Mulatto Pioneer Founder of Bush Prairie
Troubled by Racial Prejudice
Tacoma News Tribune – January 31, 1954 – Alfred Apsler
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 new territory.
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 Indians. Perhaps
redskin sensed a community of fate with those ex-Africans. Both
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 man-made
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 over.
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 Northwest.
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 immigration whether
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 relationship. The
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 today Olympia.
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 Bush’s much-hearlded
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 the family
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 Industrial Association.
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.