George Bush was born in Pennsylvania in about 1790. He was a veteran of the War of 1812, a former employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company who had been as far west as the Pacific Coast as early as the 1820s, and a wealthy farmer and rancher in western Missouri before becoming an Oregon Trail emigrant in 1844. In 1831, while living in Missouri, Bush married Isabella James (1809-1866). Isabella was the daughter of a Baptist minister of German descent.
Along with his friend, Michael Simmons, Bush headed west in a wagon train guided by Moses Harris. He hoped to put the racism he had experienced as an African-American behind him.
Bush purchased six wagons for the journey, four of which were for other families. He and his wife, Isabella, cared for children who were orphaned on the Trail. John Minto, an Englishman traveling with the Bush-Simmons Party, commented in his diary about a conversation he had with Bush. Minto wrote that Bush was concerned about how he would be treated in the Oregon Country, and he had resolved to move on if he was treated poorly.
When the party arrived at The Dalles, Minto rode ahead to Fort Vancouver to obtain fresh supplies. When he returned to the wagon train, he told Bush of the “Lash Law” recently enacted by the Provisional Government. Bush, Simmons, and some of the others decided to break off from the main body of the train and look for land north of the Columbia River. As the British were still nominally in control there, they hoped for better treatment from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most of the party crossed the river and wintered in Washougal before heading north in 1845. George Bush remained in The Dalles with the party’s cattle, rejoining them in the spring when the cattle could be ferried across the river.
The group made their way north with the women driving the oxen and cattle and the men blazing the trail as they went. Progress was slow but steady all the way to Puget Sound. There, all thirty settlers in the party had to share a single cabin during the first winter. In 1846, two years after setting out from Missouri, they finally set about clearing their own land and building their own cabins.
The land settled by George Bush and his family came to be known as Bush Prairie. The family was well-liked in the area, and they had a reputation for being generous in times of need. The winter of 1852 was a particularly hard one, and grain supplies had run low. Bush had enjoyed a fine harvest that year and had plenty of grain in storage. When tempted to sell to a buyer offering an inflated price, Bush declined saying, “I’ll just keep my grain to let my neighbors who have had failures have enough to live on and for seeding their fields in the spring. They have no money to pay your fancy prices and I don’t intend to see them want for anything in my power to provide them with.”
George and Isabella Bush’s right to their land claim of 640 acres was challenged in 1853 under the Donation Land Claim Act because he was African-American. His friends and neighbors defended the Bush’s rights to their land by petitioning the Washington Territorial legislature. In 1854 territorial legislature unanimously voted to request that the U.S. Congress pass an act protecting the land title of George and Isabella Bush. The act passed in 1855, and the Bush family was able to keep their farm.
The Bush-Simmons Party is credited by some historians as having been in large part responsible for bringing the land north of the Columbia River — the present-day state of Washington — into the United States. They established a presence that attracted other settlers and strengthened the American claim to the area in later debates between Great Britain and the United States over partitioning the Oregon Country.
The Bush family continued to influence Washington for at least one more generation: William Owen Bush, son of George and Isabel, was elected to Washington’s first state legislature. There, he introduced the bill that established the institution now known as Washington State University in 1890.
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