The path wasn’t easy to Puget Sound, but George and Isabella Bush and their family had a plan to settle in the American West. They weren’t provided many choices, since George was a Black American who had left his farm in discriminatory Missouri in 1844.
The Bushes traveled the Oregon Trail with George’s close friend, Irish-American pioneer Michael Simmons, his family, and several other Missouri families seeking a new life on the frontier. The expedition was primarily funded by Bush. However, even though slavery was abolished in the Oregon Territory, exclusionary laws wouldn’t allow Black pioneers to settle there.
The Bush-Simmons party crossed the Columbia River and finally settled near present-day Tumwater at the south end of Puget Sound. With the blessing of the British Hudson’s Bay Company and friendship with Chief Leschi and Nisqually Tribe, they established the first non-Indigenous American settlement in Washington state. Simmons, who refused to live where his friend George could not, would become instrumental in establishing Washington Territory.
The 880-acre family farm at Bush Prairie produced prize wheat and other crops, which George and Isabella were notably generous and selfless in sharing with other settlers moving into the area. They were credited with saving a number of lives during the famine of 1852.
Although in 1850 the US Congress excluded Black Americans from making land claims, the Washington Territorial legislature successfully petitioned Congress to allow the Bush family to retain ownership of their farm.
The farm at Bush Prairie passed to the eldest son, William Owen Bush, after his father and mother died. Owen, as he was called, continued the farm’s success with grain and produce that received accolades not only regionally, but also at national venues such as the 1893 Chicago Exposition.
Owen was elected to the state House of Representatives in the new state of Washington in 1889. The first Black legislator in the state, his priorities centered on agriculture and race. Owen and fellow legislators passed Washington state’s first civil rights bill on March 27, 1890.
The following day, the legislature, with Owen leading the way, passed a bill “to establish a State Agricultural College and School of Science.” That college in Pullman eventually became Washington State College, then WSU.
More than 130 years later, on November 19, 2021, a monument to George Bush and his family’s pioneering legacy was dedicated at the state capitol campus in Olympia. A duplicate monument will also be dedicated on the WSU Tri-Cities campus to honor William Owen Bush’s role in Washington State’s founding.
Slideshow: Panels by Jacob Lawrence of Black pioneer George Bush