Biography of Hon. John Burnett

HON. JOHN BURNETT. – Among the prominent self-made men of Oregon is the subject of this sketch. He was born in Pike county, Missouri, on the 4th of July, 1831. He lost his father at the age of fifteen, and was turned out in the world to fight his way as best he might. He first engaged as an errand boy in a store, but, becoming tired of the confinement, at the end of a year hired out to work on a flat-boat on the Mississippi, boating wood to St. Louis. His early education was obtained in the common schools of the country; and, though his opportunities were limited, he laid the foundation upon which he, in after life, built a sound practical education.

In the spring of 1849, there being great excitement about the gold discoveries in California and a general rush to the mines, he accepted an outfit form a relative, and though under eighteen years old started “the plains across” to seek his fortune in the new El Dorado. He arrived in Sacramento on the 10th of September with just one five-franc piece in his pocket. During the greater part of the time from that date on he was engaged in mining and dealing in cattle, until the spring of 1858, when he came to Oregon and settled in Benton county, where he has resided since.

The year after his arrival in Oregon he was married to Miss Martha Hinton, daughter of Honorable R.B. Hinton of Monroe. This happy union has been blessed with a family of seven children of which three girls and two boys are now living. Soon after his marriage he commenced reading law with colonel Kelsey of Corvallis, and in 1861 obtained a license from Judge Stratton to practice in the second judicial district. From that time his life has been a very active one, and much of the time engaged in public affairs.

In 1862 he ran for state senator, but was defeated, though by only twenty-five votes. In 1864 he took an active part in raising the first company in the regiment called for in Oregon during the Rebellion. In 1868 he was elected presidential elector on the Democratic ticket with James H. Slater and S.F. Chadwick, having canvassed Western Oregon against Doctor W. Bowlby of Washington county. In 1870 he was elected county judge of Benton county, and administered the affairs of the county to the satisfaction of the people for four years. In 1872 he ran for Congress against the late Joseph G. Wilson, and was defeated by a small majority.

In 1874 he was chosen associate justice of the supreme court of the state as an Independent Democrat, contesting with his former tutor, Colonel Kelsey, on the Republican ticket, and Honorable L.F. Mosher of Roseburg as the regular Democratic nominee. His term as judge expired in September, 1876. Two years later he was elected state senator from Benton county, and was appointed chairman of the judiciary committee of the senate, the arduous duties of which office he filled to the entire satisfaction of his colleagues. In 1882 he was appointed by Governor Thayer judge of the second judicial district, to serve a portion of the unexpired term of Judge Watson. Since the expiration of this term of office, he has devoted his time mainly to the practice of law, and by industry and economy has accumulated a handsome property, and is now in easy circumstances.

When Judge Burnett first arrived in Corvallis he was without money and without friends, a stranger in a strange land; but he went to work as a day-laborer, doing whatever kind of work he could get to do, and instead of waiting for “something to turn up,” turned things up generally. He has in consequence made money and made friends; and his life has been a complete success. His services on the bench and in the legislature, and his efforts at the Bar and on the hustings, have made his name familiar throughout the state. He has been engaged in a great number of murder trials for the defense; and his success as a criminal lawyer has been equal to that of any man in the state.

It is an advocate that he has made some of his most effective speeches. His friends claim that his efforts in behalf of L.D. Miller, James McCabe, Charles Williams, Frank Reid, Mr. Wheeler, A.J. Burneson, William Skelton, Harry Abrams and Captain Saunders, in their several trials for murder, as well as his pleas for others in other notable cases, have never been surpassed. His style of eloquence is bold, manly, and full of deep feeling; and there are hundreds of men who can testify to the power of his impassioned appeals to a jury.

He is regarded by his fellow townsmen as a liberal, enterprising, public-spirited citizen, aiding and contributing liberally to every laudable public enterprise. He has contributed largely of his means to the building of the State Agricultural College and is the senior counsel of the state in its litigation with the Methodist-Episcopal Church South for the control of the college board. He is an upright, honorable man, plain and unassuming in his manners, earnest, patient, faithful and painstaking in all his enterprises. Real merit alone is his test. He has ever been the friend of the poor and deserving. No appeal to him for help has ever been denied. His sympathies with the unfortunate are easily touched; and none are turned away empty-handed.

There is perhaps no better example of what can be accomplished by honest endeavor under our free institutions, where all have an equal chance in the race of life, than is shown in the career of this notable man. What a lesson his well-rounded character is to the young men of Oregon. Integrity and honesty are indeed the only sure foundations of a lasting reputation. There are no short and dishonest cuts to enduring fame. Those men only live in the annals of a free people who are superior to temptation and circumstances.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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