R. Gregory Nokes

presenting 9:30am - 10:20am
Signing 10:20am - 10:50pm

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. Burnett served on Oregon’s first elected government and was Oregon’s first supreme court judge. After opening 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 U.S. 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.

Among Burnett’s weaknesses was his refusal 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.

As a member of Oregon’s first government in 1844, Burnett succeeded in winning enactment of a short-lived exclusion law banning African Americans from the territory, and providing a severe lashing for anyone who refused to leave. As governor of California in 1859 and 1851, he twice went to the mat with the State Legislature to try to win enactment of a statewide exclusion law, but was rebuffed both times.

In later years, he wrote he had opposed slavery, overlooking that he owned two slaves while in Missouri and may have tried to bring at least one of them to Oregon with him in 1843.

The Tennessee-born Burnett had lasting achievements, too. He played a pivotal role in establishing the first American governments in both Oregon and California.

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.

About Greg: 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. While with The AP, he was stationed in New York, San Juan, Buenos Aires and Washington, D.C., where he served as both an economics and diplomatic correspondent. He traveled to more than 50 countries during his career.

Nokes graduated from Willamette University and attended Harvard University as a 1972 Nieman Fellow. 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, Oregon.