George Bush, Washington’s unrecognized black pioneer, honored at State Capitol and beyond

OLYMPIA – Growing up in Tumwater half a century ago, Mark and Kathleen Clark knew nothing about George Bush. We didn’t talk to them about it in public school. They would learn nothing from Bush – a black pioneer who fled violent discrimination in Missouri and Oregon before establishing the first non-Native American colony in what would become Washington state – until the adulthood.

But, even as America continues to fight the racism that runs through its history as a guideline; Even as the battles over school curricula have taken on renewed urgency, things are changing.

Washington last week unveiled a monument to Bush at the State Capitol in Olympia, the first monument on Capitol Campus dedicated specifically to a black person.

The Clarks, both 65, were on hand for the ceremony. Since 2008, they have owned and operated a 5 acre vegetable farm in Tumwater. It’s the last cultivated remnant of Bush Prairie, the 640-acre farm that Bush and his family built in present-day Tumwater when they arrived in Washington 175 years ago.

“We too are part of the history of Washington State,” said Representative Debra Entenman, D-Kent, who, as part of the Legislative Black Caucus, was instrumental in establishing the monument in granite and bronze. “The early days of Washington State included indigenous peoples, whites and African Americans.

“I feel like I’m out of breath as we celebrate George Bush today. And we stand on the shoulders of many who came after George Bush so that I can be here today, ”Entenman said.

Bush was born in Pennsylvania between 1779 and 1790 (sources differ on the exact date) to a black father and an American mother of Irish descent. As a free man, Bush settled in Missouri, a slave state, where he met and married Isabella James. In 1844, the couple headed west with Michael Simmons (who was white) and his family, along the Oregon Trail, but faced the threat of government-sanctioned violence upon arrival.

Oregon had recently abolished slavery, but its interim legislature had, around the same time, passed a series of vicious laws designed to prevent blacks from settling there. One of those laws, the “Whipping Law”, stipulated that black people would be publicly whipped – 39 lashes every six months – until they left the territory. The whipping law was eventually repealed and replaced with a law requiring black settlers to perform public works.

So the Bush and Simmons families traveled together, spending the winter near Oregon City, then crossing the Columbia River and heading north.

They came together at the southern edge of Puget Sound and founded Tumwater. (Simmons has been honored with a Capitol monument since 1959.)

The Bush family prospered, setting up their farm in 1845, growing wheat, peas and potatoes; build a sawmill and start a small logging operation. They were legendary for their hospitality, welcoming travelers with food and a place to stay.

The family is credited with “saving the lives of other settlers with food from their farm during the 1852 famine,” says the new monument.

Ezra Meeker, a pioneering leader and author, wrote that Bush gave almost his entire harvest that year.

“The man divided most of his harvest among new settlers who came with or without money,” Meeker wrote in a Bush biographical sketch. “’Pay me in kind next year,’ he would say to those in need; and to those who had money he would say, “Don’t take too much, just enough for you.” “

In 1850, Congress passed a law granting land in the Washington and Oregon Territories to all white settlers who claimed it. Bush was kicked out, but he was so widely respected that the Washington Territorial Legislature pressured Congress to grant him an exception.

“He contributed a lot to the colonization of this territory, the suffering and the needy never having asked him in vain for help and assistance,” the territorial legislature wrote to Congress in 1854.

Congress complied, granting Bush the 640 acres the white couple received.

“The law confirming your land claim on you and your wife was passed by Congress without amendment and was approved by the President a few days later,” wrote Columbia Lancaster, Washington’s first delegate to the State House of Representatives. United, to Bush in 1855.

There are no known photographs of George Bush.

A series of five paintings by Jacob Lawrence, commissioned by the Washington State Historical Society in 1972, shows him as a swashbuckler, guiding an interracial wagon train across the country and through a snowstorm across the country. above the continental divide.

Bush died in 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation theoretically ended slavery, but before the end of the Civil War, and on June 19, 1965 (June 17), ended slavery In practice.

He was able to own land, under the special exemption granted to him, but was never able to vote. Bush’s eldest son, William Owen Bush, would become, 26 years after his father’s death, the first black person to sit in the Washington Legislature. He introduced the legislation that created Washington State University.

Among those attending the inauguration of Bush’s memorial last week were two of his descendants. Megan Jarman of Seattle is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Mandana Smith Kimsey, who married William Owen Bush later in life. And Brandon Staff of Tumwater is George Bush’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson.

Jarman and the staff met for the first time. Jarman grew up hearing stories from his father about their ancestors, but staff knew nothing about it, until about eight years ago, when his grandmother was contacted by Washington State, who told him asked to take a DNA test.

“So she spat in that tube,” Staff said. “And we sent it and they said, ‘Yeah, it turns out you’re direct descendants.’ So they sent in a stack of papers about two and a half, three inches thick from all of our family history, which was really, really cool.

Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society, said it “took too long” for the state to celebrate Bush and his family.

“The stories of black Washingtonians have been underrepresented in our history, and this is a step toward an inclusive narrative of our state’s past,” Kilmer said.

Fifty years ago, Mark and Kathleen Clark didn’t learn the first thing about George Bush at Tumwater High School. “It’s important to understand history and understand some of the injustices that have been done,” said Mark Clark. “And to continue to learn from it.”

Last week, the Clarkes, now unofficial custodians of the Bush property, were interviewed by a group of student journalists at the monument’s dedication.

The reporters were working on a project on Bush for the school yearbook. They were students at George Bush Middle School in Tumwater.


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