SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS
© 1997-2002, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved


David G. Burnet 1788-1870

David G. Burnet

1st President of the Republic 1836

Vice-President 1839-1841

Secretary of State 1846-1847

"David G. Burnet united the perferfidium ingenium of the Scotch character with the unbending sternness of principle of an old covenanter.  Old John Knox would have hugged such a character with grim delight.  It does not detract from the virtures of this gentleman that he neither possessed eminent administrative capacity, nor in a high degree that knowledge of human nature and tact in managing men which inferior men often acquire; nor that political wisdom and statesmanship accorded to but few"--Ashbel Smith in Reminiscences of the Republic, 1876.

David Gouveneur Burnet, son of a revolutionary surgeon, was born at Newark, New Jersey, April 4th 1788. His family ranked high for intelligence and moral worth. His elder brother, Jacob, was senator from Ohio and many years Chief Justice of that State. Another brother, Isaac, was long Mayor of Cincinnati. David G. received a thorough education and when in his eighteenth year, on the 1st of January, 1806, joined in New York, the expedition of Gen. Francisco de Mirando, a native of Venezuela, for the liberation of that country from Spanish bondage. On that day he received from that patriot chief a commission as Second Lieutenant of infantry, the original of which is in my possession, a gift from him in 1869. The sons of many noted families of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, including a grandson of President John Adams, were in the expedition. The invading squadron entered the Gulf of Venezuela, accompanied by the British frigate Buchante, whose launch boat was commanded by Lieut. Burnet, under whose orders the first gun was fired in behalf of South American liberty. This was in an attack on the fort protecting La Villa de Coro on that gulf. The assailants carried the fort, its occupants retiring to the interior. At Porto Caballo, a number of the invaders were captured ten of whom were slaughtered, some condemned to the mines, and others died. The death of Pitt, Premier of England and patron of Mirando, caused an abandonment of the enterprise and the return of the survivors to New York. In 1808 Mirando renewed the contest and secured a position on the coast. Burnet hastened to him, but he was persuaded by the patriot chief to return home. Soon afterwards Mirando was captured and sent to Spain, where he died in prison. Various thrilling incidents are omitted.

Burnet, a few years later, went to Cincinnati, and early in 1817, to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Threatened with consumption, in the autumn of that year, he went among the wild Comanches and lived about two years with them, recovering robust health, and having as a companion for a part of the time Ben R. Milam, who went among those wild people to exchange goods for horses, furs and peltries. On leaving them Burnet gave the Indians all his effects in exchange for a number of Mexican women and children held captives by them, all of whom he safely returned to their people, refusing all offers of compensation. For the seven succeeding years, in Texas, Louisiana and Ohio, he devoted his time to the study and practice of law. Marrying a lady, whose memory is fondly cherished wherever she was known, in 1826, he became a permanent citizen of Texas, on the San Jacinto river, near Galveston Bay, introducing a steam saw mill, which proved a failure for want of people to buy lumber. In 1833 he was a member of the convention which drafted and sent to Mexico a proposed constitution for Texas as a State, and a long and able memorial praying for its adoption. Gen. Sam Houston was chairman of the committee which drew the constitution; Burnet wrote the memorial, and Austin, as commissioner, carried both to Mexico. The base imprisonment of Austin and utter refusal to adopt the constitution and allow Texas to have a separate State government from Coahuila were the causes, direct and indirect, of the Texas revolution.

In 1834 a law was passed establishing a Superior Court in Texas, with a judge, and three districts with a judge each---Bexar, Brazos and Nacogdoches. Burnet was appointed judge of the district of Brazos, that is, all of Central Texas. He held terms of court until superseded by the revolutionary provisional government in November, 1835, and was the only person who ever held a court of law in Texas prior to that time. The convention which declared Texas independent and established its government as such, on the 18th day of March, 1836 (the last of its session), elected David G. Burnet, President; Samuel P. Carson, Secretary of State; Thomas J. Rusk, Secretary of War; Robert Potter, Secretary of the Navy, Bailey Hardeman, Secretary of the Treasury, and David Thomas, Attorney General. The presidency of this ad interim term continued till the 22d of October, when it was succeeded by officers elected by the people under the constitution, Gen. Houston becoming President and Mirabeau B. Lamar, Vice-president.

The fame of President Burnet very largely rests upon his administration through those eight months of peril, gloom, disaster and brilliant success. The Alamo had fallen twelve days before. The butchery of Fannin and his 345 men occurred nine days later. Houston was then retreating before Santa Anna. The sun of San Jacinto rose in splendor and went down in blood thirty-four days after Burnet's election, but its rays were reflected over a land won to freedom. Then followed grave problems. First the disposition to be made of Santa Anna; second, the maintenance of an army in the field, without money, supplies or resources in a country from which the inhabitants had recently fled and were returning without bread---the condition soon aggravated by men poorly fed and idle in camp; third, the creation of a navy against Mexican cruisers; fourth, Indian ravages on the frontier; and fifth, the regular organization of the Republic, by elections under and the ratification of the constitution. Passions ran high; demagoguery had its votaries, and nothing short of superhuman power could have escaped unjust criticism. But to men of enlightened minds and just hearts it has long been evident that the administration of this over-burdened first President was wise and eminently patriotic. It wilt bear the most rigid scrutiny and be pronounced a durable monument to the head and heart of its chief. After remaining in retirement two years he became Vice-president by a large majority in December, 1838, and served three years, several months of the time as President. He participated in the Cherokee battles of 1839, and was wounded. With 1841 he retired to private life, but served as Secretary of State through 1846 and 1847, with Governor J. P. Henderson. In 1866 he was elected to the United States Senate, but was denied a seat on account of the question of reconstruction.

The close of the war found him alone in the world. His wife and three children lay buried on his San Jacinto farm. His last child, the gallant Maj. Win. E. Burnet, had fallen in the battle of Spanish Fort, near Mobile, March 31, 1865---a noble young man worthy of his noble parents. President Burnet was not only a learned, wise and upright man, but a man of sincere and profound religious convictions, from which, neither in youth nor manhood, did he ever depart. He was tendered and accepted a home in the generous and estimable family of Mr. Preston Perry, in Galveston, but in 1868 his kindred in Newark, tendered him a home among them, on his native spot. The affections of childhood returned and he concluded to go. This becoming known in Galveston, on the 23d of May 1868, a farewell letter was addressed to him signed by ninety-eight gentlemen and twenty-seven ladies, embracing some of the most eminent names in the State. That letter, now before me, is touchingly beautiful and as true as beautiful. It is too long for this place, but I want young people to read at least its concluding paragraph. Here it is:

"Texas, whom you have loved and served, sends you today from her mountain tops to her sea board, from both sexes and all ages her affectionate greeting and farewell. It comes alike from the few feeble voices that long ago, in the day of youth and strength, elevated you to the supreme authority in the Republic of Texas; the heroic few that won her independence and accepted her destiny as their own; from the lispings of childhood, who have learned from parental lips the value of your services, and beauty of your character; and from strangers, too, who have learned to love in you all that is pure, unselfish, and noble in man. And that God, in his goodness, may bless and preserve you, is the earnest and universal prayer of Texas and her people."

This letter to President Burnet, in its entirety, with the names attached, is a proud monument to his memory.

He went to his native place, but did not long remain. The changes there had removed the scenes of childhood and he moved among strangers. The love of Texas---the product of fifty years' association in manhood and its trials--came upon him, by contrast, with resistless force. He came back to die in the land of his love, and then to sleep beside his wife and children. Peacefully, on the 5th day of December 1870, he departed from life, aged eighty-two years and eight months, in the home of Mrs. Preston Perry of Galveston, who was to him all that a daughter could be. From The Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas by John Henry Brown.


David G. Burnet was the youngest of 8 children of William and Gertrude Gouveneur Burnet and reared by an older brother. At age 17 he worked for the accounting firm of Robinson and Hartshorne in New York. An example of Burnet's lifelong generosity, he lost his only assets, an inheritance of $1400 to help try to save the firm. After a failed venture in Louisiana in his first move west and tuberculosis, he rode off west into the wilderness and was rescued by Comanches who nursed him back to health. He returned to Cincinatti, OH and studied law. In 1826 he returned to Texas and obtained an empresario contract, but sold his contract to the New York land company and returned to New York where he married in 1831. He and his wife purchased machinery for a sawmill and sailed for Texas on the schooner "Call" which went aground at Bolivar Point. They waded ashore and most of their possessions were lost, except the sawmill boiler which floated and was recovered in Galveston Bay. Burnet was involved for a short time with land ventures in Texas as an empresario with Zavala and Vehlein which became part of the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company. The venture was criticized as early as 1834 by Col. Juan Almonte in his Statistical Observations on Texas and later Burnet was severely criticized for his participation by President Houston in 1841 as a land speculator with "a company who have swindled by the millions." After independence and in his public positions, Burnet openly expressed his opposition to land speculation in the Republic declaring "an excessive accumulation of lands in the hands of one or a few individuals, is eminently injurious to the public weal."

Burnet was author of the Memorial from the Texas Consultation of 1833 arguing the reasons for Texas becoming an independent state in the Republic of Mexico and authored resolutions denouncing the African slave trade in Texas. The latter met violent opposition led by Monroe Edwards and others already involved in the trade, but passed. Like many Texians, Burnet evolved from opposition to declaring independence of Texas from Mexico to an avid supporter of the revolution as Santa Anna consolidated dictatorial power. First President of the Republic Burnet faced horrific challenges and duties as the Independence Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos adjourned, the Alamo and Goliad garrisons fell and Houston began assembly and retreat of the Texian forces to San Jacinto. He frantically rallied Texians and appealed for aid to the United States while aiding refugees and moving the government to Harrisburg. He adamantly criticized Houston as he retreated toward San Jacinto for not engaging the enemy at points along the Colorado and Brazos Rivers. He and his family barely escaped forces under Gen. Almonte as they fled across the bay to Galveston where he supervised preparation of defense of the island as well as provisions of support for Houston's army at Buffalo Bayou. The problems of setting up a civilian authority and government after the military action subsided continued and were equally intense, especially since the new Republican government had no treasury. At the same time that the fighting subsided, the victorious military spirit ran high and volunteers were continuing to flow into Texas to join even though they, at least temporarily, were no longer needed. In addition, the new government had a large number of Mexican prisoners on its hands including the President of Mexico that must be accommodated. Like all post-war governments, differences of opinion ran rampant both in the civilian and military elements. President Burnet, as well as Houston and even Stephen F. Austin were accused of wrongdoing and even taking and dispensing bribes. Militarism and subversion of civilian authority was a real danger. Rumors abounded that President Burnet would be assassinated and the story goes that on one particular night when an attack was suspected, Mrs. Burnet kept a light burning all night and sat at an open window all night with a loaded pistol. Because of his resistance to militants who at times threatened and even attempted to arrest him and his cabinet, Burnet is credited by some with preventing the rise of militarism and military rule in the new Republic, although it is believed a majority of Texas leaders and the public also opposed such moves.


Lavaca County author Judge Paul Boethel in his work, Colonel Amasa Turner: The Gentlemen from Lavaca and Other Captains at San Jacinto described Col. Turner's role in the affair (Col. Turner became a DeWitt Colony area resident after the war]:

Amasa TurnerOn May 4th, following San Jacinto, Turner (photo at left) with his command was ordered to board the Yellowstone, a boat on Buffalo Bayou, one mile above Lynchburg, proceed to Galveston with the prisoners taken in the battle [of San Jacinto], and report for duty to Colonel James Morgan, then in command. They arrived about midnight on the 5th, disembarked, bedded down in the sand, and slept until morning. After guard mount, Turner reported for duty and surrendered the prisoners. Turner remained at Galveston for several months, and his tour of duty was devoted principally to securing clothing, food and accommodations for his command and the prisoners, and in shoring the harbor defenses about the island. In attending to these details, he often left the Island and so it was early in August that Turner arrived at Velasco, the temporary seat of the government, and called on President Burnet to discuss matters connected with the post. This completed, he informed Burnet of the rumors in the regiment that Burnet's government was to be displaced with his arrest by the army. The army, dissatisfied and disgruntled with the way matters had been handled by the government and inspired by the designs of some of its leaders, held a mass meeting which decided to over throw the existing civil government and take control.

Charges were preferred against Burnet, and Colonel Henry Millard, the commanding officer of Turner's regiment, was directed to proceed to Velasco to arrest Burnet and bring him before the army for trial. Millard accepted the assignment and took with him Lieutenant Tracy and a civilian named Wheelock, the latter quite adept in writing military orders. As it was intended to keep the assignment a secret, no orders were to be written until the group arrived and the occasion presented itself. Millard and his escort arrived the next day and took quarters at Quintana opposite Velasco on the Brazos. Turner called on his commander at his room in the hotel, and was informed by Millard that he had come on important business of the army and would probably need Turner's services. Turner stated he would stand by. Turner then returned to Velasco, saw Burnet and informed him of the conversation with Millard, and advised Burnet the arrest was forthcoming. The following morning, Turner was summoned to Millard's quarters and was handed the order:

Cap. A. Turner First Regiment of Infantry, Regulars.  You are hereby commanded to proceed forthwith to the house or office of David G. Burnet, President of this Republic, and arrest the person of said David G. Burnet and him safely keep. You are also commanded to take into your possession all the books and papers of the Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of the 'Treasury, and them safely keep and deposit; and report the execution of this order in person to me forthwith.  H. Millard, Lieut. Col. Commanding First Infantry
Lieutenant Tracy and Col. Owens will render you any assistance you may require in executing the foregoing order, and you are also authorized to call on Cap. Allen, commanding a company called the "Buckeye Rangers" and stationed at Velasco; and he is hereby commanded to render you any assistance you may require in the executing of the above order, with the company under his command. H. Millard, Lieut. Col. Commanding First Infantry.

Turner, accompanied by Tracy and Owens, crossed the river to Velasco, and he invited them to his room at Haskins' Hotel. On their acceptance, Turner procured a bottle of brandy, set it before them and invited them to help themselves while he contacted Captain Allen to set up the necessary arrangements for the arrest. This was about two o'clock in the afternoon. Turner saw Allen, stated what his orders were, explained he had no intentions of carrying out the orders, and solicited Allen's aid for the protection of the president and the government. Allen readily agreed. Turner then called on Burnet, learned that he had company, and returned to the hotel without disturbing Burnet or his sick child. Turner found Owens safely drunk on the bed but Tracy only partly intoxicated. Tracy wanted to proceed with the arrest, but Turner put him off, telling him he would be called when his assistance was needed. At nightfall Turner called on Burnet again; the two took a walk on the beach where the order for the arrest was delivered so that a copy could be made. When Turner returned to the hotel, Tracy had a new order for him. Tracy had gone back to Millard, reported his suspicions, and been handed an order requiring Turner to report back immediately. This order, Turner refused to obey. By this time, Millard's mission had become general knowledge in and about Velasco. Allen's company was detailed to protect Burnet, while the citizens hastily rallied and assembled to take on whatever forces Millard would send to the town. With this display of resistance, the mission collapsed and Millard was ultimately removed from his command and tried.


Numerous leaders of the new Republic as McKinney, the Jacks and Whartons stood by President Burnet in the trying period and resisted Millard to the extent of physical threats. The Buckeye Rangers, a troop just arrived in Velasco, the scene of the action, from Cincinnati, OH, mentioned in Millard's order to Turner above, declared unanimously behind President Burnet and his cabinet. On 12 Jul President Burnet issued a proclamation forbidding the acquisition of private property for military use and revoked all commissions of persons not on active duty in the army or navy. Although popular with the public, this further antagonized the military loyalists. He called for a general election per the Constitution of the Republic. This post-San Jacinto period took its personal toll on Burnet. A child died from exposure due to the primitive living conditions on the coast.

In Oct he presented his resignation to the new government with the following note:

EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT, COLUMBIA, Oct. 22d, 1836.  To the Honorable. the Senate and House of Representatives:  GENTLEMEN---The period having arrived when, in the estimation of the Congress, the constitutional government may be completely organized, and as I conceive such organization to be desirable, I request the Congress will not consider my incumbency as any obstacle to the immediate inauguration of the Executive officers elect. Sensible of having discharged my duty to my adopted country to the utmost extent of my abilities and with a faithfulness unmingled by a selfish feeling, I shall retire from office with the inmost approbation of my own conscience, which I esteem more than the laudits of men.  DAVID G. BURNET.

Burnet's personal flaw was sensitivity to criticism and political enemies to the point that it inhibited his happiness and statesmanship. In contrast to others as Thomas Rusk, Burnet never liked Sam Houston sufficiently to be an amiable partner in development of the Republic and State of Texas although political expediency and common vision caused both to work together positively for the good of the Republic. Political dueling between Burnet and Houston was often vitriolic and apparently resulted in a challenge by Burnet to Houston for a duel with pistols. In the campaign for President in 1841, the Austin Texas Sentinel, supporting Burnet, wrote that Sam Houston would "blaspheme his God, by the most horrible oaths, that ever fell from the lips of man." The Houstonian supporting Houston wrote about Burnet "You prate about the faults of other men, while the blot of foul unmitigated treason rests upon you. You political brawler and canting hypocrite, whom the waters of Jordan could never cleanse from your political and moral leprosy." The latter was supposedly written for the paper by Houston. Burnet reputedly routinely referred to Houston as a "half-Indian" while Houston often reportedly referred to Burnet as "Wetumpka" meaning a hog thief, which supposedly triggered the challenge by Burnet. Houston, of course, never accepted the challenge replying in effect that Burnet would have to take his place in line with the others which reportedly at one time or another included Albert Sidney Johnston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Commodore Edwin W. Moore and possibly Gen. Felix Houston and William and Samuel R. Fisher.

Burnet was known for his oratory and personal generosity as exampled by the following anecdote related in Bakers Scrapbook of Texas:

"In 1829, a young Mexican Officer came to San Felipe with dispatches to Stephen F. Austin. While waiting a few days for his replies, he went often to the room of Mr. P. [probably Thomas Pilgrim-WLM], who was teaching a school there, and had a library, which was a rare thing in those days. His attention was arrested by a Spanish Testament, which he read with deep and absorbed attention. After reading it for hours, he turned to Mr. P. and abruptly said, 'Will you sell me this?' Mr. P. replied, 'I don't see how I can replace it, and therefore I don't like to part with it, as I am now studying your language.' Next day the young Mexican returned and pored over the pages of the Gospels with increased interest. Again he said to the teacher, 'Will you give me this book?' Mr. P., who was a pious man and was pleased with the interest displayed by the young man, said, 'Why are you so anxious to have that book?' 'Oh, my friend,' he replied, 'it is a good book. God gave us this book to show us the way to heaven. It shows me how to be happy. I have three sisters. I want to take it to them that they may read it and be happy too.' 'Take it, my friend,' said Mr. P. 'Take it and welcome.' Sometime afterward, while on a visit to President Burnet, Mr. P. related the above incident, and instantly when he had concluded, Mr. Burnet arose, and walking to his bookcase he took therefrom a handsomely bound edition of the complete Bible in Spanish, and presented it to Mr. P. saying, 'Here, dear sir, allow me to replace the book you gave in such a cause.'

Examples of Burnet's oratory are his communiqués to the people of Texas while provisional President and his eulogy to Col. John Wharton. Burnet was engaged in experimental farming on his San Jacinto homestead in between his public service. On 8 Dec 1830, Burnet married Hannah Este of New York and they made their home on the San Jacinto River not far from the Lynchburg Ferry. Upon his death, he was first buried with Masonic rites in the Perry family cemetery in Galveston, then re-interred in Magnolia Grove Cemetery and finally to Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.  In 1894 the Daughters of the Republic of Texas erected a monument to Burnet and his friend Sidney Sherman in the cemetery.  Burnet County, Texas is named in his honor and the State of Texas erected a memorial to him on the Clarksville High School campus in Burnet County.


JUDGE BURNET
From the Journal of Dr. Nicholas D. Labadie

In conclusion, I ask the privilege of placing on record some of those who aided in those early struggles, and whom I have perhaps not yet named. Among those most conspicuous for their patriotism were Dr. George M. Patrick, James Lindsey, William B. Scales, William R. Morris and W. Griffin. 

But I cannot omit to mention one to whom not only Liberty County but the whole country owes a debt of gratitude---I mean David G. Burnet, whose participation in our troubles dated from their commencement---for a considerable time his influence was exerted to moderate the impetuous and apparently premature spirit of resistance. When action was called for, he was found ever ready; and by his cool intrepidity and presence of mind, he more than once succeeded in allaying disputes and arresting a resort to arms that might have been seriously injurious to our cause, until finally the leaven of revolution not only spread through Liberty and Brazoria but extended through the country. When the time for united action came, he was among the most active and decisive.

As an acquaintance of Judge Burnet for over twenty-six years, I can say that the citizens of Liberty owe him a debt of gratitude. The fair fame of that country is in no small measure owing to his counsels, his firmness, zeal and moderation, which gave tone and dignity to the due administration of justice. His valuable assistance in the organization of that jurisdiction into the Third Municipality cannot well be forgotten; and I dare say, the records of that country, if preserved as they should be, will long attest to his services in giving unpaid instructions to the many new judges. He has labored long and faithfully for the public, at his own expense, while others have let no opportunity pass to make private gain at the public expense. Judge Burnet is now living in retirement, having little or nothing to show for the labors of a long and well-spent life chiefly devoted to the public service.


SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS
© 1997-2002, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved.