David Gouverneur Burnet was born on April 14, 1788 in Newark, New Jersey to Dr. William Russell Burnet (1730-1791) and Gertrude Gouverneur Burnet (1725-1791). Dr. Burnet had been married twice, first to Mary Camp (1737-1781) with whom he had at least eleven children. After Mary died, Dr. Burnet married Gertrude, with whom he had another three children of which David was the youngest. The Burnet family was quite well known and influential in the early days of New Jersey. Many of the adult sons enlisted in the militia upon learning of the Battle of Lexington. Dr. Burnet had previously opened a medical office in Newark. During the Revolutionary War, he became surgeon general of the eastern army. One account stated that Dr. Burnet was stationed at West Point and was in the room with former patriot and traitor Benedict Arnold when he received a letter from a messenger that a British officer, a Major Andre, had been captured. Arnold knew that his activities in cooperation with the British were about to be exposed. During the war, the Burnet family hosted George and Martha Washington. Dr. Burnet and Mrs. Burnet died rather suddenly in 1791. Both of David’s parents having died when he was three years old, he went to live with two of his half brothers, Jacob and Isaac, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
He was living in Louisiana at the age of 29, when the diagnosis of a lung ailment encouraged him to relocate further west to Texas. Burnet returned to Ohio for a while before coming back to Texas and residing in San Felipe around 1826. Perhaps encouraged by the success of the Austin colony, Burnet was able to procure a land grant to create a settlement of his own in the Nacogdoches area. This venture was not successful, but Burnet remained in the area and was residing in Texas in the early days leading up to the Texas Revolution.
In December, 1830, Burnet married Hannah Este, also from a fairly large New Jersey family. Hannah was the daughter of Captain Moses Este (1752-1836) and Anne Kirkpatrick Este (1764-1809) and was one of seven children, all of whom were also born in New Jersey. The traditional spelling of the family name was Estey, and ancestors had originally come from England and/or Europe. Moses Este had served in the American Revolution. He was listed as a captain in Taylor’s (New Jersey) State Regiment of Militia and noted as having been wounded in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Their home is an historic landmark in Speedwell, New Jersey.
Further information on Hannah’s family: One account states that her great great grandmother and great great grandaunt were executed in the Salem Witch Trials. In addition, her brother served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Hannah was deceased by the time the Civil War broke out, but her son served in the Confederate Army, which of course is not unusual though both parents were from the North.
The wedding of David and Hannah Burnet had taken place on December 8, 1830 in New Jersey. Between 1831 and 1838, the couple had four children. Three of them, two daughters and a son, died in infancy. Another son, William Este Burnet lived to adulthood.
Burnet participated in the Texas meeting in March, 1836 in which the Texas Declaration of Independence was drawn up and was elected interim president of the new republic on March 17, 1836. The inauguration ceremony was said to have taken place in an old blacksmith shop in Washington-on-the-Brazos. Soon afterward, Burnet ordered the evacuation of the new government from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Harrisburg during the so called Runaway Scrape, in order to escape the army of Santa Anna.
In his capacity as interim president of the new republic, Burnet unsuccessfully sought to engage the support of the United States in defense against Santa Anna and his army. Sam Houston and David Burnet’s relationship was generally characterized by animosity and they were each typically critical of the other’s decisions. Among other things, Burnet was critical of Houston’s decision to withdraw for a time against the Mexican army and Houston criticized Burnet for leaving Washington-on-the-Brazos for Harrisburg. Beyond that, Burnet was known to have been a highly conservative and religious man who was known to carry a Bible around with him. He was said to be openly critical of Houston who in his earlier days had a reputation as a drinker, among other alleged activities that were offensive to Burnet. Houston, we understand, also made comments directed at Burnet.
Houston’s victory at San Jacinto in April, 1836 led to his election as the first president of the republic, Burnet having declined to run for the office. Burnet did run and was elected vice president in 1838, on a separate ballot from the presidency, to serve alongside Mirabeau B. Lamar who had been elected president. Three years later Burnet ran for president but was defeated by Houston, leading to Houston’s second and last term as president.
Texas joined the United States in 1845 and Burnet was appointed secretary of state, an office he held until 1848. Burnet’s wife Hannah passed away in 1858. Hannah is buried in Baytown, Harris County, along with the couple’s three children who died in infancy. The cemetery is locally known as Lakewood Cemetery and overlooks a water feature known as Burnet Bay. The land surrounding the gravesite was once the location of a sawmill operated by David Burnet and bears a gravestone from the Texas Centennial in 1936.
The only adult child of Hannah and David Burnet, William Este Burnet, died at the age of thirty-one in the latter months of the Civil War in a battle at Spanish Fort, Alabama in March, 1865. William was once an officer in the United States Army and resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army. He rose to the rank of colonel and upon his death, he was buried in a private cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.
In 1866, Burnet was appointed to represent Texas in the United States Senate but in the post war climate, the Senate refused to seat him because of his support of the confederacy. He died four years later in Galveston. Burnet and Houston never reconciled. Burnet was said to have been composing a book with Mirabeau B. Lamar concerning Houston, but Burnet is believed to have destroyed his manuscript before he died. His motivation for this is unknown. Burnet was initially buried in the Episcopal Cemetery, but his remains were later relocated to the Magnolia Cemetery and finally to the Lakeview Cemetery there. The city and county of Burnet are both named in his honor.
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