OLYMPIA — Growing up in Tumwater, a half century ago, Mark and Kathleen Clark knew nothing of George Bush. They weren’t taught about him in public school. They wouldn’t learn about Bush — a Black pioneer who fled violent discrimination in Missouri and Oregon before establishing the first non-Indigenous American settlement in what would become Washington state — until well into adulthood.
But, even as America continues to grapple with racism that traverses its history like a through line; even as battles over school curriculums have taken on a renewed urgency, things do change.
Washington unveiled a monument to Bush last week at the state Capitol in Olympia, the first monument on the Capitol Campus dedicated specifically to a Black person.
The Clarks, both 65, were on hand for the ceremony. Since 2008, they have owned and operated a 5-acre vegetable farm in Tumwater. It is the last farmed remnant of Bush Prairie, the 640-acre farm that Bush and his family built in present-day Tumwater when they arrived in Washington 175 years ago.
“We, too, are a part of Washington state history,” said Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, who, as part of the legislative Black Caucus, was instrumental in getting the granite and bronze monument installed. “The beginning of Washington State included Indigenous people, white people and African Americans.
“I feel like I am breathless in the fact that we are celebrating today, George Bush. And we are standing on the shoulders of many who came after George Bush to be able for me to be here today,” Entenman said.
Bush was born in Pennsylvania sometime between 1779 and 1790 (sources differ on the exact date) to a Black father and a white Irish American mother. As a free man, Bush settled in Missouri, a slave state, where he met and married Isabella James. In 1844, the couple headed west with Michael Simmons (who was white) and his family, along the Oregon Trail, but were faced with the threat of government-sanctioned violence upon arrival.
Oregon had recently abolished slavery, but its provisional Legislature had, at about the same time, passed a suite of vicious laws meant to keep Black people from settling there. One of those laws, the “lash law” said Black people would be publicly whipped — 39 lashes every six months — until they left the territory. The lash law was eventually rescinded and replaced with a law requiring Black settlers to do public labor.
So, the Bush and Simmons families traveled on together, spending the winter near Oregon City and then crossing the Columbia River and heading north.
They arrived together at the southern edge of Puget Sound and founded Tumwater. (Simmons has been honored by a Capitol monument since 1959.)
The Bush family prospered, settling their farm in 1845, growing wheat, peas and potatoes; building a sawmill and starting a small logging operation. They were legendary for their hospitality, welcoming travelers with food and a place to stay.
The family is credited “with saving the lives of fellow settlers with food from their farm during the famine of 1852,” the new monument says.
Ezra Meeker, a pioneer leader and author, wrote that Bush gave away almost his entire harvest that year.
“The man divided out nearly his whole crop to new settlers who came with or without money,” Meeker wrote in a biographical sketch of Bush. “‘Pay me in kind next year,’ he would say to those in need; and to those who had money he would say, ‘Don’t take too much — just enough to do you.'”
In 1850, Congress passed a law giving land in the Washington and Oregon territories to any white settlers who claimed it. Bush was excluded, but was so widely respected that Washington’s territorial Legislature lobbied Congress to carve out an exception for him.
“He has contributed much towards the settlement of this territory, the suffering and needy never having applied to him in vain for succor and assistance,” the territorial Legislature wrote to Congress in 1854.
Congress complied, granting Bush the 640 acres that white couples received.
“The law confirming your land claim to you and your wife passed congress without amendment and was approved by the President a few days since,” Columbia Lancaster, Washington’s first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote to Bush in 1855.
There are no known photographs of George Bush.
A series of five paintings by Jacob Lawrence, commissioned by the Washington State Historical Society in 1972, shows him as a swashbuckling leader, guiding an interracial wagon train across the country, and through a blizzard over the continental divide.
Bush died in 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in theory, but before the end of the Civil War and Juneteenth ended slavery in practice.
He was able to own land, by virtue of the special exemption he was granted, but was never able to vote. Bush’s eldest son, William Owen Bush would, 26 years after his father’s death, become the first Black person to serve in the Washington Legislature. He introduced the legislation that established Washington State University.
Among the attendees as the Bush memorial was unveiled last week were two of his descendants. Megan Jarman, of Seattle, is the great-great-great granddaughter of Mandana Smith Kimsey, who married William Owen Bush later in life. And Brandon Staff, of Tumwater, is George Bush’s great-great-great-great-great grandson.
Jarman and Staff met for the first time. Jarman grew up hearing stories from her dad about their ancestors, but Staff knew nothing of it, until about eight years ago when his grandmother was contacted by the state of Washington, who asked her to take a DNA test.
“So she spit in this tube,” Staff said. “And we send it off and they said, ‘Yup, turns out you’re direct descendants.’ So they sent a stack of papers about two and a half, three inches thick of all of our family history, which was really, really cool.”
Jennifer Kilmer, the director of the Washington State Historical Society, said it “has taken too long” for the state to celebrate Bush and his family.
“The stories of Black Washingtonians have been underrepresented in our history, and this is one step in moving toward an inclusive telling of our state’s past,” Kilmer said.
Fifty years ago, Mark and Kathleen Clark didn’t learn the first thing about George Bush at Tumwater High School. “It’s important to understand the history and understand some of the injustices that were done,” Mark Clark said. “And to continue to learn from that.”
Last week, the Clarks, now unofficial custodians of the Bush homestead, were interviewed by a group of student journalists at the monument’s unveiling.
The reporters were working on a project on Bush for the school yearbook. They were students at Tumwater’s George Bush Middle School.