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Bush, George Washington(c. 1790–1863) - Pioneer, farmer, entrepreneur, Bush Family Heads West, Chronology, Founds Bush Prairie

oregon community river born

As a leader of the first group of United States citizens to settle north of the Columbia River in what later became the state of Washington, George Washington Bush was an important African American pioneer. Born free, Bush resolved to free himself and his family from the pervasive racism of Missouri by moving westward to the Oregon Territory. When faced with the territory’s own racist provisions, Bush used his connections with the Hudson Bay Company and later local Native Americans to operate a successful farming business amid a white community. Despite the looming threat of losing his land, Bush continued to farm and support community initiatives through his generosity. Finally deeded to him through a special resolution in 1855, his settlement, also known as Bush Prairie, was owned by descendants of the Bush family into the 1960s.

George Washington Bush was probably born in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s to Mathew Bush, a black sailor from the British West Indies and an Irish American servant. Although information about his birth and rearing is scarce and often at odds, it seems that his parents were employed by the Stevensons, a wealthy Quaker family, and that young Bush was educated in the Quaker tradition. While some accounts suggest that the family moved to Tennessee when he was still a child, little is known about his life before he served in the U.S. Army in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Later, Bush worked as a voyager and fur trapper, first for the French-owned Robideaux Company, which was headquartered in New Orleans, and then for the Hudson Bay Company. His tenure with the latter was particularly impressive, as Bush dominated the famed company’s fur trade throughout western Canada and in the Oregon Territory. After traveling throughout the Western region and even to the Pacific Coast, he settled in Clay County, Missouri. There, he met Isabella (or Isabell) James (c. 1809–1866), a German American woman whom he married on July 4, 1831. Their first son, William Owen Bush, was born in 1832. Four more sons—Joseph Talbot, Rial Bailey, Henry Sanford, and Jackson January—were born before the family ventured west in 1844.

Bush’s stock-raising, farming, and nursery businesses were very successful. Still, despite the fact that he was a wealthy man and his family being relatively well-off, Missouri’s unwelcoming attitude towards free African American settlement echoed the bigoted and discriminatory attitudes so pervasive in the years preceding the Civil War. Meanwhile, reports from the first American residents to settle in the western territory of Oregon surfaced in the late 1830 and early 1840s. Their reports of fertile land were attractive to Bush and others, who were inspired to follow the westward trail to Oregon. While Bush was undoubtedly encouraged by Oregon’s financial possibilities, he also viewed the migration as a way to escape Missouri’s increasing prejudice.

Bush Family Heads West

In May 1844, the Bush family left Missouri bound for Oregon. The caravan included four neighboring families—the Simmons, McAllister, Kindred, and Jones—all white. While Kentucky-born Michael Simmons, a longtime friend of Bush, was the recognized leader of the group, which was later named the Simmons party, it was Bush who supplied Conestoga wagons and supplies that allowed some of the other families to make the trip. As an experienced traveler, Bush knew the frontier and proved invaluable on the long journey west, helping to lead the group across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

However, when the expedition reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1844, the Bushes found that the discriminatory laws that they sought to escape preceded them. Encouraged by settlers from the United States, Oregon Territory’s provisional government had enacted legislation that barred the settlement of African Americans. The other members of the Simmons party decided to forfeit their own plans to settle in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley. As a result of their unwillingness to separate from the Bush family, all five families spent the winter of 1844–45 on the north bank of the Columbia River, where the men found work at Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver.


1790s Born in Pennsylvania

1812 Fights in the War of 1812

1831 Meets and marries Isabella (or Isabell) James, on July 4

1844 Bush family leaves Missouri bound for Oregon along with four neighboring families—all white

1845 Settles Bush Prairie

1852 Helps to save his community from famine

1855 Special act allows Bush to legally own the land he claims and settles

1863 Dies in Bush Prairie, Washington Territory on April 5

Founds Bush Prairie

With the knowledge that the area was beyond the reach of the discriminatory legislation, the party settled north of the Columbia River that spring. While the official position of the Hudson Bay Company was to dissuade Americans from settling north of the Columbia River, Bush’s friendship with Dr. John McLoughlin, the most powerful figure in the Pacific Northwest’s small non-Indian community, eased the initial potential tensions towards their settlement. McLoughlin also helped to provide the party with employment as well as supplies at good prices on credit at Fort Vancouver.

In the summer of 1845, Simmons and his family settled at the falls of Deschutes, while the Bushes and the three other remaining families settled farther up the river from Simmons’ New Market community. Just a few miles south, George Bush claimed 640 acres of fertile, open plain, soon known as Bush Prairie.

Surviving the harsh conditions of the Oregon frontier would have been virtually impossible without the aid of the Hudson Bay Company and the cooperation of the Puget Sound Indians, whom they considered trading partners and allies. Like so many other Midwest migrants, the Bush family adjusted to the region because of the help they received from the Nisqually Indians, who taught them how to take advantage of plentiful seafood offerings. The closeness the communities shared led every member of the Bush family to learn the Nisqually language and engendered the regard that prompted them to treat the Nisqually Indians when epidemics carried by newcomers invaded the region. Born at the Bush Prairie in December 1847, George and Isabella Bush’s youngest son, Lewis Nisqually Bush, was the Nisqually’s namesake.

Despite the unusually harsh weather they faced in the earliest years of their settlement, Bush farmed effectively, securing the family with small harvests. When the farm began to thrive, Bush joined forces with Simmons to open a grist mill in Simmons’ New Market community. Even with the community’s successes, Bush continued to focus on the success of his farm. Grown from the seeds he brought with him across the Oregon Trail, acres of fruit trees joined his substantial grain and vegetable crops. The family freely shared their harvest. They were renown for sharing their food, seeds, and experience with new emigrants, and the Bushes worked to save their neighbors during a famine in the winter of 1852.

Fights Racism on the Frontier

Meanwhile, the racism of Missouri that Bush had hoped to put behind him by settling across the river was not removed for long. The 1846 Treaty of Oregon resolved the U.S.-British boundary dispute by fixing the line of demarcation at the forty-ninth parallel; it placed Bush in U.S. territory and made him subject to the racist dynamics of its provisional government. In spite of the dilemma and its real threat against his property holdings, Bush continued to work his farm and support the economic interests of his community. However, when Washington Territory separated from Oregon in 1853, white legislators who were friends of the Bushes and had benefited from their generosity voted unanimously for a resolution urging Congress to pass a special act confirming George and Isabella Bush’s title to Bush Prairie in 1854. Its successful passage one year later allowed them to keep the land but denied George Bush citizenship. While he lived just long enough know of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 5, 1863 without ever having the right to vote in the community to which he had given so much.

Bush, Grand L. (1955–) [next] [back] Bush, Alan (Dudley)

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