Editor’s Note: This is part one of an essay examining the life of George W. Bush. See more in next week’s edition of the Nisqually Valley News.
George W. Bush (c. 1790-1863) was a key leader of the first group of American citizens to settle north of the Columbia River in what is now Washington. Bush was a successful farmer in Missouri, but as a free African American in a slave state, he faced increasing discrimination and decided to move west. In 1844, Bush and his good friend Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867), a white Irish American, led their families and three others over the Oregon Trail. When they found that racial exclusion laws had preceded them and barred Bush from settling south of the Columbia River, they settled on Puget Sound, becoming the first Americans to do so. Bush established a successful farm near present day Olympia on land that became known as Bush Prairie. He and his family were noted for their generosity to new arrivals and for their friendship with the Nisqually Indians who lived nearby. Bush continued modernizing and improving his farm until his death in 1863. Named George Washington Bush in honor of the nation’s first president, he has no known connection to the family of the two later presidents who share with him the name George Bush.
George Washington Bush was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. Information about his birth and early years is sparse and conflicting. His birth date was probably around 1790, although some accounts place it more than 10 years earlier, which would have made Bush more than 60 when he and his family followed the Oregon Trail west.
His father, Matthew Bush, of African descent, was said to be a sailor from the British West Indies. His mother was an Irish American servant. Both apparently worked for a wealthy Quaker family named Stevenson, and young George Bush was educated in the Quaker tradition. As a young man, Bush served in the U.S. Army and may have participated in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He later worked as a voyageur and fur trapper, first for the St. Louis based Robideaux Company and then for the famed Hudson’s Bay Company, which dominated the fur trade throughout western Canada and in the Oregon Territory. During this time he traveled extensively in the western plains and mountains, and may have reached the Puget Sound region.
Bush eventually settled in Clay County, Missouri, where he met Isabella (or Isabell) James (c. 1809-1866), a young German American woman. They were married on July 4, 1831. William Owen Bush (1832-1907), the first of their six sons, was born exactly one year later. Four more sons — Joseph Talbot (1834-1904), Rial Bailey (1837-?), Henry Sanford (1841-1913) and Jackson January (1843-1888) — were born before the family headed west in 1844.
West With Family and Friends
Bush farmed and raised cattle, and the family was relatively well off. However, the state of Missouri had laws that purported to forbid free African Americans from entering the state, and the climate of bigotry and discrimination was increasing in the years leading up to the Civil War. At the same time, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, reports from the first U.S. residents to cross the continent and settle in the fertile Oregon Territory were beginning to inspire others to follow the Oregon Trail west. Bush saw westward migration as a way to escape the increasing prejudice he and his sons faced in Missouri.
Four white families — those of Michael and Elizabeth Simmons, James and Charlotte McAllister, David and Talitha Kindred and Gabriel and Keziah Jones — joined the Bushes on the journey that would make them the first U.S. citizens to settle on Puget Sound. The five families were all friends and neighbors in Missouri. Kentucky-born Michael Simmons was a longtime friend of George Bush who went on to play a prominent leadership role in the early history of Washington Territory. Simmons’s sister Charlotte was married to James McAllister and Simmons’s wife Elizabeth was David Kindred’s sister.
Simmons and Bush were the recognized leaders of what became known as the Simmons party. Bush was among the wealthier pioneers to follow the Oregon Trail. He was said to have supplied the Conestoga wagons and supplies that allowed some of the other families to make the trip. According to some accounts, a false floor in the Bush family wagon concealed a layer of silver dollars. The Simmons party joined a larger wagon train, which departed Missouri in May 1844. Bush’s frontier experience made him a valuable addition to the train, which he helped lead across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Change of Destination
When the Simmons party reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1844, they found that discriminatory laws had preceded them. The provisional government set up in Oregon Territory by settlers from the U.S. had enacted legislation, like that of Missouri, barring settlement by African Americans. Not wishing to separate from the Bush family, Simmons and the other members of the party gave up their plans to settle in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley.
The five families spent the winter of 1844-45 on the north bank of the Columbia River, not far from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver in present-day Clark County. The men of the party found work that winter at the fort. By spring, they had decided to settle north of the Columbia in the Puget Sound region, which was then beyond the practical reach of the settlers’ new legislation. The 1818 Treaty of Joint Occupation placed the Oregon country under joint British and U.S. control. In practice, the provisional government’s authority extended only to the south side of the Columbia River, while the British Hudson’s Bay Company still dominated the territory north of the river.
The Hudson’s Bay Company officially attempted to dissuade Americans from settling north of the Columbia. However, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), who as the chief factor in charge of Fort Vancouver was the most powerful figure in the Pacific Northwest’s small non-Indian community, helped them just as he helped those settling south of the Columbia. Under McLoughlin’s direction, Fort Vancouver not only employed the men in cutting timber and making shingles but also provided the Simmons party with supplies at good prices and on credit.
Move to Puget Sound
In the summer of 1845, Simmons led an exploring party around Puget Sound, while Bush and the others remained on the Columbia, where Bush had charge of the families’ livestock. Simmons found a site for a settlement at the falls where the Deschutes River enters Budd Inlet in what is now Thurston County.
In October 1845, the Bush, Simmons, McAllister, Kindred and Jones families, accompanied by two single men, Samuel Crockett and Jesse Ferguson, set off from Fort Vancouver for Puget Sound.
They traveled down the Columbia to the Cowlitz and up that river to Cowlitz Landing. From there they spent 15 days making a road through the forest to Budd Inlet, which they reached in early November. Simmons and his family settled there at the falls of the Deschutes, and Simmons laid out the community he called New Market, which later became Tumwater.
The Bushes and others settled farther up the Deschutes River, a few miles south of New Market on a fertile open prairie that soon became known as Bush Prairie.