The tale of Texian David G. Burnet

Someone recently asked me what I knew about David G. Burnet, the man Burnet County was named for. I had to admit that my knowledge of the first provisional president of the Republic of Texas was limited, so I did a little research. The man had an interesting and diverse history. He believed strongly in and fought for the separation of Texas from Mexico, but following the war, many Texian officers and citizens wanted to try him for treason.

It is unclear why he was chosen to be the namesake of the county in 1852. The “Burnet County History Book, Vol. I” says there is no authentic data on the subject, but offers the following speculation: “…Many of the prominent men taking part in its (Burnet County’s) organization having been participants in the Texas War of Independence… (Among them) Logan Vandeveer and William H. Magill (who) were San Jacinto veterans and Peter Kerr had personally known General Sam Houston, with whom he bitterly disagreed in policy. It is possible that Kerr also had known David G. Burnet, another bitter enemy of Houston, and thus been the proponent for naming the county for Burnet.”

There are two sources; “Legendary Texians” by Joe Tom Davis and “Chief Executives of Texas: From Stephen F. Austin to John B. Connally, Jr.” by Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr. that tell of the history of Burnet.

He was a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which created a petition asking the Mexican Legislature to approve separate statehood for Texas. When Austin delivered the document to the Mexican government, he was promptly jailed and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became the new president of Mexico. He disbanded all state legislatures in the country, declared himself military dictator and marched north to “reassert control of Texas.”

Burnet was the grandson of Dr. William Burnet of New Jersey, who had been appointed a surgeon by the Provisional Congress in 1776 and later served in the Continental Congress in 1780. His parents, Dr. William Burnet Jr. and Gertrude Rutgers, had died when he was young.

After a failed business venture as a young man in New York, Burnet moved to Ohio to be near his brother and study law. In 1817 at the age of 29, he traveled to Louisiana to set up a mercantile business, but contracted tuberculosis. His doctor suggested a move to Texas, to recuperate in the dry air. A Comanche tribe invited him to live with them. 

The Indian camp was near the “great falls” (later Marble Falls) on the Colorado River. So without his knowledge, his first home in Texas was on the ground that would later be named for him.

After his health greatly improved, he returned to Cincinnati and practiced law. Then, at 38, he headed back to Texas and provided legal advice to the settlers in San Felipe who were part of Austin’s successful Anglo colony. 

He was anxious to bring more people to Texas, so he returned to Ohio, married, and recruited new settlers. When he returned with his wife, he brought a steam engine to establish a sawmill along the San Jacinto River. Burnet was a deeply religious man and had earlier organized the first Presbyterian Sunday School in Texas at San Felipe, so when he refused to convert to Roman Catholicism, as the Mexican government required all landowners to do, his grant for opening the mill was revoked and he was forced to sell his property at below market value.

In 1835, Burnet took the lead in forming a provisional state government with others who were determined Texas should be an independent state within Mexico. In 1836, a constitutional convention was held at Washington-on-the-Brazos, but he was not chosen as a delegate. When Burnet heard of Col. William B. Travis’ plea for help at the Alamo, he set out to offer his assistance and stopped at the convention to try to recruit others to join the fight. Instead he became inspired by the deliberations and told the delegates that he would be willing to serve as president of a republic. He was present when the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed and the new constitution adopted, and on March 17, 1836, he was elected provisional president of the new Republic of Texas.

One of his first acts was to transfer the capital to Harrisburg, located closer to Galveston and the United States border. At the time Santa Anna was just 60 miles away. Burnet personally carried the new, valuable documents in his saddlebags as the capital was quickly moved, in an action that has since been called the Runaway Scrape.

Sam Houston was annoyed when he heard of the move, calling it a cowardly action that caused a great deal of unnecessary panic.    When Burnet heard of this he was infuriated and said Houston was staging his own retreat from Gonzales because he was afraid to fight. A feud started that would go on for many years between Houston and Burnet.

Houston moved his army closer to the Gulf of Mexico and on April 24, 1836, he turned and defeated Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto. Burnet hurried to the battlefield several days after the victory. He was not happy with Houston, but Houston’s staff was not happy with Burnet. 

They claimed that Burnet “… grumbled ungraciously, was hard to please, and spent all of his time giving orders and collecting souvenirs.” Burnet argued with Houston over the distribution of the $18,000 that had been found in Santa Anna’s treasure chest. Burnet thought the money should go to the Texas treasury, but Houston had already given $3,000 to the Texas Navy and distributed the rest among his men.

Burnet took Santa Anna into custody and negotiated the Treaty of Velasco, which ordered Santa Anna to cease all hostilities and withdraw his troops south of the Rio Grande River. Mexico later repudiated the treaty.

Many Texans were incensed at the terms of the treaty and wanted Santa Anna executed. Some wanted Burnet put on trial for treason.

Neither happened.

Later Houston was elected as the first president of the Republic of Texas. Burnet returned to his home and practiced law and farmed, but his failing health prevented him from being successful at either occupation. He served as vice-president to the Republic, but not under Houston, and the first secretary of state when Texas became a part of the United States. 

His wife died in 1853 and his only son took a leave of absence from his military career to move his father to Galveston, where he lived with an old friend Sidney Sherman.

Burnet opposed secession and was saddened when his son William joined the Confederate States Army. William was killed shortly before the conclusion of the war, leaving Burnet the only surviving member of his family.

He suffered from senility later in life and died in 1870 at the age of 83. His remains are in a Galveston cemetery next to his friend Sherman.

Bryson is a former Highland Lakes reporter who lives in north Burnet County. Her e-mail is oliverplaceranch@wildblue.net.