Back to All Events

Murdock Talks: "The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California''

  • Museum of the Oregon Territory 211 Tumwater Drive Oregon City, OR, 97045 United States (map)


Few people in the nineteenth-century American West could boast the achievements of Peter Burnett. He helped organize the first major wagon train to the Oregon Country. He served on Oregon’s first elected government and was Oregon’s first supreme court judge. He opened a wagon road from Oregon to California. He worked with the young John Sutter to develop the new city of Sacramento. Within a year of arriving in California, voters overwhelmingly elected him as the first US governor. He also won appointment to the California Supreme Court.

It was one heck of a resume. Yet with the exception of the wagon road to California, in none of these roles was Burnett considered successful or well remembered. Indeed, he resigned from many of his most important positions, including the governorship, where he was widely perceived a failure.

Burnett’s weakness was that he refused to take advice from others. He insisted on marching to his own drum, even when it led to some terrible decisions. A former slaveholder, he could never seem to get beyond his single-minded goal of banning blacks and other minorities from the West.

The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett is the first full-length biography of this complicated character. Historians, scholars, and general readers with an interest in Western history will welcome R. Gregory Nokes’ accessible and deeply researched account.


R. Gregory Nokes retired in 2003 after 43 years in journalism, including 25 years with The Associated Press and 15 years with The Oregonian in Portland. Nokes graduated from Willamette University and attended Harvard University. Since retiring from journalism, he has embarked on a second career as a writer and lecturer on events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Nokes and his wife, Candise, live in West Linn. Some of his published works include: Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, and The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett.

Murdock Talks is a series brought to you by the Clackamas County Historical Society that brings in experts and authors from all over Oregon to speak at our very own Murdock Gallery, located on the second floor of the Museum of the Oregon Territory building.