Immaculate conception — a political version of it — is how modern West Coast residents envision slavery’s role in the earliest foundations of California, Oregon and Washington. Yes, our pioneer ancestors befouled watersheds with mining slurry, sawed down virgin forests with wild abandon and mindlessly engaged in ethnic cleansing against Native Americans and Asian immigrants, but at least they were far away from the nasty business tearing apart the North and South. We imagine our origins untainted by the sin of slavery.
That’s until you learn slaves were brought west on the Oregon Trail, some prominent leaders were slave owners and enthusiastic advocates of American apartheid, and there was talk of splitting California in two — with the north free and the south a slave state.
This and much more emerges from historian R. Gregory Nokes’ engaging look at one of the most interesting Westerners hardly anyone has ever heard of, Peter Burnett. A lawyer and Oregon founder who became the first governor of California, physically he was a doppelgänger for the actor Paul Newman. He died a wealthy bank president. But in other ways, his life chronically failed to jell. He was a quitter with some deeply ingrained bad ideas. The book title “The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett” is an apt verdict on the man.
A Tennessee native who grew up in the slave state of Missouri, Burnett was an organizer and key promoter of the first major wagon train — the Oregon Emigration Company, whose 900 settlers more than doubled the white population of Oregon after a 2,000-mile journey in 1843. He was elected captain of the wagon train on June 1 but only lasted in that exalted role until June 8, when he resigned citing vague health issues. Nokes notes “There would be many resignations for Burnett in years to come, but none quite so quick as this one.”
One of the 1843 emigrants, Jesse Applegate, credited Dr. Marcus Whitman for the wagon train’s success, quoting him as urging: “Travel, travel, travel; nothing else will take you to the end of your journey; nothing is wise that does not help you along; nothing is good for you that causes a moments delay.”
To the extent there are any, Whitman remains a hero of western settlement. His advice — don’t get distracted from your main goal — remains smart today.
In contrast, Applegate ridiculed Burnett’s unhelpful, flowery rhetoric: “He appealed to our patriotism by picturing forth the glorious empire we would establish upon the shores of the Pacific … and how posterity would honor us for placing the fairest portion of our land under the dominion of the stars and stripes.” Another expedition member later said that Oregon cheerleading by Burnett and others was a “mixture of fiction and perverted fact that contained no definite information.”
Nevertheless, it’s possible to imagine a better outcome for Burnett’s story, one in which he might fairly be seen as an inspiration for Gregory Peck’s character in the 1962 MGM epic “How the West Was Won.” While we nowadays are justifiably cynical about the mythology of westward settlement, the image of hopeful families setting out in covered wagons with all they possessed is deeply embedded in the American psyche. It is the same spirit that drives fantasies about interstellar space colonization — the dream of a fresh start in a lush Eden.
In this alternative moral to Burnett’s story, we would cast thoughtful eyes toward his homestead — now the glider airport between Seaside and Portland — and spare a kind thought for an articulate man who helped Oregon on its path to statehood.
Slavery came west
No such luck, however, for the actual Burnett. Nokes reports Burnett may have brought two slaves west with him in 1843, one dying en route. (Some other early pioneers also brought slaves.) Once Burnett arrived, as a member of the 1844 Legislative Committee and the original 13-man Provisional Legislature, he began a zealous effort to bar African Americans from the territory.
The original law establishing a framework for Oregon — which then included what would become Washington, along with parts of other states — outlawed slavery. Burnett weakened and warped this prohibition.
“Burnett’s Legislative Committee substantially altered the antislavery law at its first session in June 1844,” Nokes writes. “Instead of banning slavery outright, the committee allowed slaveholders a three-year grace period to free their slave. After three years, freed slaves were required to leave Oregon. … It provided for severe whipping for a free black man or woman, or a newly freed slave, who refused to leave Oregon.”
This provision that became known as Peter Burnett’s Lash Law required black men to leave within two years and black women within three, or else “he or she may be arrested [and] … shall receive upon his or her bare back not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes, to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county.” The lash law isn’t known to have been carried out and the entire first exclusion law was thrown out by a new committee in 1845. Shamefully, it was an idea with staying power among Oregon leaders, and this effort to enforce apartheid came in and out of existence twice more before going away for good in 1926.
An unintended benefit of Oregon’s racist policies was that George Washington Bush — a wealthy mixed race pioneer from Pennsylvania — became one of the first American settlers in what became Washington state, near Tumwater. The exclusion law did not apply north of the Columbia River.
“The Bush-Simmons Party is credited by some historians as having been in large part responsible for bringing the land north of the Columbia River — the present-day state of Washington — into the United States. They established a presence that attracted other settlers and strengthened the American claim to the area in later debates between Great Britain and the United States over partitioning the Oregon Country,” according to historian Bethany Nemec.
Oregonians learned of the Jan. 24, 1848 gold discovery at Sutter’s sawmill from a sea captain passing through Fort Vancouver. Around 3,000 Oregon men — two-thirds of the territory’s workforce — promptly dropped everything and headed south. Burnett was among them, blazing a new wagon trail between the Klamath Falls area to Tulelake, California. Soon after arriving in gold country, he started a long association with the Sutter family. They subdivided and sold land in what would become Sacramento — where one of my Gold Rush great-great-grandfathers was living by the time the first California State Census was conducted midway through 1852.
It’s striking to learn from Nokes just how much time Californians found for vicious and disgusting politics in the midst of a gold rush. Most of us, I think, imagine a wild semi-society like that portrayed in my high school musical, “Paint Your Wagon” — absolutely everyone frantically panning for nuggets in every little creek. But the lawyerly class was fighting a kind of pre-Civil War by proxy, with Burnett again pushing to exclude blacks. This was beat back. There was considerable talk of splitting the state into various configurations, with one delegate recalling “the only argument for dividing the state into north and south was found in the slavery question, the north to be free and the south slave.” Such a decision would have thrust the West Coast headlong into the horrible armed conflict that erupted a dozen years later.
Delegates were nearly unanimous in denying the vote to everyone except white male Americans and Mexicans of European descent who opted for U.S. citizenship.
Always better at making a first impression than at retaining respect, Burnett ran for governor and won in 1849, but lasted little more than a year. Among other controversies, his second annual message to the Legislature included this horrifying call for action against Native Americans: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” It’s astounding that uber-progressive San Francisco still has a significant street named for Burnett. As noted in Benjamin Madley’s 2016 “An American Genocide,” “The legacies of California’s genocide [against Indians] remain widespread but largely unknown.”
Burnett later became a state supreme court justice, retiring in 1858 after inflicting additional damage on race relations.
Nokes’ amazing synthesis of research and clear writing makes Burnett a powerful antihero of his era, a stew of courage and adventure spiced with toxic bigotry.
Civil War legacies
It has taken a long time to unwind this legacy from the political and social DNA of the West Coast. We did not float above the slavery issue, either before or after the 1861-65 Civil War.
A torrent of westward migration began with the war’s end, and gained momentum with completion of the first transcontinental railroad 150 years ago as of 2019. A diaspora of southern and Union veterans surged into the Pacific states, putting physical distance between themselves and the traumas of war. Confederates had the additional impetus of escaping the economic devastation inflicted on the south.
There’s an intriguing mention in an old Chinook Observer of a Confederate captain or colonel living out a hermit’s life in a rough cabin near Point Ellice, where the Astoria-Megler Bridge now terminates. What thoughts passed through his mind as he watched the great river of the west pass by to the sea? How bad were his nightmares?
A fight goes on to remove a United Daughters of the Confederacy monument in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, resting place of my Great-granduncle Nels Cowden, whose father perished fighting for the Union. Vandalized and defaced in the past two years, the monument made from granite brought from the Georgia birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan may be moved to the private Sons of Confederacy Camp in Portland, according to Seattle news media. Existence of a Sons of Confederacy Camp in Portland raises its own set of questions.
A gentle man, Uncle Nels didn’t believe in hatred of any kind. I have a feeling he would want to leave the Confederate monument alone and the old rebels where they lie, a reminder of America’s most horrible trauma and the awful costs of white supremacy.