Oregon Focus: People to Know: George Washington Bush

About George Washington Bush, African American Pioneer

drawing of George Washington Bush in tie
George Washington Bush. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
"George Bush was the wealthiest man that came to Oregon or Washington during the early pioneer days." This was the reputation of George Washington Bush as reported in the Oregon Statesman newspaper many years ago.
Bush had made his money by raising stock, first in Illinois and then in Missouri. He built the first house in what is now Boonville, Missouri.
Just before moving there to escape slavery, Bush had joined a trapping party. They crossed the Rocky Mountains, came through the California area held by Mexicans and up the Pacific coast as far as the Columbia River. They then turned back toward St. Louis. The journey took almost two years and no doubt turned Bush's thoughts to the west when he felt it was time to move again.
He assisted in organizing the Emigration of 1844. He helped finance several families so that they could move west. There were four other African Americans in the group. Two were women (Eliza and Hannah) whose names are the only thing known about them and the other two men (including Robin Holmes) came with Colonel Nathaniel Ford and settled in Polk County with him.
text of bill giving Mr Bush title to his land
The U.S. Congress passed a bill in 1855 giving Bush title to his land in Washington Territory. (Image courtesy Washington Secretary of State)
The party came along the Oregon Trail and Bush considered stopping at The Dalles, but he was not welcomed so he moved on to the Willamette Valley. The fertile valley lands were tempting but there were too many "Yankee settlers" there. At this time the legislative committee for the Provisional Government had passed a law forbidding slavery and also the immigration of blacks to Oregon. The southern influence was strongly felt in the region during the period.
People in Vancouver advised Bush that if he settled north of the Columbia River no one would bother him about this law. So he and his family chose to settle just south of the present city of Olympia. The area is still called Bush Prairie.
Bush Prairie was developed into the showplace of the region. Bush had brought fruit and shade tree seeds across the plains with him, and he and his sons soon had a prosperous farm. He was well known for his kind and generous spirit and helped many travel-worn newcomers with gifts of potatoes, wheat, and beef to help them until they could grow their own.
So well regarded was George Bush that in 1851 a law was enacted by the Territorial Government in Oregon exempting Bush from the general law that prohibited blacks from settling in the territory. Later, during the period of the Washington Territory (organized in 1853), the territorial legislature successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress in 1855 to give Bush title to his farm lands.

Suggestions for Teachers

painting of pioneer men and women walking alongside a wagon train
One of many history themed murals on buildings in Vale. This one depicts the westward migration by wagon train along the Oregon Trail. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Ask students to:
Make a cooperative book on the life of George Washington Bush. (Each student contributes at least one fact, which the teacher writes on a chart. Each student then draws a picture of his/her part and writes the information with the picture, and all are made into a book.)
Read stories of other African American pioneers.
Dramatize the life of George Washington Bush.
Discuss early travel on the Oregon Trail. Read from diaries of the pioneer travelers.
Create an original play about the life of Bush.
Write reports: Should Bush have the same rights to live in Oregon as other people? Why?
Discuss changes in the laws relating to the rights of minority groups in Oregon and how attitudes have evolved over time.
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