George Washington Bush

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For other people of the same name, see George Bush (disambiguation).
George Washington Bush
George Washington Bush.jpg
Drawing of George Washington Bush
Born 1779
Died April 5, 1863 (aged 83-84)
Spouse(s) Isabella James

George Washington Bush (1779 –April 5, 1863) was an American pioneer and one of the first multiracial (Irish and African-American[1]) non-Amerindian settlers.[2]

Early life[edit]

George Washington Bush was born in Pennsylvania around 1779. An only child, he was raised as a Quaker and educated in Philadelphia.[2] Bush’s father Matthew was born in India, but was of African descent.[1] Matthew Bush worked for a wealthy English merchant named Stevenson for most of his life. At Stevenson’s home in Philadelphia, Matthew Bush met his wife, an Irish maid who also worked for Stevenson, and they married in 1778. Pennsylvania did not repeal its anti-miscegenation law until 1780, suggesting that Matthew Bush was either not considered black, or he was married under the care of Germantown Friends Meeting in violation of the law. George's parents served Stevenson until his death. Stevenson had no other family and so left the Bushes a substantial fortune.[2]

Soldier and trapper[edit]

Bush fought in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans. He later worked as a voyageur and fur trapper, including several years spent in Oregon Country working for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).

Missouri and marriage[edit]

Around 1830, Bush returned to Missouri where he married Isabella James, the daughter of a Baptist minister of German descent, on July 4, 1831. Missouri was a slave state at the time and had adopted anti-miscegenation laws in 1821, but like his father's marriage, there is no evidence that his marriage was thought to be illegal at the time. Bush was a free man and had never been a slave but, while he was of African and Irish descent, Missouri did not provide him the same legal status as a white man. Some sources state that his family lived in comfort there, while others suggest they faced increasing prejudice.[1][3]

To the Northwest[edit]

In 1844, Bush and his family (along with five other families including his friend Michael Simmons) left Missouri, heading west on the Oregon Trail. Bush's navigation skills and knowledge of the western region, gained during his years as a trapper, made him the indispensable guide of the party. Isabella's training as a nurse was an important contribution as well. Bush and his family were also known to be very generous, purchasing supplies for their fellow travelers first in Missouri and later at great expense at Fort Bridger.

By the time the Bush-Simmons party reached the Oregon Country over four months later, the Provisional Government of Oregon had passed laws preventing black Americans from owning land. As a result, Bush and his party traveled north across the Columbia River, into territory that at the time was claimed by both the United States and Great Britain. Bush's connections with the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver may have helped the settlers gain access where the company had previously barred Americans from settling.

Bush Prairie[edit]

The Bushes and the other five families established a settlement, named Bush Prairie, at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound in what is now Tumwater, Washington. Bush and Michael Simmons built the area's first gristmill and sawmill, and Bush helped finance Simmons' logging company.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the joint administration north of the Columbia, placing Bush Prairie firmly in the United States. Ironically, by staking an American claim to the area, Bush and his party had also brought Oregon's black American exclusion laws, clouding the title to their land; these laws would not apply if the territory were under the British Empire. When the Washington Territory was formed in 1853, one of the first actions of the Territorial Legislature in Olympia was to ask Congress to give the Bushes unambiguous ownership of their land, which it did in 1855.[1][3] Bush was thus among the very first African-American landowners in Washington State.

According to the Oregon Trail History Library,

The Bush-Simmons Party is credited by some historians as having been in large part responsible for bringing the land north of the Columbia River—the present-day state of Washington—into the United States. They established a presence that attracted other settlers and strengthened the American claim to the area in later debates between Great Britain and the United States over partitioning the Oregon Country.[4]

George Washington Bush lived out the rest of his life in Washington. He maintained excellent relations with local Amerindians, many of whom he nursed through epidemics of measles and smallpox. He also extended remarkable generosity towards with his fellow settlers, sharing grain with needy neighbors rather than selling it to speculators at great personal profit.[1] Bush died on April 5, 1863. Isabella James Bush died September 12, 1866.


Historians have noted how his experience exemplifies the interdependence and interconnection of people from different racial groups on the western frontier, as well as the ugliness of racial prejudice.[1]

Their six sons carried on their tradition of farming and public service.[3] The eldest, William Owen Bush, served twice in the Washington State Legislature. In 1890, he introduced the bill establishing the institution that is now Washington State University.

In 1973, Jacob Lawrence did a series of five paintings depicting George Washington Bush’s journey by wagon train from Missouri to Bush Prairie. The paintings are in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f National Park Service (February 1999). "George Washington Bush and the Human Spirit of Westward" (PDF). The Museum Gazette. Retrieved 2013-12-18. 
  2. ^ a b c Tumwater Research Center. “History and Background of Pioneer Bush Family”, ‘’Olympia News’’, 1945-07-06, Retrieved on 2008-07-13.
  3. ^ Black Pioneers of Oregon.

Further reading[edit]

  • Heikell, Iris White (1980). The Wind-Breaker - George Washington Bush: Black Pioneer of the Northwest. Vantage Press. 
  • Ritter, Harry (2003). Washington's History: The People, Land, and Events of the Far Northwest. Westwinds Press. 

External links[edit]