George Washington Bush
|George Washington Bush|
Drawing of George Washington Bush
|Died||April 5, 1863 (aged 83-84)
George Washington Bush was born in Pennsylvania around 1779. An only child, he was raised as a Quaker and educated in Philadelphia. Bush’s father Matthew was born in India, but was of African descent. 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.
When He was about twenty years old Bush moved to Illinois where he entered the cattle business for the first time. In about 1920 Bush moved his cattle business to Missouri where he remained for the next twenty years.
Soldier and trapper
Bush fought under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans. He later worked as a voyageur and fur trapper. He began his trapping career with a Frenchman named Robideau who made his headquarters in St. Louis. After this he spent several years spent in Oregon Country working for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).
Missouri and marriage
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.
A year after his marriage his first son, Owen, was born. The family had nine other boys, of which five survived past infancy.
To the Northwest
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. Bush bought six Conestoga wagons, equipping them with enough provisions for a year, and helped several families make the trip to Oregon. According to the Bush family history, Bush built a false bottom onto his wagon in which he hid over a hundred pounds of silver, worth about $2,000. The Great Granddaughter of Bush claims that Bush had hidden $5,000 in silver dollars, some gold bricks, and fifty dollar slugs. With him he brought many species of fruit and shade trees that he would plant in his farm at Bush Prairie.
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.
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 in 1845, and Bush helped finance Simmons' logging company. Bush introduced the first mower and reaper to the area in 1856.
In addition to their farm, the Bushes ran a roadside hotel for free. Wayfarers traveling between Cowlitz Landing and Puget Sound liked to stop there. It was open to anyone who came through the area. The Bushes would give visitors a good square meal and gave gifts of grain and fruit grown on the Bush farm.
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. 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.
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. One year, wheat was in short supply and Bush was offered an unheard-of price for his entire crop. His response was
"I'll just keep my grain to let my neighbors who have had failures have enough to live on and for seeding their fields in the spring. They have no money to pay your fancy prices and I don't intend to see them want for anything in my power to provide them with."
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.
Their six sons carried on their tradition of farming and public service. 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. R
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- Thomas, Paul (1965). George Bush. Seattle: University of Washington. pp. 7, 9.
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- Aspler, Alfred, “Mulato founder of Bush Prairie troubled by racial prejudice,” Tacoma Sunday Ledger, January 31, 1954.
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- "Articles on George Washington Bush". City of Tumwater, Washington.
- Biographical Sketches of Black Pioneers and Settlers of the Northwest
- Sederstrom, Don. "George Washington Bush". The Oregon Encyclopedia.