Every time I drive through Olympia, I hear a scream that vibrates above the trees and merges into the kaleidoscope of the sound of the forest. “Do you remember me?” I hear a voice vibrating in my head. “Why have you forgotten me?”
The voice I am referring to belongs to black pioneer George Washington Bush, who led a party of people into the Puget Sound region in 1844 and created the first American settlement in the region. The land that settlement was on is still there. It’s a large, vacant field, with a plaque in the middle of it and nothing else but the rodents, the birds and the wind, with the voice screaming to those who dare to hear, “Why have you forgotten me?”
A February 2002 Seattle P-I editorial, “State owes much to George Washington Bush –a black pioneer,” featured quotes from “In Search of the Racial Frontier,” by University of Washington historian Quintard Taylor, who explained why the settlement by Bush meant so much to the state of Washington: “Seven years later, the land that Bush helped pioneer broke away from Oregon and became Washington.” He credits Bush’s arrival as a pivotal factor.
“Bush’s decision initiated migration north of the Columbia,” Taylor writes, “and led to the organization of Washington Territory.”
A pioneer in more ways than one
This man was not just a settler; he helped create the first sawmill in the Puget Sound area (long before Weyerhaeuser), and his farm was a pivotal place to stop when settlers came to the Puget Sound. Historians constantly talk about his generosity to these new settlers and its importance.
In the Museum Gazette of the National Park Service, it says that Bush sold his possessions and became one of the leaders of the group: “Bush built a double or false floor in his covered wagon, under which he carried at least $2,000 in silver coins, which was a small fortune in 1844. But others in the wagon train who were not able to fully finance their journey were financed by George Washington Bush.”
The article goes on to say that the Bush party was part of a larger party heading west but broke off from that group somewhere in Wyoming at Fort bridges: “Some of the group had ran out of supplies and clothing. George Washington Bush purchased flour at the wildly inflated price of $60 per barrel, sugar at $1 per pound and calico at $1 a yard, so that all the members of the party were fed clothed and supplied before they continued.”
When they got to Oregon, all of the members of the party were welcomed, except Bush. Black people were prevented from settling there by the “Lash Laws,” which promised 20 lashes if they were not out of Oregon by sundown.
This is where the story of the kind of people Bush had with him became important and where one of the greatest stories of racial solidarity anywhere in America unfolded. The other leader was a man named Mychal T. Simmons, who originally had asked Bush to guide them to Oregon. The entire group of five families and 32 people all decided not to settle anywhere that Bush could not. So they went to the other side of the Columbia River into the wilderness area called the Northwest Territory.
Bush had knowledge of the Puget Sound area, and that was where he eventually led the party to where they eventually settled, in what is now Tumwater, Wash. This was such a close party that they later intermarried with each other.
As the new nations of Canada and the United States were trying to define their western borders, they agreed that any area that had settlers from their respective countries would be recognized as part of that nation. That settlement in Tumwater made the area a part of the United States. His son, Owen Bush, was the first African-American legislator, serving in the first body in 1889. He proposed the legislation that created Washington State University.
Keeping a promise
The very existence of this state is rooted in this man, and yet, we still have not rebuilt the home and sawmill that was the foundation of American settlement in the region. We must get this done so that voice can cease screaming the question that we all should hear: “Why have you forgotten me?”
His descendants are still here. More of them would be considered European American now than African American.
I was privileged to be a journalism student at the University of Washington with of one of those African-American descendants: the late Karl Holifield. I told him that, one of these days, we would be part of a campaign to rebuild Bush Prairie; I would love to keep that promise.
It’s time for all of the descendants to set aside their concerns about their racial past and help honor the ancestor who created this state. They should hear him even better than I do: “Why have you forgotten me?”
CHARLIE JAMES has been an African-American-community activist for more than 35 years. He is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute (mlkci.org). To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.