History is intriguing because 10 people can tell the history of something and all of them can tell it a different way and all of them believe their version. Black history in America is even more daunting because we need to go back and add our story into a story the public already believes it knows.
The story about the founding of the state of Washington is one of those stories, and every time I tell someone this version, they look at me with amazement. What’s amazing about the story is that the man who actually did more to create the state of Washington is a black man named George Washington Bush, almost the same name as the state’s namesake.
Imagine it’s 1844, and you are a free, racially mixed man who is married to a white woman, and you want to get out of Missouri as fast as you can because the racial discrimination is really bad. You are asked to join a party of four other families heading to the Oregon Territory.
But on the way to the Promised Land, the provisional government of Oregon creates a new law called the “lash law.” The law was intended to prevent a large-scale migration of blacks and provided 20 strokes and no more than 39 strokes every six months until they left the Oregon Territory.
The other four families, led by Michel T. Simmons, had grown close to the Bush family so they decided to move with them across the Columbia River into the Northwest Territories, which, at that point, was owned jointly by the United States and Britain.
They stayed in a small settlement outside of Fort Vancouver (present-day Chehalis) in the winter of 1844 to ‘45. It was a land he had learned about when he worked as a trapper for the Hudson Bay Co.
The group finally moved farther inland to the Puget Sound, in Tumwater, outside of Olympia, and establishes the first permanent American settlement in 1845. The settlement was called Bush Prairie.
George Washington Bush (the wealthiest man in the group because he was a successful farmer; Bush and Simmons were the owners of the first sawmill and gristmill in the state) was known as a generous pioneer to people who arrived later on the way to the smaller settlements of Seattle in 1851 and Tacoma in 1852.
The British and American governments decided to split their holdings in 1846 based on who had the most settlers in the area. The United States ended up with the area south of the 49th parallel, later called Washington Territory and later a state, because of the settlers from the Bush party.
For 17 years, until 1863, Bush welcomed settlers from that farm on a small rise of land, and it was clearly the hub for settlers coming to the virgin territories of the Northwest.
His son, William Owens Bush, the first black state legislator, who was credited with the law creating Washington State University, worked the farm until at least 1907. All that is left of this important historical site is a small information kiosk on the site.
A permanent memorial
Washington state is the only state founded by a multiracial group of pioneers all working together for the common good. It’s one of the most powerful and fascinating stories in America. We should proudly tell it in the state of Washington, and it should find its way into the national history books.
In the meantime, that small rise of land in Tumwater needs to have more than an information kiosk. A replica of the home that George Washington Bush lived in should be built as a permanent tourist site. The history of that period should be displayed, and every school in this state needs to make this site part of its regular curriculum.
I believe that this facility should be directly linked to the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, which would be responsible for the site’s development and upkeep.
The Weyerhaeuser Corp. and the Carpenter’s Unions would be natural partners (in honor of that first sawmill) in building the replica of the farm — there are pictures available. A house was actually on the site until 1969.
The state can help its financial future by creating tourist sites that can draw people from all over the nation and the world. This is one of those rare sites that can do a lot without necessarily costing a lot.
It’s part of black history, but it’s also a large part of the history of the state of Washington and America. Build it and the people will come.
Enjoy Black History Month 2012.
CHARLIE JAMES has been an African-American-community activist/writer for more than 35 years.