilian government.

——Gary F. Kurutz



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