The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 2, Pages 30-40
George Washington Bush
Isabella James was born a Tennessee Baptist of GermanAmerican extraction. Little is known about Isabella's childhood except that she was born sometime between 1804 and 1809 and that her father and one brother were ministers. Yet there must have been something extraordinary in her up-bringing since she had the courage to marry a black man in the south of the United States in 1831. Perhaps Isabella's unorthodox marital choice was possible because George Washington Bush was such a striking and unusual man. He was quite capable of inspiring profound love and special daring.
Isabella met George when he was around forty years of age. He had already lived a lifetime of independence and adventure and as such cut quite a romantic figure. George Bush was approximately six feet tall, broad shouldered and had a most imposing appearance. He weighed around one hundred and eighty pounds, had dark eyes, a roman nose, a heavy beard and a vigorous and dashing air. George must have been very physically attractive.
Isabella trained as a nurse when she was a young woman. There is no record of whether or not she ever had the opportunity to practice her profession before she married. Isabella and George met in Tennessee where he spent some time after growing up in Pennsylvania and following years of living in the west. They soon married and moved to Missouri where George farmed and raised cattle. If he had not inherited money, he would still have become a wealthy man because he was a great success at farming. There, in Missouri, ten sons were born to George and Isabella in twelve years. However, only five of these children survived infancy. Their first son, William Owen, was born on the first anniversary of his parents' marriage. George and Isabella had been married on July 4, 1831. Their second son, Jack, was born on July 24, 1834.
Missouri was a "slave state" in a nation which legitimized one man owning another. Even though George Bush was legally a free man, and wealthy to boot, slave laws tended to denigrate everyone of the black race. "Free" blacks were in fact only "quasi-free." For example, only four states allowed black male citizens to vote in 1830 and most northern states, as well as all the southern states, forbade marriage between the races. George and Isabella's oldest son, William Owen, was not permitted to attend public school in Missouri because he was "of color." The Bushes had to hire a private tutor in order to educate their children while their neighbors sent theirs to state supported schools. People in Missouri refused to sell George Bush many of the things he needed, they would not do him the "honor" of accepting his money. This was because most Southerners wished to discourage any influence that successful free blacks might have on their enslaved brethren.
Surely George Washington Bush had made every effort to win acceptance from his fellow Missourians but it gradually became clear to him that it was not possible. Can one who has never been a slave or lived knowing his racial brothers were slaves, imagine how delightful it would be to shake the dust of such a damnable place as permitted slavery and move on? Therefore, any man who hoped for happy, peaceful lives for his family might eagerly accept the challenge of the frontier if it meant that it would be possible to achieve both respect and the certainty of freedom for his wife and children. In addition to all of this, Missouri was experiencing a severe drought. Any farmer's thoughts under these circumstances turn wistfully to farmlands where rainfall is more than reliable. It is also likely that even at fifty-two, George Washington Bush was not immune to the excitment of the frontier and all that it meant in terms of adventure and fresh opportunity.
In 1841, the first group of immigrants set out for Oregon Territory. In 1843, two hundred families crossed the country on the Oregon Trail. The Simmons-Bush party left Missouri in the Spring of 1844. The little band whose roots lay in Tennessee and Missouri joined a "train" for the Willamette Valley which totaled eighty wagons. The Bush family started the journey with six Conistoga wagons filled with supplies for the trip. They carried seeds, farm implements, livestock, and even live trees for their new home in the west. George and Isabella brought along the seeds for cherry, plum, prune, pear, and crabapple trees but they brought small poplar and quince trees with them. George thought that the poplars might be needed as windbreaks and that the quince trees were too lovely and the tarts and jellies made from their fruit too irreplaceable to leave behind. The Bushes brought white porcelin platters, iron pots, and the special hooks to lift those pots off the fireplace across the plains. Valuing education as they did, George and Isabella probably brought more books than the traditional pioneer library which consisted of only the Bible and a dictionary. It was even rumored that George and Isabella carried one hundred pounds of silver, some gold bricks, and a number of $50.00 "slugs" concealed in a false bottom of one of their wagons. A $50.00 slug was a piece of gold, shaped in an octagon and while not United States currency did circulate widely where currency was scarce.
The people who made up the Simmons-Bush party were all either good friends or related to one another. Michael Troutman Simmons, the group's co-leader, was from Newmarket, Tennessee. His wife was the former Elizabeth Kindred. One of Simmons' sisters was married to James McAllister. Isabella James's family was also from Newmarket, Tennessee.
The Simmons and the McAllister families may have had the means to afford the trip. Some of the others who wished to accompany them however, did not have sufficient resources. George helped make it possible for the families of David Kindred, the parents of Elizabeth Kindred Simmons, and Gabriel Jones to make the move. Some sources state that George Bush furnished even the wagons in which the McAllisters and the Kindreds made the journey. Three single men also joined the caravan: Samuel Crockett, Reuben Crowder, and Jesse Ferguson. Five Bush boys made the trip with their parents: William Owen, Thomas Jack, Joseph Tolbert, Rial Bailey, and Henry Sanford. There seems to have been some confusion about the name of the Bush's second son. In one manuscript he is alternately referred to as "Tom" and "Jack," hence 'Thomas Jack." Other sources mention a "January Jackson" and this may be Jack's formal given name.
George and Isabella planned their move west with the same intelligence and attention to detail that had made hem successful farmers in Missouri. They collected sufficient food and supplies to enable them to share their bounty with friends of either less foresight or resources during the difficult journey. Isabella's nursing skills came to be dearly valued by everyone in the wagon train. Whenever anyone fell ill or was injured along the way, they turned to Isabella Bush for help. Her kindliness and sure knowledge cured all who could be cured. The reputation which Isabella earned on that cross-country trip as a vigorous and excellent nurse remained with her throughout her life. At one time or another she nursed everyone in the community who settled in and around Tumwater, Washington Territory. Before it was known as Tumwater however, the community was called "Newmarket" by Michael Simmons after the little town they had all known as home in Tennessee.
In 1845 the Oregon Territorial legislature passed a law forbidding slavery in the territory but at the same time seeking to insure there would be no permanent settlement of free blacks in the region. The law stated that any black who settled in Oregon would be subject to thirty-nine whip lashes for every two year period in which he or she remained in the territory. Oregon did not invent this kind of cruelty. Illinois had passed similar legislation earlier.
George and Isabella had decided before they left for the west that if George were not permitted to have all the rights and prerogatives of a free man in Oregon Territory, they would go on to California or New Mexico. Both of these regions were then under Mexican rule and the Bush family hoped for a better life in another country. However, Michael Simmons had an idea which seemed more attractive. He and some of the others in their party felt that it might be in the interests of the United States, and incidentally in George Bush's interest as well, for the group to settle on the northern, British side of the Columbia River. They would be far enough away from Oregon so as to be immune to any enforcement of laws passed by that legislature. At the same time, they would be establishing a toehold of American settlement in an area where the British were subtly trying to limit any such enterprise. The Simmons-Bush party would therefore be in a sort of "no-man's land" where they would be exempt from most law and free to follow their own habits of industry and equality.
In order to make a final decision as to whether that would be the best solution for the group, Michael Simmons went off into British territory to explore the region and find a suitable specific location for settlement. Everyone in the Simmons-Bush party wished to remain together because together they felt secure. That may have been partially a result of George Bush's financial resources but beyond any monetary considerations, Isabella's kindness and George's wisdom in both practical and philosophical matters meant a great deal to every member of the group as they stood together at the brink of the challenge of the wilderness.
George and Isabella were respected for their intelligence, maturity, and leadership and loved for their generosity and concern. The trip west had reinforced in everyone's mind that the Bushes were people you could rely on. When some travelers in the wagon train, a Mr. and Mrs. Fager, both died along the route, Isabella took their children under her wing and cared for them right along with her own five boys. When the group reached Walla Walla, she found a good home for the Fager children. Isabella delivered them to the missionary Marcus Whitman and his wife who were eager and happy to have the companionship of, and the opportunity to raise, those children. Isabella's actions once again demonstrated her humanity and responsible behavior.
During July of 1845, Michael Simmons traveled over much of western Washington. When he came upon the falls of the Deschutes River, at the point where the falls drop into Puget Sound, he felt that he had located the party's new home. The power that these falls generated would make it possible for the settlers to grind the wheat they would grow. Later they might build a sawmill which would give them a source of cash through the manufacture and sale of forest products. Beyond the splendid potentialities of the falls, the existence of the British outpost, Fort Nisqually, and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company meant there would be some additional human buffer between the small Simmons-Bush group and the complete wilderness. If the Hudson Bay Company could be persuaded to help the settlers rather than remaining adamantly opposed to any American settlements north of the Columbia, then this new journey to an even more remote corner of this country would result in a perfect home for all of them and a secure sanctuary for Isabella, George, and their children.
Elizabeth Kindred Simmons' father and mother remained in Oregon. During the last week of September, the entire group, except for the elder Kindreds, left for the home Michael had explored for them. No portion of their journey thus far had been so arduous. It took fifteen days to move the light, stagecoach-like transports known as "Mud-wagons" they now traveled in the fifty-eight miles through the dense forests of western Washington. They had to cut a road through the woods from Cowlitz Landing onward.
Elizabeth Simmons had given birth to Christopher Columbus Simmons only two months before this final push and she and the other young mothers suffered the rigors of the last leg of their trip more intensely than any part of the journey to that point. For the first time hunger was a part of the equation and the children wept from the pain of it.
When they reached the prairie between the Cowlitz River and Puget Sound they first constructed the large communal house which was forty feet long and twenty feet wide. This was to insure that they would all have some shelter while each family's claim was searched out and a house constructed on it. The group had temporarily adopted the local Indian style of living and the children of all these pioneers, when they were grown, maintained that the days of living and eating just exactly like the Indian people were the happiest and most rewarding days of childhood.
The settlers all loved their comfortable beds made of cedar with the branches knocked off and each covered with three or four Indian mats. These mats, along with furs and a few horses, were given to the group by Leschi of the Nisquallys as a gift of welcome. Following the Indians' example, the settlers used the smooth, brown woven mats to cover the cedar boughs of their beds and also to tack over the walls of their homes as insulation against the penetrating winds and damp. The bedding was kept sweet-smelling by frequent renewal of the cedar and bracken stuffings. The night lamps burned the smelly fish-oil which the Indians provided. White children quickly adjusted to, and became very fond of, all the Indian food-stuffs. Nisqually hospitality helped the Simmons-Bush party endure their first winter on Puget Sound.
That first winter was very cold. The survival of every member of the Simmons-Bush party came to rest on the assistance extended to them by Dr. McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver of the Hudson Bay Company as well as the native peoples. Dr. McLoughlin had originally tried to dissuade them from their course but when he saw that the group was determined to settle north of the Columbia, he felt that he must help them. Michael Simmons was given a letter to take to Dr. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually. Dated September 27, 1845, it read:
Dear Sir: - This will be handed to you by Col. Symonds"(sic), "who is going with some of his friends to settle at the falls at the Chute River. He has applied to me to get an order on you for grain and potatoes, but I presume you have not more than you need for your own use. If you have any to spare please let him have what he demands and charge it to home (Vancouver). Col. Symonds and his friends passed the winter in our vicinity. They have been employed by us in making shingles and procuring logs. They have all conducted themselves in a most neighborly, friendly manner, and I beg to recommend them to your kind assistance and friendly offices.
I am, yours truly
Whatever the motivation, the fact was that prior to the decision to help this party of Americans, the Hudson Bay Company had permitted only Catholic Missionaries to visit the Indian people under their dominion. Many Americans resented what they perceived as discrimination against Protestant conversion efforts. George Bush, being a Quaker, felt no need to foster any proselytising efforts. The likelihood that the Simmons-Bush party of settlers would not participate in any religious conflict made them much less objectionable to the British than other groups might have been. Consequently, the Company authorized their trading post at Fort Nisqually, which had been established between 1833 and 1836, to supply the Americans with food on credit. The food purchased at the British fort, together with the help given the settlers by the local natives enabled the Americans to make it through their first winter in Puget Sound country with minimal suffering.
Individuals in the group ran up quite a bill at Fort Nisqually. At one point, John Kindred (Elizabeth Simmons' brother) owed $6.74, Gabriel Jones owed $82.93, Michael Simmons was in debt for $53.43, and James McAllister for $24.31. Apparently George did not use his resources to purchase food for the group as long as it was possible for them to receive credit at Fort Nisqually. This restraint served to insure continued amiability among the Americans. Money borrowed and owed has soured many a friendship.
George and Isabella had selected six hundred and forty acres at a place six miles south of what was one day to be the city of Olympia as the site of their farm. In the Spring of 1846 they planted wheat, onions, potatoes, and flowers. Everything grew well into November. They noted how back home in Missouri the ground would have been frozen and any harvest long over by then.
Isabella and the other settlers' wives learned to use most of the local products in their kitchens. They became skilled in the slow-cook Indian methods of food preparation. Of course, acquiring knowledge is not a one-way street. The Indians were intensely curious about every bit of detail and minutiae concerning the whites. For one thing, Indian women admired white clothing and loved the wide hoop skirts of the wives of Bush, Simmons, Kindred, McAllister, and Jones. In order to secure a desired dress or skirt, an Indian woman would cheerfully learn to do laundry, housework, and gardening in a manner to suit her white employer. The women settlers, busy with their many children and their myriad household responsibilities were happy to have Indian women work in their homes.
Dr. William Tolmie had lived among the Indians for twenty-five years and he always found them to be intelligent and helpful. The Bushes hired Indians to work on their farm on the advice of their doctor friend. George and Isabella taught their native employees what they felt would be useful for them to know. Conversely, they learned all they could from Indian people about the many ways in which to live and prosper in this new land. Both husband and wife learned to speak Nisqually, the most widely spoken language in the Sound region. The Bushes were thereby able to communicate with their neighbors in the prevailing tongue. Nevertheless, there remained some skills which simply did not transmit despite every effort. Neither Isabella, nor any other white woman, ever managed the knack of successfully drying clams.
In addition to learning Nisqually, in as many ways as possible the Bush family demonstrated their respect for the indigenous people of the region. George and Isabella did not want to be foreigners in their new home. They were friendly with all the neighboring couples composed of white men married to Indian women. Most of the Americans who came to the territory were opposed to interracial marriages but George and Isabella had no such prejudice.
The last child born to George and Isabella arrived on December 25, 1847. He was born on the Bush farm north of the Columbia River at a time when Washington was still part of Oregon Territory. The child was named Lewis Nisqually Bush in honor of the place and the native people. Lewis grew up speaking Nisqually and English with equal facility and all the Bush boys and the native children were comrades, unconsciously beginning a new civilization built on red, black and white racial stocks. However, there was no chance that such a society which included each race as equal partners would last.
George and Isabella believed that educating their sons was as important in the northwest corner of the United States as it might have been in Philadelphia. They located a tutor and hired him to teach their own children and those of their Indian and white neighbors. The tutor's name was Mr. Hunt and he lived with the family for many years. He taught the children arithmetic, spelling, and history.
The Bushes built a little school house on their property just across the road from their home. The school building had a door at one end and a cobblestone fireplace at the other. One wall had a row of small windows and a bench along the length of it to serve as seating for the students. George Bush built desks for the children. Each desk had a shelf for books. Indian children made up a portion of this student body, a practice not replicated anywhere else in the territory for many years.
On the farm together, George and Isabella raised beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and turkeys. They grew wheat, hops, and vegetables. They set out an orchard from the trees and seed which George had brought from Missouri. However, the ways in which the first chickens, turkeys, and sheep were acquired make rather interesting stories.
One day, when the Bush family had lived on their farm for about a year, George got on his horse and went to visit a friend. The friend was Simon Pulmondon, a French-Canadian man who lived on the Cowlitz Prairie. George and Simon had known one another since they had worked for the Hudson Bay Company many years earlier. Simon gave George a hen and a setting of eggs to take home with him and this was the first of many gifts exchanged between the two men over a long period of time. The Pulmondon hen was the ancestor of all the chickens that George and Isabella ever raised.
Many years later, Lewis Nisqually described the way in which other animals came into the Bush holdings. Lewis wrote,
Mother made friends with Dr. Tolmie and it was through him that she got her first start in poultry and sheep. She had traded for a few hens from a French family who were connected with the Hudson Bay Company; and when one of these hens showed her willingness to set, mother got a setting of turkey eggs from Dr. Tolmie. She was very successful with this hatching and by coddling those young turks soon had a nice flock. Dr. Tolmie had not been so lucky with his turkeys so he told mother he would trade her a fine ewe for every turkey she would let him have. She was glad to do so and in that way she got the first start of the large flock of sheep which was one of the greatest sources of profit in a few years. From Dr. Tolmie also we got the first start of hogs. WelL so we lived for years, always getting ahead a little and I am glad to say, always having a little to share with our poorer neighbors. Neither father nor mother could bear to deny anyone who applied to them for assistance…
Charity was an important virtue in the Bush household and, according to Lewis, it was as important to Isabella as it was to George. Whatever historical literature exists concerning George Bush refers to his generosity. His charitable reputation could not have reached such proportions without the concurrence and assistance of his wife.
The exchange between Dr. Tolmie and Isabella was of real benefit to the Bush family fortunes. The other settlers had proposed to Dr. Tolmie that they be permitted to purchase livestock from the Company "on shares" and had been turned down. "On shares" meant that the Company would remain a part-owner of the animals instead of being paid outright for them. This did not seem to make good business sense to the Company as their object was to assist the settlers but not allow them to become so indebted that they could not repay what the Hudson Bay Company had advanced to them. But the Bush family, due in large measure to Isabella's way with both beast and men, acquired the livestock necessary to make their farm a success without any money changing hands.
Throughout the early years of the American settlement at Tumwater the Hudson Bay Company continued to be very supportive of the Bush party. Dr. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually purchased the shingles made at the Simmons mill whether it made good business sense to do so or not. The price the Company paid varied between $3 and $10 per thousand, generous prices for the times. The settlers thereby had a source of ready cash despite the fact that for a few years the shingle purchases by the Hudson Bay Company were purely speculative. Dr. Tolmie became alarmed that he might bankrupt the Company by this practice but his superiors told him to continue in the same course so that the American pioneers would have money to buy their necessities. The Company believed that they would recoup their losses in time and indeed they did. When gold was discovered in California in 1849 the market for all wood products improved markedly.
Until the settlers' farms began to yield up some crops, the Company was their only source for familiar foods. Otherwise, they were at the mercy of the Indians and the six month wait while pork and butter came around Cape Horn, flour was shipped from Chile and sugar and tea arrived from China.
With the discovery of gold in California, the price of foodstuffs went up alarmingly even as far away as Puget Sound. Flour went to $40 per barrel. However, the Hudson Bay Company attempted to deal fairly with the settlers by keeping their prices as stable as possible. A sample of costs is as follows: six axes sold at Fort Nisqually for $1.25; one drawing knife for 90¢; twenty-eight bushels of oats, 50¢, forty-three bushels of peas, 90¢; two hundred-thirteen and one-half bushels of potatoes, 25¢; seventy-one and one-half bushels of wheat, 80¢; one and one-half bushels of buckwheat, 60¢; twelve and one-half pounds of black wool, 16¢; twenty-five pounds of salt-pork, 10¢: ninety-eight pounds of coffee, 25¢; sixty-two and one-half gallons of molasses, 55¢; ninety pounds of brown sugar, 12.5¢; eleven and one-half bushels of salt at 70¢ per bushel; thirteen and one-quarter pounds of Congo tea, 70¢; two and one-half dozen quinine powders, 50¢; eight bullocks, $18; two mares, $13.50; nails ranging from sixty pounds for 4¢ to nails at 2¢ per pound; seven pounds of gunpowder, 30¢; and finally, fifteen pounds of lead ammunition at 1¢ per pound.
As happened all too frequently on every American frontier, little forward progress was achieved without some resulting problems. It became quickly apparent that with the introduction of pigs to the neighborhood, the bear population learned to love pork. A number of midnight raids seriously reduced the Bush pig stock. However, the local Indians once again offered their assistance. They considered bearmeat a great delicacy and thus, the situation swiftly resolved in favor of the Indians' appetites and the Bush pigs. The Bush family found endless areas for harmony with the native population while some of the other settlers found only discord. White people objected to Indians coming on to what they viewed as their private property when, for example, the camas roots were ripe for harvest. The Indians had no such stricture against trespass. Other whites were frightened by the Indian habit of entering a dwelling place without invitation or even so much as a knock.
While the Bush family felt no moral obligation to leave Indian land unchanged by their hand until title was legally settled, their behavior towards their Indian neighbors was always considerate of the fact that they were the trespassers. However, the Bushes surely intended to stake claim to the land they farmed. George built a log cabin on the farm to house his family. In 1845, the Bush family purchased an additional eighty acres which bordered on their own claim from Gabriel Jones. George and Isabella planned to raise grain and needed the additional land for their purpose. George had helped the Jones family to make the trip originally and now it seemed mutually beneficial for Jones to sell some land and George to buy it. It may have been unnecessary for one man to purchase land from another in 1845, there was so much untilled land about. But George and Isabella had the knack of helping both their Indian and white friends without the appearance of charity and perhaps this was the case in this situation. In any event, Gabriel Jones and his wife apparently needed money rather than land. It may have been that they needed the cash in order to invest in Michael Simmons' proposed sawmill which was completed in 1847 and quickly became an important economic asset to the budding community.
In the Spring of 1846, the Bushes planted wheat and Michael Simmons built a grist mill below Tumwater Falls on the Deschutes River. The stones for grinding the wheat were cut from granite boulders found on the beach near Olympia. Simmons later ordered and was sold equipment by the Hudson Bay Company for the purpose of building a saw mill on the same site. Some authors state that it was George and Isabella who supplied the money to build the sawmill. However, the records show that Michael Simmons was to pay twenty cents per pound for the machinery to the Hudson Bay Company. At the same time that he owed the Company for the machinery, Simmons ordered thirty barrels of flour for his party and proposed to pay for it with shingles produced by his saw mill. It was this kind of brashness which built the state of Washington.
In 1905 Erza Meeker published his memoirs entitled Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, recording among other pieces of history that the original owners of the Tumwater saw mill were Simmons, his brother-in-law John Kindred, Gabriel Jones, Frank Shaw, Edmund Sylvester, A.B. Rabbeson, Jesse Ferguson, and A.D. Conifix. Again, George Bush could have financed this venture by himself but he most likely preferred to have his friends deal with the British in their business undertakings. In that way, personal relationships could be kept separate from financial arrangements. It was only later, when Michael Simmons suffered financial reverses that George and Isabella helped him by buying some shares in the mill in order to provide Michael with some much needed cash.
The Simmons-Bush group, living so far from any center of civilization, valued each other greatly. Each person's ingenuity was at a premium. It was difficult to get new cloth or clothing and more difficult yet to see how one might look in any new piece of apparel. Primitive mirrors were made from window glass which was almost as scarce as reflective glass. Worn black material was tacked on a small board and glass was placed on top. This frontier invention would produce a reflection.
Lewis Nisqually wrote about the clothing shortage, "I was a big lad, probably twelve years old, before I had my first pair of shoes. There were none to be had in all the country, so, I was forced to go barefoot, not that I considered that any hardship, for I was used to it and only wanted shoes to put on style with…”
George and Isabella soon developed their farm into a model which the rest of the settlers strove to emulate. In addition to their wheat crop, the Bush family was able to raise four to six hundred bushels of potatoes to the acre. All their beets, turnips and cabbages grew wonderfully well. They kept their cows out of the "skunk cabbage" and thus kept their butter from tasting of it. People came to visit the Bush farm in order to learn farming techniques. While they were excellent farmers, their real popularity was based on the fact that they were the most generous and hospitable people in the vicinity. This was largely due to the reputation of the lady of the house as a famous cook and a tender nurse. Isabella generally had at least twenty-five guests at dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those holidays, as on others, even the traditional Washington pioneer ample board of solid cedar four feet wide and eight feet long was insufficient. Isabella soon became as expert at serving Indian-style cuisine as she already was at preparing good Missouri home-cooking, What became famous as an "old-fashioned Washington clam bake" originated with the Indians. Savory results were always achieved by placing a mess of clams on hot pebbles and covering them over with sticks and earth until they steamed to delectable goodness.
The Bush home became a way-station on the route between Cowlitz Landing and the Sound. Seattle's first settler passed through the region in 1849; that was John Holgate and he stopped with the Bush family. Most of the people who traveled through the territory were the guests of the black man of Bush Prairie and his charming wife at one time or another. Some visitors stayed for dinner; others stayed overnight or even for two or three days. It was impossible for anyone to feel he had overstayed his welcome, so genial were the hosts.
In 1850, Congress passed the "Donation Land Law." That law provided any white man or "half-breed," (that is, half-white and half-Indian) with the right to claim a half-section of land.(1) If a woman was married, she could claim an equal amount in her name in order to provide every family unit with an entire section. The Donation Land Law left George Bush unable to claim any land in his own name or in that of his children. However it was also true that under the law title could not be given to anyone until a treaty was negotiated with the Indians. This was because until a treaty was negotiated, the United States did not have the title to give.
George and Isabella were concerned about these developments. George submitted his claim, but under the law, his claim was denied. The reason given for this in 1850 was "... no man through whose veins there coursed a drop of African blood could become a homesteader of Uncle Sam's." The Bush family knew they could meet any of the substantive requirements which others had to meet to qualify for title. They would have no trouble showing their permanent dwelling on, and continuous working of, the land. But what could they do about the problem of title of land for a black man? What could George and Isabella do about their desire to pass the land they had worked so hard on to their children?
When the Simmons-Bush group first arrived to settle the region, they had been forced to cut a trail through the woods from Cowlitz Landing to Bush Prairie in order to get their wagons through. This primitive path became the traveled route, known as an established "trail and wagon road." Whenever a new wagontrain of hungry, exhausted settlers arrived in the vicinity, "Old Mike Simmons," George Bush, and some of the other original settlers would meet the new group with flour, onions, potatoes, and homemade huckleberry puddings and pies. George built about a dozen little log cabins on his land where the new settlers might stay until they located a spot where they wished to stake their own claim. He wouldn't have dreamed of charging any of them rent, regardless of what their opinion of a black man might be.
All hungry travelers were made welcome and greeted with hospitality. On one occasion a train had become lost on its way through the mountains and as a result, their trip had taken them much longer than planned. The terrible winter of '52 caught this unfortunate group still in the mountains so that when they finally arrived at Puget Sound, they were terribly frozen and near starvation. George and Isabella fed the entire group for quite some time because the Bushes were the only people in the area with any surplus food. The Bush's attitude was that any repayment was unnecessary. What they did hope was that those people they had helped would show similar generosity to others in their turn.
George and Isabella never sold anything to newcomers. George told these people he could attach no price to food he gave them but that they might return what they wished when they were able. "Return it when you can," George would say and George and Isabella fed a great many hungry people over the years. It did not seem to matter that George Bush's oath was not accepted or that it would take a special act of Congress to give him legal title to his farm. His selfless attitude earned George the respect and affection of his neighbors, partly on account of his race. People saw him as a genuine folk hero.
Whatever was the inspiration for frontier generosity, there are many instances of it in operation. The "Denny party" founded the city of Seattle farther north on the Sound in 1852. The first few years of that settlement saw great hunger there too. Some speculators came down to Olympia from Seattle for the purpose of buying any surplus wheat and bringing it back to the infant city to sell at greatly inflated prices. George Bush quickly saw who he was dealing with and though he stood to make a huge profit, refused to sell any flour to these men. He saved his surplus for the needy and sold it to them at a fair price. Making money in the exchange was of little interest so to George and Isabella. Perhaps this was because they had brought money with them across the plains and found little use for it on the frontier. After all, there was really nothing to buy and even if there had been, greed was an emotion foreign to both George and Isabella.
Conditions remained difficult even on the successful Bush family farm for many years. When he was a grown man, Lewis Nisqually, the child born on Bush Prairie wrote,
Yes, those were hard times. We all had to scramble for enough to eat. There was simply nothing we could buy from any market for several years. I remember one summer day an old squaw came to our house with something to eat which she wanted to sell. Mother tried to dicker with her but she only wanted clothes. Money was of no use to her. She wanted a shirt for one of her papooses. Now, we had been away from home for a long time and clothing was getting scarce but mother wanted whatever it was the squaw had so badly that she stripped the shirt off my brother Sandford's back and gave it to the siwash.(2)
Apparently, there were items of food which Isabella could not raise on her farm herself and which she felt her family had need of. It is not possible to tell from Lewis's narrative whether it was hunger, generosity, a desire to please the Indian woman, or the fear of not pleasing her which motivated Isabella to trade the shirt off her son's back. It may have been that all these thoughts flashed through Isabella's mind at that moment but whatever the reason, her reaction was quite direct. It was not the cost which kept some items from the Bush table since the Bushes were universally believed to have a great deal of cash. Certain foods were dear because they were scarce. In those days eggs were $1 per dozen and butter was $1 per pound. Potatoes were $3 per bushel and onions, $4. Single men who worked in the woods cutting trees received their board and $4 per day. When one compares the going wages with the cost of food, the true cost becomes apparent.
In 1850, George had a fanning mill brought around the Horn for use on his farm. He also made the mill available to his neighbors for their use. This machinery separated the chaff, husks, and dirt from the wheat. Afterwards, all the wheat produced in the general vicinity was stored in the Bush grainery until it could be sold. George had quite a reputation as a stock-raiser in addition to that as a wheat farmer but in this he was surely assisted by the nursing and nurturing talents of Isabella.
Isaac Ingalls Stevens stayed at the Bush farm on his first trip through Washington Territory in 1853. Washington was then newly separated from Oregon Territory. He was on his way to Olympia. Stevens had just been appointed Governor of Washington Territory and he was traveling to the capital which he himself had selected. Olympia was the obvious choice as the capital of the new territory since it lay at the center of the existing population distribution.
Isaac Stevens, being new to his office, was sensitive to the dignity of the Territory. He felt it incumbent upon him, as the authorized representative of the federal government to pay for his meal. But neither George nor Isabella had ever accepted any payment for their hospitality and they certainly would not begin with the Governor of their new territory. Legend has it that to save embarrassment all around, Stevens hid a twenty-dollar gold piece under his dinner plate and left it there for the Bush family. This gold piece was found later but never spent. It became a family souvenir.
In 1853 there were seventeen families farming on Bush Prairie. There were the original and now familiar Bush, Jones, Kindred, and Ferguson families. In the intervening eight years between 1845 and 1853 they had been joined by the Dullnaps, the Riders, the Kunes, Rutledges, Gordons, Carnells, Johnsons, Candells, Littlejohns, and the Judsons.
The new Legislature of the Territory was called into session for the first time in February of 1854. Olympia was quickly laid out and a number of wide streets planted with maple trees in order to offer the legislators a fitting location for their deliberations. Local citizens built some frame houses to rent out to the visiting dignitaries. Before long, a small city stood on the quiet south end of Puget Sound, complete with churches and schools and the best intellectual and social life in the Territory. H.A. Goldsborough and Michael T. Simmons sold real estate in Olympia and the town had a permanent population of about one hundred.
One of the first orders of business of this legislature, within the very first month of its meeting, was to memorialize Congress to grant George Bush and his heirs title to his claim on Bush Prairie. The possibility of land ownership for free blacks had been intentionally omitted from the language of the Donation Land Law. The Legislature of Washington Territory stated in its request to Congress that Bush had been industrious, charitable, helpful to those less fortunate than he, a first-rate farmer, and had practiced all of these virtues on his claim in the territory for many years. Some of Bush's friends attempted to push through legislation which would award Bush full citizenship at the same time as he was given title to his land, but while the first request was readily agreed to by the United States Congress in January, 1855, the matter of citizenship did not succeed in passing the territorial legislature. Apparently, a majority of the representatives of the citizens of the territory were against equality for anyone of the black race, even for so worthy an individual as George Bush. There is no record as to whether the Bush family was grateful for what it did receive or angry over what it did not. The only indication of how the family might have felt was that they remained on their farm and continued to live exactly as they had before. George was given title to the land he had worked for better than ten years when he was approximately sixty-four years old.
Shortly before George Bush became the beneficiary of the special legislation awarding him ownership to the land he and his family had labored on for many years, Governor Stevens assumed responsibility for securing title to the United States of all the land in Washington Territory. England and the United States had agreed in 1846 that the border between their respective properties should be at the 49th parallel. Stevens' job, therefore, was to make peace with the indigenous peoples within the new borders while acquiring their lands.
On December 5, 1854, Stevens announced that he believed the time had come for a settlement with the Indians. By the end of the same month, he had completed treaties with all the tribes around the Sound. The speed with which these treaties were concluded certainly appears to have been both unseemly and coercive. Many native people balked at the terms. Leschi, chief of the Nisquallys, refused to sign. Michael Simmons had been appointed Indian Agent and he had assisted Stevens in working out the details of the treaties. When Simmons heard that his old friend Leschi refused to have any part in the conclusion of the agreements, he is quoted as having said, "Damn them, if they don't sign, I'II do it for them." And indeed, while Leschi's name appears as the third signature of the Treaty of Medicine Creek, it is generally regarded as a forgery. According to all the eyewitnesses, Leschi would not sign.
In any event, Leschi marshaled a force against the settlers of Nisqually, Puyallups, and up-river Duwamish. This latter group was related by marriage to Chief Sealth of Seattle fame. However, they were more independent than their down-river relatives. It is uncertain just what the rebellious natives could realistically hope to achieve, especially since they did not wish to harm their friends. As John Hiton, the Indian friend of the Bush family and many other whites is reported to have said, "...what's the use for Indians to fight whites? Whites get big guns; lots ammunition; kill off all soldiers, more come…"
Lewis Nisqually Bush told Ezra Meeker that, "The Indians sent us word not to be afraid - that they would not harm us. I had lived among the Indians from childhood, and in fact had learned to talk the Indian language before I could speak my mother tongue. At that time I believe there were twenty Indians to where there is one now. Most of the Indians were friendly. Had it been otherwise they could have wiped out the settlement completely, in spite of the military and volunteers. Yes, and not left a grease spot of them…"
Volunteer groups organized themselves in response to the new Indian hostility. John McAllister, that adventurer who took his wife to live in a tree stump and danced for the Haidas, now became a Lieutenant in "Eaton's Rangers." McAllister was one of a very few whites who lost their lives in the episode which came to be know as 'The Indian War of 1855, '56."
We have an accurate picture of what that war was like from Lewis Nisqually. He reported on the entire family's recollections of the mood and events of the time. He wrote,
"I was born on the homestead after the folks reached Bush Prairie, so I cannot remember as well as could my brothers about the Indian war. I know we were all anxious and worried for several months and when the first scare was on father moved his family into the fort at Tumwater for a while. But as time went on he was anxious to get back to his place, as were the other settlers of our neighborhood, so they went to work and built a fort of their own on father's farm."
"Saplings probably fourteen feet long were cut from the woods and a trench dug several feet deep. In this trench was set upright the saplings in a double row clear around the enclosure. This made a high wall which was practically bullet proof. Inside this enclosure were the cabins of the settlers - each by themselves. We were comfortable enough and lived that way for several months. This fort was also known as Bush's fort."
The Nisqually chief finally let it be known that if his people were assured enough land on which to raise the potatoes with which to feed themselves, they would withdraw and the whites could have the remainder. What Leschi did not appreciate was that he had earned Stevens' undying animosity as the man who had cast a blemish on his record. On January 19, 1856, Governor Stevens declared that the war would be prosecuted until the last hostile Indian had been exterminated. Leschi's fate was sealed. The Olympia newspaper supported Stevens' hatred by keeping Leschi's peace efforts secret. The result of this suppression of information was that the general population had no choice but to support the governor in his war to win decisive and complete victory over the Indians. Stevens never forgave Leschi for his opposition. The Nisqually chief eventually hung for his role in the war.
The defeat of the Indians was indeed complete. Only a few years later, pioneers who remembered the native peoples as they had been would make statements like the one which follows, "When I look at the drunken vagabonds of what is now called Indians I can scarcely realize that they are the same people I was raised among." They were a people entirely demoralized.
Life on the Bush farm went on quietly through the national turbulence of the late 50's with food production increasing every year on the intelligently, lovingly run farm. The family continued to maintain their close relationships with the Indian people. The countryside remained a profound, beautiful and bountious wilderness. The Bush boys could shoot duck while standing in the doorway of their cabin home.
National holidays were celebrated in western Washington just as they were in the rest of the country. On Decoration Day, everyone went to some cemetery to honor their dead but a joyous afternoon picnic was usually held to brush away the sadness of the more solemn morning. Every "Fourth of July," there was a giant bar-b-que on the Bush place. People came from all over the Sound to gorge themselves on meat and clams and everything that "went with." People from as far away as Seattle would come for the festivities. George and Isabella counted the Henry Yeslers among their friends. After the feast there was the inevitable "program" of patriotic recitations and singing, a pleasure belonging to simpler days. The Bush farm was ever the hub of activity; on holidays for merrymaking and on other days for friendly helping hands and kind comfort.
George and Isabella labored ceaselessly to make the farm yield and flourish. Yet, in the midst of all their efforts there were some occasional social events beyond their festivities which they themselves instituted. There was the "grand ball," an event which necessitated the gathering up of women from all over the Sound. This was because women were scarce on the frontier and if one wished to dance, it was inevitably going to take some effort to arrange it. A steamer was sent to every town which could be reached by water to collect the ladies and a ball therefore, meant a respite of at least several days from the normal round of hard work.
Even with the distress caused by the shortage of women, there were many people, even at that early date in Washington history, who favored what we know as the desire for a "lesser Washington." Those who were here faced a very hard life. Whenever there was any suffering to be done, women suffered right along with the men. Yet, despite difficulties and loneliness, many settlers felt that there would be hunger, crime and vice in proportion to the numbers who came to Puget Sound. Prostitution arrived in Seattle just two years after the Denny party landed at Alki. The original settlers who lived all around the Sound found that the problems which came with civilization caused them more pain than all that was endured in pioneering the wilderness.
All through the long, hard years the six Bush sons were growing up. In 1859 William Owen, the oldest, was twenty-seven years old. He married a white woman named Mandane Kimsey and together they had three children. When Owen and Mandane were first married they started their own farm near the family home in Thurston County. They named one of their sons George, in honor of his beloved and revered grandfather.
Owen was as respected for his integrity and charitable nature as was his father before him. He was a sweet-tempered man and was never known to have uttered a single cross word. Owen was very successful on his own, both as a skillful farmer and in the logging business. He made substantial contributions to facilitate the establishment of St. Peter's Hospital in Olympia.
When George Bush died very suddenly in 1863, Owen and Mandane and their children returned to the Bush homestead to work there because Owen's steady hand and wise head were needed at the family home. Under Owen's direction, the Bush farm increased in value and production. At one time the Bush barn was the largest in Thurston County. They raised beef cattle, milk cows, barley, wheat, oats, and horses. Owen became president of the Washington Industrial Association in 1877 and was the first "black" man, although he was the mulatto son of a mulatto father, elected to the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1889.
Jack, as he was generally known, was the second son. He grew to be the tallest of all the boys and was familiar to many people all over the territory because of his height. All the boys in the family received a good, basic education from their tutor, Mr. Hunt. Mr. Hunt lived on the farm with the Bushes for many years. Jack was not interested in work, he lived to play music. He was a difficult person to get along with and, of his brothers, only Henry Sanford was his continuous friend. Although Jack disliked farm work, he did sometimes help out a widow who lived near his father's farm. No son of Isabella and George was without a charitable aspect to his nature, even the maverick of the bunch. Jack was the only one of the boys to go to college. Attending college was a rare thing indeed in those days but George and Isabella sent him to Portland University so he could study music. He played the violin and the guitar. Years after the deaths of his parents, Jack and a cousin from Centralia named John Mills played in a dance orchestra which provided the music in Tom Pennell's famous Seattle brothel, the "Illahee. "
Jack and Owen were the only two of the six Bush sons to ever marry. Rial Bailey died young. Joseph Tolbert, Henry Sanford, and Lewis Nisqually remained on the farm with their parents.
The farm continued to prosper. In their later years, George and Isabella most certainly had the means to build a larger, finer and more comfortable house. Nevertheless, they remained content to live in their original home. George and Isabella never abandoned their habit of providing help to those old and new neighbors who were in need.
In 1863 George died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrage. At the end he had not time to tell anyone, not even his dear wife Isabella where the family's money was buried. Many years before George had taken the silver which they had brought across the country from Missouri and the excess cash accumulated during their life in Washington Territory and buried it in a secret location on the farm. It was a pity that despite their long and felicitous years together, George kept the place where he had hidden his wealth secret even from Isabella. He was, after all, a man of his times. George surely would have wished his wife and children some ease but his death denied the benefits of all that money to them. He never regained consciousness after the instant in which he was stricken and that kept his secret forever. Judge Hewitt had always done all the legal work for the family but even he had not a clue as to where the money might be buried. Isabella would just have to forget it and go on. She did just that until her death in 1866.
After his father died, Owen had a newer and bigger house built from split cedar. This home remained standing alongside the Olympia airport until it was torn down in 1974. The descendants of Isabella James Bush lived on in the Bush homestead for one hundred years. The family tree is documented in "Family Records of Washington Pioneers" by the Daughters of the American Revolution without any allusion to the fact of the family's racial origins.
(1) A "section" is a portion into which public lands in the United States are divided. A section is one-thirty-sixth of a township.
(2) A frontier corruption of the French. "sauvage.”