The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 4, Pages 19-29
By Joseph Franklin
Joseph Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Black Studies at Eastern Washington State College.
All of the pioneers who came to the Northwest faced hardships in the new land. Storms, poor roads, and lack of shelter were common obstacles to early settlers. But some pioneers faced further handicaps beyond these physical problems. Black emigrants faced also the hostility of many white settlers, who passed laws restricting the freedom of non-white settlers. The stories of George Washington and George Washington Bush show how two brave men faced such handicaps, won the respect of their neighbors, and contributed to the growth of the Northwest.
Today, the city of Centralia, Washington stands as a monument to the legacy of George Washington, a black pioneer, and to his white foster parents, the Cochrans. Together they crossed many thousands of miles and endured many hardships out of love and genuine concern for one another. Their story shows how sometimes whites and blacks worked together to settle the West.
George Washington was born on August 15, 1817 in Frederick County, Virginia to a white English woman and a black slave named Washington. Shortly after George's birth, his father was sold to a new owner in the deep South, probably so other slaves would not follow his example. His mother then decided to escape the stigma of having a black child by giving her baby to her close friends, the Cochrans, who understood her situation and were willing to take care of the infant until it reached the age of twenty-one. Even though this was a painful decision to make, the mother felt that the care and love of the Cochrans would enable her child to have a much better life than she or his father could provide for him. The Cochrans adopted George Washington and treated him like one of their own family.
After living for four years in Virginia, they decided to move west. Their first stop was Delaware County, Ohio, which was then considered the frontier. It was here that George's stepfather started teaching him how to survive in the wilderness. He taught his foster son how to shoot a rifle with deadly accuracy, how to build a house, farm land, tan hides, and survive on the open frontier. Mrs. Cochran taught him how to sew, spin, weave, cook and read, even though it was forbidden by the laws of that state to teach reading to a black. She also taught and instilled in him a fear and reliance on God, which helped him the remainder of his life.
After they stayed in Ohio for five years, the West again beckoned and they moved on to Missouri, eventually settling in the town of Bloomington. By this time George was twenty years old and was a very healthy and robust man. In Missouri he and his stepfather went into business by opening up a gristmill and a distillery. For a time this was satisfying to George, but he then decided that he should become fully independent and leased a sawmill with another man as his partner. At first the business prospered, but when he tried to collect a debt from a customer, he was told that he could not legally do so because mulattoes had no rights in the State of Missouri.
Understanding the predicament that his son was in, Mr. Cochran circulated a petition that would give his foster child all the rights and privileges of a free man. Because of the high regard the Cochrans were accorded, many of the residents in Macon County signed the petition which was then presented as a bill to the House of Representatives and passed on January 30, 1843.
George was now able to operate and own a commercial enterprise without having to get a license from Macon County or any other county in the State of Missouri. The only right this law did not give him was the right to hold official office.
But misfortune again overtook George. First, his sawmill was destroyed by a flood. Then he moved to Illinois for the purpose of manufacturing and selling liquor but was thwarted by Illinois law prohibiting traffic in liquor by free persons of color.
By now it seemed that life would restrict George to second-class citizenship. But once again he felt that if he moved on he could find a place where men were judged on their merit and not their color.
During the thirty years before the Civil War, many blacks migrated north and west from the South. Not only were slaves running away, but free blacks were looking for greater opportunity and better treatment and acceptance. Since Washington had been thwarted in his bid to become a bonafide citizen in the Midwest, he decided to go to the Pacific Northwest.
First Batist Church, Centerville.
George Washington donated the land and hewed sills and rafters.
Unfortunately, even in Oregon there were laws to control free negroes. This was because of the activity of a free black named Saul who gave whites trouble in the Tualatin district by threatening to incite the Indians against the whites. Saul was arrested and turned over to the Indian agent, Dr. White, who suggested that all free blacks be forbidden to enter this territory. This recommendation was then made a law by the provisional legislature. To assure the departure of free negroes, the law contained the following provision:
That if any such free negro or mulatto shall fail to quit and leave the state as required by the act to which this is amendatory, he or she may be then arrested upon a warrant issued by some justice of peace, and if guilty upon trial before such justice, the said justice shall issue his orders to any competent officer to execute the process directing said officer to give ten days public notice, by at least four written or printed advertisements, he shall have power to publicly hire out such free negro or mulatto to the highest bidder, on a day and at the place mentioned in said notice. Such officer shall expose such free negro or mulatto to public hiring: and the person who will obligate himself to remove such free negro or mulatto from the country for the shortest term of service, shall enter into a bond with good and sufficient security to Oregon, in a penalty of at least one thousand dollars, binding himself to remove said negro or mulatto out of the country within six months after such service expires, which bond shall be filed in the clerk's office in the proper county, and upon failure to perform the conditions of said bond, the prosecuting attorney for Oregon shall commence a suit, upon a certified copy of such bond, in the circuit court against such a delinquent and his sureties.
Despite these obstacles, George Washington and the Cochrans, who wanted to come along to the new territory, finally arrived in Oregon around the middle of July, 1850. After settling his foster parents at Cowlitz Landing, Washington then staked out a section of land where the Chehalis and Skookumchuk Rivers join together. Washington squatted on this land in the hope that the law against the settlement of free blacks would change, but before it did, two white speculators who were his guests indicated that they intended to purchase his land as soon as they could get to Olympia and file a claim. Once again his parents reacted quickly by buying his land in trust for him, thus assuring George that he would have his land when the law would permit him to. He sold the improvements to the Cochrans for two hundred dollars.
Now that his land was secure, Washington cultivated more acreage, and the family prospered. The Cochrans made many friends and became so influential that Mr. Cochran was selected as a representative at the mass convention held at Cowlitz Landing and Olympia in November, 1852. The meeting was held for the purpose of petitioning the Congress of the United States for separation from the Oregon Territory. Surely Cochran's presence at these conventions helped to establish a favorable status for free negroes into the territory of Washington.
George Washington then bought back his property from the Cochran's for the sum of thirty-two hundred dollars. He paid them this high price to show his gratitude for what they had done for him and because he wanted to help them as they neared retiring age.
But just when things were going well for the family, Mr. Cochran died, followed two years later by his wife. The loss of these two people left a void in George’s life. Perhaps the offset his sorrow he worked even harder for the next few years. He proposed and became highly respected by the people of the community.
In 1868 Mr. Washington met a widow by the name of Mary Jane Cooness. The next year at the age of fifty-one they were married. About six years after his marriage, George Washington began nursing the idea of creating a new town. The opportunity became clear when the Pacific Northern Railroad decided it would run its line through George’s property. He decided to establish a town site on his land, hoping the railroad would encourage the arrival of more people and industry. He called this city Centerville because it was between the cities of Puget Sound and Portland. On January 8, 1875 Washington and his wife went to the county seat at Chehalis to enter their intentions to start the town. It read:
This town of Centerville, lies in the North East Corner of Section Eight, Township 14 Range Two West. I have agreed to sell lots to any person for two dollars per lot...The Streets and Alleys are as follows, West Front Street 68 feet wide, East Front Street 66 feet wide. All the rest of the streets are sixty feet wide. Three alleys twelve feet wide. Said Streets and Alleys are hereby dedicated as highways for the public use.
George and Mary Jane Washington
Washington also gave land for the public use so people would feel that this was truly their town also. A few examples would be the land that he donated for a park, a library, and a church.
At first the town did not grow as fast as he wanted it to. So he doubled the size of his lots, and by 1889, Centerville had a population of about a thousand people. George was now a wealthy man.
In the same year George's first wife died. In 1890 he remarried and fathered a son. But shortly after his son's birth, he and his second wife separated.
The year 1891 brought about the change of the name of the town from Centerville to Centralia because there was another town named Centerville in Eastern Washington which caused difficulties in the mail service.
In 1893 Centralia, along with much of the rest of the United States, suffered an economic depression. Many people left the city in search of a better place to live. But for those who stayed, George Washington carried out Centralia's first relief plan and never refused help to any needy person. He gave in a spirit of love, friendship and understanding, but he also helped maintain the recipient's dignity by providing work. During this time he managed to keep his own wealth intact by good business transactions.
By 1898 the country began to stabilize and the people of Centralia had come to regard George as the unofficial mayor of the town. Despite his age he was very active in the town's business until he was badly injured by being thrown from his carriage by a runaway horse. George Washington died a few weeks later on August 26, 1905. The founder of Centralia was buried from the Baptist Church he had helped to start in the cemetery he had donated to the city. All businesses were closed down, and a time of mourning was called for by the mayor. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had worked so hard to win the acceptance and affection of his fellowmen.
George Washington Bush
The settling of the Northwest produced many men of distinction, honor and virtue. George Washington Bush falls easily into this category. Because of Bush's determined efforts to find a better life for himself and his family, he not only influenced the history of the State of Washington but also of the United States.
Bush was born in Cow Pasture County, Pennsylvania, in 1790. His father was a black named Matthew Bush. He worked as a sailor for a Mr. Stevenson, who was a very rich merchant. Bush's mother was an Irish housemaid who worked in the same household. Their employer was a kind man who took a profound interest in young George by sending him to a Quaker school. The training that he received at this school was important because it helped to mold his character and prepared him to withstand the many hardships that he would encounter.
When Bush was still a boy, the Stevenson family left Pennsylvania and moved to Cumberland County, Tennessee, where he lived most of his teenage life. It was during this time that he acquired knowledge about agriculture and cattle raising.
The Bushes worked hard for their employer, and so when Mr. Stevenson died, he left them a large inheritance, which greatly helped George and his parents to become respected citizens.
The next time we encounter George is when the United States was fighting in the War of 1812 when he served under the command of Andrew Jackson. It was probably during this time that he acquired a longing for complete freedom, even though his Quaker background tempered his aggressiveness in dealing with problems.
After the war ended, Bush decided to go to work as a hunter and trapper for Robidou of St. Louis and then for the Hudson Bay Company. His experience with these companies allowed him to gain knowledge about land west of the Mississippi, and also taught him how to survive on the trail, facing all of the elements. One of his trips took him to the Northwest and acquainted him with the country and people of the region. This knowledge of the territory would prove very helpful to him when he decided to come to the Northwest as a settler.
After a few years of trapping, hunting, and exploring for these companies, he decided to return to Missouri and devote his time to farming and cattle raising. But because of the anti-Black laws that existed in some parts of Missouri, he had difficulty in finding a place where he could live and have a profitable business. He first moved to Boone County, Missouri, then on to Clay County. It was here that he met his future wife, Isabella James, who was the daughter of a Baptist minister with German American ancestors. Bush was about forty years old when he married and started a family. The Bushes were blessed with five sons in a fairly rapid succession, which was a great joy to both George and his wife. Bush continued to build up a prosperous farming and livestock business. He also won respect and praise from his neighbors because of his willingness to help them in whatever manner that was possible. But even being neighborly and friendly did not alter the hostile attitudes of some of the people toward "Free people of Color and Mulattoes."
In another corner of the continent events were taking place that would allow Bush and his family to move to a more congenial social climate. For a number of reasons many people were beginning to move to the Northwest. In 1842 the first sizeable group of American homesteaders reached the Oregon Territory and settled in the Willamette Valley, becoming a largely self-sustaining colony with their own provisional government. In July, 1843, in Cincinnati, Ohio, an Oregon Convention met and demanded the immediate extension of American jurisdiction to latitude 54-40. But the British, also active in the Northwest, insisted on having the boundary set at the Columbia River.
Back in Missouri some of Bush's friends decided to immigrate to Oregon and invited George to come along with them because of his earlier travels in the Northwest, his industrious nature, and his appealing character. They also decided to stand by George in case he met with prejudice during their travels. They then agreed to form the Savannah Emigration Company, which would take them to the promised land. This group consisted of Michael Simmons, David Kindred, James McAllister, and Gabriel Jones. All of these early pioneers were leaving their homes to find a better place to live and prosper. Bush actually helped to provision and outfit many of these families, for despite the discrimination against him, he had been able to become a fairly wealthy man.
The wagon train was under the control of Michael T. Simmons, an Irishman, who was also looking for a place to be free - like Bush he had also experienced ethnic prejudice. This attitude and Bush's experience in the Northwest Territory established a very close bond between Simmons and Bush, which helped the entire party going west.
After toiling for many months along the Oregon Trail and facing terrible odds, the Bush-Simmons party finally reached The Dalles, Oregon. But once again they encountered a "no vacancy" sign in the form of a law against settlement by free blacks.
Imagine how the Bush family felt at this time. They had come practically from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, only to find that they still were not considered American citizens, despite their accomplishments and self-sufficiency.
Acknowledging the situation of the Bush family, his friends reaffirmed their intention to stay with him and his family until there was a suitable place for them to settle. This group of settlers camped near Fort Vancouver for the winter and supplied themselves with provisions by working for the Fort. The following spring Michael Simmons went on an exploring trip to the Puget Sound area, which was then under British control. When he returned, they all decided to go back to that area because it would not fall under the control of the provisional government of the American settlers.
The small settlement they established was not only important for Bush and his family, but for the United States also because of the presence of colonists such as these helped to give the United States a claim to that part of the country which was still under the control of Great Britain. Ironically, the atmosphere created by prejudice toward Bush and his family brought about a settlement, which contributed to the American claim to a boundary north of the Columbia.
But unfortunately when the boundary dispute was settled between Great Britain and the United States, Bush and his family once again found themselves back in the same predicament: harassed by the anti-Black laws which went into effect when the Oregon Treaty was signed. Since the Bushes were already residing in the area of the new land addition, they were allowed to remain. But the land that he had been working on was not legally his, and all of the hard work that he had put in could be taken away from him.
Looking at his position we must say that he was free but not equal; he sowed kindness and reaped bitterness; he worked land but could not own it; he wanted to be a man but was treated like a boy.
But despite the continual threat of ruin through the loss of his land and perhaps even his freedom, he continued to rise above his difficulties and help others. He loaned seed and other implements to new settlers who would need them for survival. Then in 1853, a fateful year for the Bush family, there was a wheat drought, which affected everybody else but the Bushes. They could have sold their crop to speculators who were trying to control the grain prices. But rather than make money for himself, Bush chose to sell to his neighbors so that they would not lose everything.
In April of 1853 the Oregon Territory was divided and the State of Washington was created with Olympia as its capital. That year a memorial petition was sponsored by many of the lawmakers of the new state who were friends of the Bush family. This petition would give him the ownership of the land he had been cultivating for practically a decade. The memorial read as follows:
Your Memorializes, the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Washington, legally assembled upon Monday, the twenty-seventh day of February, A.D. 1854, would most respectfully represent unto your honorable body that George Bush, a free mulatto, with his wife and children, immigrated to, and settled in, now Washington Territory, Thurston county, in the year 1845, and that he laid claim to, and settled upon, with his family 640 acres of land, in said year, in said Territory and county, and that he, with his family, has resided upon and cultivated said tract of land continuously, from the said year 1845 to the present time, and that his habits of life during said time, have been exemplary and industrious and that by a constant and laborious cultivation of his said claim, and by an accommodating and charitable disposal of his produce to immigrants, he has contributed much towards the settlement of this Territory, the suffering and needy never having applied to him in vain for succor and assistance; and that at the present time the said George Bush has a large portion of his said claim under a high state of cultivation, and has upon it a good frame house, and convenient out-houses, in all amounting in value to several hundred dollars,' and that in view of the premises aforesaid, your memorializes are of opinion that the case of the said George Bush is of such a meritorious nature, that Congress ought to pass a special law donating to him his said claim: and your memorializes beg leave to call your attention to his said case, and to ask your honorable body to pass a law donating to the said George Bush the said 640 acres of land, upon which he now resides, the one-half to himself, and the other half to his wife, and to their heirs forever.
This memorial request was finally passed on January 30, 1855. George Bush and his family had been given the right to own land that he had farmed for so long. Bush and his wife continued their neighborly ways and prospered in the new land. Bush died in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. His wife died four years later.
The story of George Bush tells us several things about the early history of the Northwest. It indicates that a small but significant number of free blacks were migrating to the Northwest to escape the repressive atmosphere of the Midwest, East and the South, and that some were men of means. Bush's experience displays man's inhumanity to man, but also exemplifies how men can come to appreciate the true value of a person's character once they have gotten to know him. The story also shows that some white people supported blacks in their efforts to become full citizens of the United States.
George Bush not only proved that he could rise above personal enmity, but also that he could support himself economically, despite his disadvantages. His personal character allowed him to find a way through many difficult situations. He should truly be considered one of the founders of the State of Washington.
George Washington Bush