When an aged bank president, who began life as a waiter in a backwoods tavern, tells the story of his life, we all like to gather close about him and listen to his tale. Peter H. Burnett, the first Governor of California, and now the President of the Pacific Bank in San Francisco, has recently related his history, or the „Recollections of an Old Pioneer;” and if I were asked by the „intelligent foreigner” we often read about to explain the United States of to-day, I would hand him that book, and say: –
„There! That is the stuff of which America is made.”
He was born at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1807; his father a carpenter and farmer, an honest, strong-minded man, who built some of the first log-houses and frame-houses of what was then the frontier village of Nashville, now a beautiful and pleasant city. While he was still a child the family removed to Missouri, then on the outer edge of civilization, and they spent the first winter in a hovel with a dirt floor, boarded up at the sides, and with a hole in the middle of the roof for the escape of the smoke. All the family lived together in the same room. In a year or two, of course, they had a better house, and a farm under some cultivation.
Those pioneer settlements were good schools for the development of the pioneer virtues, courage, fortitude, handiness, directness of speech and conduct. Fancy a boy ten years old going on horseback to mill through the woods, and having to wait at the mill one or two days and nights for his turn, living chiefly on a little parched corn which he carried with him, and bringing back the flour all right.
„It often happened,” says Governor Burnett, „that both bag and boy tumbled off, and then there was trouble; not so much because the boy was a little hurt (for he would soon recover), but because it was difficult to get the bag on again.”
There was nothing for it but to wait until a man came along strong enough to shoulder three bushels of corn. Missouri was then, as it now is, a land of plenty; for besides the produce of the farms, the country was full of game, and a good deal of money was gained by the traffic in skins, honey, and beeswax. The simplicity of dress was such that a merchant attending church one day dressed in a suit of broadcloth, the aged preacher alluded to his „fine apparel,” and condemned it as being contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Fighting with fists was one of the chief amusements. At a training, some young bully would mount a stump, and after imitating the napping and crowing of a cock, cry out: –
„I can whip any man in this crowd except my friends.”
The challenge being accepted, the two combatants would fight until one of them cried, Enough; whereupon they would wash their faces and take a friendly drink. Men would sometimes lose a part of an ear, the end of a nose, or the whole of an eye in these combats, for it was considered within the rules to bite and gouge.
In this wild country Peter Burnett grew to manhood, attending school occasionally in summer, and getting a pretty good rudimentary education. Coming of intelligent, honest, able ancestors, he used his opportunities well, and learned a great deal from books, but more from a close observation of the natural wonders by which he was surrounded. His acute and kindly remarks upon the wild animals and wild nature of this continent could be profitably studied by almost any naturalist. It is surprising that one who has almost all his life lived on the advanced wave of civilization in this country should have acquired, among his other possessions, an extensive knowledge of literature, as well as of life and nature. Nor is his case by any means uncommon.
When he was nineteen his father gave him a horse three years old, a saddle and bridle, a new camlet cloak, and twenty-six dollars, and his mother furnished him with a good suit of jeans. Soon after, he mounted his young horse and rode back to his native State, and took charge of the tavern aforesaid in the town of Bolivar, Hardiman County, of which tavern he was waiter, clerk, and book-keeper. Here he had a pretty hard time. Being very young, gawky, and ill-dressed, he was subject to a good deal of jesting and ridicule. But he was fond of reading. Finding, by chance, at the house of an uncle, Pope’s translation of the Iliad, he was perfectly entranced with it.
„Had it been gold or precious stones,” he tells us, „the pleasure would not have equaled that which I enjoyed.”
Nevertheless, he fancied that his ignorance, his country dress and uncouth manners caused him to be slighted even by his own relations.
„I was badly quizzed,” he says, „and greatly mortified; but I worked on resolutely, said nothing, and was always at the post of duty.”
Promotion is sure to come to a lad of that spirit, and accordingly we soon find him a clerk in a country store earning two hundred dollars a year and his board, besides being head over ears in love with a beautiful girl. At first he did not know that he was in love; but, one day, when he had been taking dinner with her family, and had talked with the young lady herself after dinner a good while, he came out of the house, and was amazed to discover that the sun was gone from the sky.
„In a confused manner,” he relates, „I inquired of her father what had become of the sun. He politely replied, ‚It has gone down!’ I knew then that I was in love. It was a plain case.”
In those good old times marriage did not present the difficulties which it now does. He was soon married, obtained more lucrative employment, got into business for himself, failed, studied law, and found himself, at the age of thirty-six, the father of a family of six children, twenty-eight thousand dollars in debt, and, though in good practice at the bar, not able to reduce his indebtedness more than a thousand dollars a year. So he set his face toward Oregon, then containing only three or four hundred settlers. He mounted the stump and organized a wagon-train, the roll of which at the rendezvous contained two hundred and ninety-three names. With this party, whose effects were drawn by oxen and mules, he started in May, 1843, for a journey of seventeen hundred miles across a wilderness most of which had never been trodden by civilized men.
For six months they pursued their course westward. Six persons died on the way, five turned back, fifteen went to California, and those who held their course towards Oregon endured hardships and privations which tasked their fortitude to the uttermost. Mr. Burnett surveyed the scenes of the wilderness with the eye of an intelligent and sympathetic observer. Many of his remarks upon the phenomena of those untrodden plains are of unusual interest, whether he is discoursing upon animate or inanimate nature.
Arrived in Oregon, an eight months’ journey from Washington, the settlers were obliged to make a provisional government for themselves, to which the Tennessee lawyer lent an able hand. He relates an incident of the first collision between law and license. They selected for sheriff the famous Joseph L. Meek, a man of the best possible temper, but as brave as a lion. The first man who defied the new laws was one Dawson, a carpenter, scarcely less courageous than Meek himself. Dawson, who had been in a fight, disputed the right of the sheriff to arrest him. The sheriff simply replied: –
„Dawson, I came for you.”
The carpenter raised his plane to defend himself. Meek wrested it from him. Dawson picked up his broad axe, but on rising found himself within a few inches of Meek’s cocked revolver.
„Dawson,” said the sheriff, laughing, „I came for you. Surrender or die.”
Dawson surrendered, and from that hour to the present, Oregon has been ruled by law. In the course of five years the pioneer had brought under cultivation a good farm in Oregon, which supported his family in great abundance, but did not contribute much to the reduction of those Tennessee debts, which he was determined to pay if it took him all his life to do it.
The news of the gold discovery in California reached Oregon. He organized another wagon-train, and in a few months he and another lawyer were in the mining country, drawing deeds for town lots, from sunrise to sunset, at ten dollars a deed. They did their „level best,” he says, and each made a hundred dollars a day at the business. Again he assisted in the formation of a government, and he was afterwards elected the first governor of the State of California. At present, at the age of seventy-five, his debts long ago paid, a good estate acquired, and his children all well settled in life, he amuses himself with discounting notes in the Pacific Bank of San Francisco. Every person concerned in the management of a bank would do well to consider his wise remarks on the business of banking. When a man brings him a note for discount, he says, he asks five questions: –
1. Is the supposed borrower an honest man? 2. Has he capital enough for his business? 3. Is his business reasonably safe? 4. Does he manage it well? 5. Does he live economically?
The first and last of these questions are the vital ones, he thinks, though the others are not to be slighted.