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Oregon Territory Attracted Black Pioneer

Excerpts from an article in The Olympian – date not known
By Dorothy McWilliams

George Washington Bush was born on the east coast of American, the son of an Irish house maid and a man servant from India. Little is known about his early life, but some writers say that, as a young man, George may have come to the west with the early fur trappers. In later years, he became a successful Missouri farmer and cattleman.

But in those days, before the Civil War, laws regarding the rights of his people to own land and property were in question, so in his later years George led the Bush family to a new beginning in the Oregon County.

Bush was near 60 in 1843 when he planned the long move west. He was still tall and strong, though soft-spoken and gentle. With his German wife, Isabelle, and their family, the Simmons and McAllister families, and two bachelors, the westward group numbered about 23 persons.

Many stories have been told about this migration, known as the Bush-Simmons party. Some writers say that George paid for most of the supplies and even bought wagons for his friends who were financially less fortunate. Others say he had a special wagon built with a false bottom in which he hid a small fortune in silver, which had been left by his father, who had inherited it from his employer. We do know that the Bush family had six wagons, each requiring about $1000 to outfit. All six had been carefully and thoughtfully stocked with provisions enough to last a year.

Always a kind and generous person, George responded without hesitation when he saw that the supplies of other members of his party were dwindling. He and Isabelle gladly shared their own stores, even to the point of sacrifice.

After seven months of travel, the Bush-Simmons party arrived at their destination, The Dalles, Oregon Territory. To their dismay, they were told that laws had just been passed denying blacks the right to live in the Territory. Although the white families could have stayed, they would not desert their black friend, so the entire group decided to move north of the Columbia River where there was little likelihood the new law would be enforced.

During the winter of 1844, the party stayed near Ft. Vancouver and the men worked in a sawmill run by the Hudson’s Bay Co. In the spring, Michael T. Simmons led a scouting party to the Puget Sound country and was convinced this was a perfect place for his friends to settle. Dr. John McLoughlin arranged for the Company post at Nisqually to loan whatever supplies might be necessary for the establishment of homesteads, even though this would be aiding the American settlement of what was then considered British territory. Since no crops could be harvested during that first year, help from the Hudson’s Bay Co. made survival possible.

The Bush family’s farm was established near what is now the Olympia Airport. With his sons’ help, George developed his lands into one of the most successful claims in the region. Isabelle also proved to be an able farmer. She was so successful in poultry raising, she was able to barter young turkeys with Dr. Tolmie of Ft. Nisqually. He gave her one young ewe in trade for each turkey and thus the Bush sheep herd was begun.

George and Isabelle maintained friendly relations with the Indians of the Sound area, and Isabelle was able to use her training as a nurse to remedy their ills. The Indians returned their kindness during the uprising of 1855-56.

Tribal leaders promised that no settler would be harmed while on the Bush property. In the fort which had been erected with the help of several families, George once again shared his food with frightened settlers who came to him for help, and Isabelle’s nursing skills were put to use. But the Indians kept their word, and nothing was harmed on the Bush property. George’s desire was to secure land which would ensure his family’s future – land which could never be taken from them because of their race.

In 1854, the United States Congress granted Bush his original claim of 640 acres of land. Although they did not realize it at the time the Bush-Simmons settlers also helped to secure the Washington area for the United States.

There are those who fell that if George Bush had not been driven from The Dalles area because he was considered to be a black, the land north of the Columbia River might have remained unsettled by Americans for unknown years, and the British might have been granted the area which we, today, call Washington.

George Bush was truly an inspiration to all who had known him.

Updated: 03/04/08