The decade between the eruption of the Texas Revolution in 1835 and American statehood in 1845 would long define the historical character of Texas. The era would produce many legends as well as many controversies. The events of this time thrust ordinary men into the history books. Among these figures was the interim president of the Republic of Texas, David G. Burnet.
David Gouverneur Burnet was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1788. His father was a physician and one-time member of the Continental Congress. However, fate intervened in the life of the younger Burnet as both parents died and left him and his siblings orphaned at a young age. As he matured, he was ambitious and increasingly restless.
He left for New York to serve as an accountant, but the business failed in 1805. Seeking adventure, Burnet volunteered to fight in the revolutions in Venezuela and Chile against Spanish rule. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1812 to live with his older brothers. His family was becoming increasingly powerful politically in Ohio, and Burnet began studying law. However, he moved again in 1817, this time to establish a dry goods store in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
He contracted tuberculosis not long after his arrival, prompting him to move to Texas as doctors advised him that the drier air further west would help his lungs. However, he collapsed along the trail during his trek and a party of Comanches found him and spent the next year nursing him back to health.
By 1826, Burnet settled in San Felipe, and worked as an attorney for incoming settlers. He also established a Presbyterian Sunday School society, the first in Texas. He attempted to recruit colonists and invest in mining and real estate, but his efforts were disappointing.
In 1833, he chaired a special convention asking for separate statehood for Texas, an appeal that was rejected. The next year, Burnet was appointed as a judge and worked with other leaders to establish a provisional state government for Texas. Mexico fell into chaos, and Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna declared Texas in rebellion as clashes between settlers and troops intensified.
The Texas Revolution was underway, and Texas settlers and volunteers from the United States gathered to fight. By March 1836, leading figures seeing months of war and no sign of resolution from Mexico decided that independence was the only option left for Texas. At Washington-on-the-Brazos, a convention met and declared independence on March 2.
Burnet had not been elected as a delegate, but instead was supposedly on his way to assist William B. Travis and his defense of the Alamo when he stopped in an effort to recruit the delegates to fight. The decision to stop in Washington saved his life as all the defenders at the Alamo were killed on March 6 and news reached the convention a few days later. Delegates considered Sam Houston as the interim president of the independent Texas, but he was away commanding the army. Stephen F. Austin was in Washington, DC, lobbying for support from the United States.
The convention instead settled on Burnet as interim president by a narrow vote on March 17, with Lorenzo de Zavala as interim vice-president. Presidential runner-up Samuel P. Carson was named secretary of state and immediately left for the United States to seek recognition of Texas independence and possible annexation.
Texas settlers were now fighting for their lives as the Mexican Army seemed unstoppable. Fearing the new government would be captured, Burnet chose to flee to a safer location. He ordered the government to move to Harrisburg (later renamed Houston). The retreat touched off a wave of panic and lead to the decisive battle at San Jacinto.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.