Mulatto Pioneer Founder of Bush
Troubled by Racial Prejudice
Tacoma News Tribune – January 31, 1954 –
Where Tacoma and Seattle and many other
thriving Puget Sound
are, was once political no-man’s land.
One of the pioneers that
make it America was a warm-hearted
brown-skinned man of the name George
His experiences show that the early settlers
of the Northwest were not
from racial prejudice though they could
ill-afford such luxury.
“Your skin is black. I don’t want your
help.” That sounded
of silly when hostile arrows were whishing
overhead on the Oregon Trail
the wagon wheels got stuck in sand and mud.
Yet brave and forthright as they were, when
the west bound immigrants
the Rockies, their old biases and
superiority notions came right
with them. The Negro problem is one of
America’s major social
It did not take long to transplant it in the
Crammed into the covered wagons were many
families from slave
On the political firmament, the clouds of
civil strife were
No question brought temperatures up to such a
feverish pitch as did the
on the Negro’s status.
Pennsylvania-born George Bush was not the
first colored man to appear
side of the continental divide. The
Lewis and Clark expedition
itself popular with the natives because of the
number one exhibit:
the dusky handyman, diplomat and clown.
Liked by Indians
Other members of the race joined the
French-Canadian “voyageurs” in
fur trapping and trading ventures. It
seems that the captains of
far-flung pelt business liked to have some
Negroes around. They
a reputation of getting along better with the
redskin sensed a community of fate with those
the white man’s whip.
On several new homesteads could be found
slaves which their masters had
with them, thereby transplanting the system of
bondage over 3,000 miles
George Bush had white as well as black
ancestors, but that did not free
from his racial handicaps.
By the time he reached the Columbia River in
1844 he was already
with his first career. After years of working
for fur companies, he
from the campfires of the buckskin crowd to a
prosaic cattle trading
Bush was fairly prosperous but the color line
caught up with him.
Negroes were excluded from the state. So
his eyes turned again to
west where he had known a life unhampered by
Lots of talk went around in those days about
the new Oregon
The restless and the thwarted were casting
about to be off for the
Served as Guide
With his German-American wife and five sons,
Bush joined Michael T.
a Kentucky colonel, and some others to form a
large wagon train.
woodsman’s know-how made him an ideal guide on
the tedious journey.
But if the Bushes hoped that out here they
could just forget that there
such a thing as a race question, they soon
found out different.
the few isolated pioneer settlements were not
willing to discard the
color scheme. The Dalles looked like a
good place to stay, but
the newcomers encountered were icy stares,
plainly meaning “you are not
The odyssey of if the Bush family was not yet
The next step was Fort Vancouver where the
small band ran smack into a
international controversy. It was the
tug-of-war between England
America over the then jointly occupied
Dr, McLoughlin, chief factor of the
Hudson’s Bay Company and
czar of the whole area, had strict orders to
give American settlers the
treatment. If they could not be
frightened away, at least he
shoo them all into the Willamette
Valley. The company had already
off the valley to the south as too much
infested with Yankee squatters.
Bush would not have minded making out a claim
on the loamy bank of the
But again the race bars were lowered in his
face. The recently
Oregon government said no to any kind of Negro
or free. It was written into the
territorial constitution and
there till after the Civil War. An
astounding number of
loudly upheld the southern point of view.
The Bushes were in no mood to turn back.
The doors were closed
them. Only one course was left: moving
on to even remoter regions.
Well wishers whispered “If you keep north of
the Columbia, nobody will
you. Sure, officially you’ll still be in
Oregon territory, but
sheriff is not required to cross the
river. He will stay on his
if you stay on yours.”
So the teams were hitched up again. The
leader waved the caravan
toward the north.
Now they were taking a terrific chance.
Any moment the grumbling
lion could let out a big howl: that was really
stepping on his
toes. No American had yet invaded the
northern part of the
to make himself at home permanently.
The party of about 30 inched forward along
what is today Highway
At the Cowlitz River, the dense forest halted
the wagons: so they
on foot and with pack animals. Puget
Sound was their next and
time their final definition.
From all contemporary appraisals emerges the
picture of George Bush as
fine fellow, if there ever was one. The
trail companions and
the neighbors mention again and again his
helpfulness and his
While at Fort Vancouver he made friends with
the Canadian personnel,
swapping yarns with them about the old
trapping days. His whole
profited immensely from the resulting amiable
Bay people were actually defying orders when
they slipped food and
to the shivering newcomers. These poor
travelers were closer to
hearts than their own London
stockholders. Without their help
could hardly have managed to smuggle his party
up to the Sound.
“Bush Prairie” can still be found near what is
Bush staked out a 640-acre donation claim and
soon earned the settlers’
as a crack farmer. With the help of
fruit and shade tree seeds
along on the Oregon Trail, he made Bush
Prairie the show piece of the
His son William Owen must have had a
particularly green thumb.
planting and breeding projects won him medals
of distinction at the
fairs in Philadelphia, Chicago and Buffalo.
In addition to their chores, the Bushes ran
what amounted to a roadside
all for free. Wayfarers on route between
Cowlitz Landing and
Sound points liked to stop there; the house
was always wide open for
With a good square meal in their stomachs and
gifts of grain and fruit
the Bush stores in their bags, they pushed on
feeling comfortable and
A fellow-pioneer recalls this example for
Once some Seattle speculators drove the prices
of grain sky high.
Bush Prairie the bins were full, but for many
of the others it had been
bad year. The brokers were pestering
George to sell for a
hunk of profit. He wouldn’t do it.
“I’ll just keep my grain,” he said, “to let my
neighbors who have had
have enough to live on, and for seeding their
fields in spring.
have no money to pay your fancy prices, and I
don’t intend to see them
for anything I can provide them with.”
The whole family demonstrated an enviable
capacity to make
They were even on good terms with such
adversaries as the British and
The resident Hudson’s Bay agent at adjacent
Fort Nisqually, Dr. Tolmie,
so than even Dr. McLoughlin, was duty-bound to
make it tough for the
But before long he and Mrs. Bush were great
pals who liked to exchange
The Indians got quite nasty at times, backed
as they were against the
of the Pacific with no further route of
retreat from the advancing
palefaces. But never was there any
trouble on Bush Prairie.
two tribes fought each other all day right on
Before they got into the fray, both sides
pledged themselves not to
any of the whites living there. And they
kept their promise.
The neighbors made no bones how they felt on
the subject of the
George was legally still an undesirable
individual and not empowered to
property. Upon a petition of his
friends, the Washington
passed a special bill in 1855, confirming his
title to the prospering
The sons inherited the father’s disposition
and also the esteem of the
William Owen was state representative from
Thurston County, and George
held the presidency of the Washington
The example of George Bush did not convert all
Northwesterns to an
of fairness towards minority groups. But
it has furnished support
those who are upholding the basic right of the
individual to be judged
his own merits.