Mossback’s Northwest: The Black pioneer who launched the Puget Sound settlement

Escaping a racist Oregon law, a man named George Bush became one of Washington’s most important homesteaders.

A racist Oregon Territory law drove George Bush, a free Black man, across the Columbia River to settle near what is now Olympia. Bush was Puget Sound's first settler and paved the way for what would become Washington state. Artifacts uncovered in Bush Prairie, George Bush's 1845 homestead, give clues about the family life of Puget Sound's first settler.

In the early days of settlement of the Oregon country, laws were passed to exclude Blacks from the region. It was a terrible decision, but it had one unexpected benefit for the future of what became the state of Washington.

George Bush was a mixed-race, free Black American. Born around 1790, he served in the War of 1812, during which he fought in the Battle of New Orleans. He later fought in the Black Hawk War. He worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company as a trapper, eventually settling in Missouri, a slave state.

His father had been a servant to a white Philadelphia merchant and he had a white mother. When the merchant died, he passed his estate on to George Bush’s father, and eventually it went to George Bush himself. In other words, Bush was fairly well-to-do.

In 1844, Bush decided to move west with his wife, Isabella, a white woman of Irish ancestry, and their five children. Following the Oregon Trail was not for the poor. It required money for wagons, oxen and years of supplies — enough to last on the rugged road and a year or more’s worth to last while you homesteaded at trail’s end. Bush decided to pull up stakes for country where he and his family wouldn’t be subjected to the prejudice and limitations that Blacks faced in Missouri. He is said to have hidden silver coins in the bed of his covered wagon to help fund his establishment in a freer place.

When Bush’s party reached the Columbia River, he learned about Oregon’s new exclusion law and did not want a repeat of the racism of Missouri. The earliest version of the law — the so-called “lash law” — provided that Blacks in Oregon were to be whipped until they moved on or out. Instead of settling in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, where most settlers landed in that time period, Bush and his family, along with a group of white settlers, decided to head north of the Columbia, out of reach of lash law enforcement.

Bush and prominent-settler-to-be Michael Simmons traveled north in what was known as “the Simmons Party” and wound up in an area near present-day Olympia. They established a community they called New Market — now Tumwater — and the Bush family settled in 1845 on land still called Bush Prairie.  It was the first permanent white settlement on Puget Sound. Bush was a hugely influential settler. He established a gristmill and sawmill, planted crops and used some of his fortune to help other immigrants to the region, supplying them with funds and food to get them through rough times at the end of their journey.

It was a mixed-race Black man — Bush — who is credited with playing a key role in the first American settlement north of the Columbia River and whose party helped establish the pattern of settlement that drew the region into the American fold (the British had claimed it, too). Historians consider Bush to be the catalyst for drawing American settlers to Puget Sound, which eventually led to the formation of the Washington territory and Washington state.

He was highly esteemed by his white neighbors. He had good relations with Native peoples, even during the so-called Indian War of 1855-56, when he was sympathetic with Chief Leschi. Blacks were excluded from obtaining land through the homestead law, but eventually, at the urging of Simmons and others whom Bush had helped, Congress passed a law that gave Bush and Isabella title to their 640 acres, like anyone else.

Bush’s legacy lasted beyond his life, which ended from a stroke in 1863. His family continued to run the farm and live on Bush Prairie into the 20th century, and had enterprises of their own. His son, William Owen Bush, became the first Black person to serve in the Washington Legislature, a Republican in the House of Representatives. He became famous for his agricultural prowess, especially in growing wheat. His grains were displayed at many turn-of-the-century world’s fairs, including ones in Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis, and they won many gold medals. He also introduced legislation that led to the creation of what we know today as Washington State University.

There is still a farm at the old Bush home site — the Bush Prairie CSA. There is a living butternut tree there that was planted by George Bush when he arrived in the 1840s. It is over 200 years old. Students from The Evergreen State College have conducted archaeological digs there in recent years. They and the current owners and have found a variety of artifacts, including shoes for oxen — which were used for hauling covered wagons, farm equipment and timber. Other finds include pottery, a clay pipe and other household goods that underscore the relative prosperity of the Bush family in pioneer times.

The brutal Oregon lash law produced at least one positive unintended effect for which every Washingtonian should be grateful: the legacy of the Bush family.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.