GOLD RUSH: PROFILE

Peter Burnett

Peter Burnett figured it was time to become a lawyer. His general store had gone belly-up, he had a family to support and he had 62 cents to his name. But he didn't make much money at lawyering either. So he quit as a district attorney in western Missouri, establishing a lifelong pattern of quitting jobs and moving on when the mood struck him.

Burnett headed for Oregon. There, he tried, and failed, at farming and became a member of the territorial Legislature and a Supreme Court justice.

But the lure of gold made Burnett move south to California in 1848. After making a modest gold strike, he planned to set up a law practice in San Francisco. On the way to the city, however, he was waylaid by John Sutter Jr., who offered him a job selling lots in the newly laid-out city of Sacramento.

Burnett eventually made $50,000 on the deals, and drifted back to politics. In 1849, he ran for governor of California and won easily over four opponents, apparently boosted by his Oregon resume.

As California's first American civil governor, Burnett developed a reputation as something of a political squirrel. He opposed slavery, but also proposed that African Americans be banned from the state. He favored taxes over bonds as a way to raise money, and advocated imposing the death penalty for robbery and grand larceny.

Highly unpopular with the Legislature and mocked in the press, Burnett resigned as governor in early 1851. He later was a lawyer in San Jose, a bank president in San Francisco, a Sacramento city councilman and a state Supreme Court justice. He died wealthy in 1895 at the age of 88 -- proving that in the Gold Rush, even some quitters could prosper.