A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter One Continued - Into the Wilderness
According to the census taken in Oregon in 1850, 207 people were identified as black or mulatto. Of this number, threequarters were actually Hawaiians or half-breed Indians, as the census takers tended to put all non-whites in the same category. There were actually only fifty-four black people included in the census of 1850. Although many of the constitutions of the societies which sponsored wagon trains specifically excluded black people from joining them in the trip to Oregon, most black people came across the plains, many with white families as servants or slaves. Some were promised freedom after arriving in Oregon. The majority of blacks living in Oregon were servants, laborers, or children living with white families. Most were poor and lacked the financial resources to establish independent households. They were further discouraged when in 1850 a federal decision barred them from claiming free land.
The Provisional Assembly proposed laws that allowed settiers to claim 640 acres of land, but these provisions required federal approval. Oregon sent its delegate to Congress to argue for free land, saying that the settlement of the area had helped to secure American claim to Oregon, and that the government should reward them. The bill presented by Oregon's representative, Samuel Thurston, proposed that 320 acres be granted to white men twenty-one and over, and an additional 320 acres to their wives if they were married, assuming that they had come to Oregon before December 1, 1850 and were married by December 1, 1851. Those arriving during the next three years would receive half that amount.
Some Congressmen opposed Thurston's proposal because blacks and other minorities were excluded, except the sons of white/Indian unions. Thurston argued that this provision was designed to discourage black people from coming to Oregon, where they might intermarry with Indians and threaten white control. Other Congressmen opposed the bill because they believe the land grants were too large to be cultivated by individual families, and a sparse population and land speculation would result. Thurston was able to overcome these oppositions, and the bill passed without modification. The Oregon Donation Land Act, with its promise of free land for white settlers only, became law in September, 1850.
Among those who arrived in Oregon Territory in 1844 was a black man named George Bush and his family. Unlike most of the other blacks who came to Oregon, Bush was a man of wealth, and even aided other needy families on the trip west. The date and place of his birth are disputed, but according to the family history he was born in Pennsylvania in 1779. His father, Matthew Bush, was born in India and was brought to the United States as a servant of a Captain Stevenson. His mother was Irish, and was a maid in the Stevenson household. According to one observer, his descendants show no trace of his black heritage, and there are no pictures of him? While his ethnic heritage may be disputed, he was racially identified as a black person by his contemporaries. John Minto recalled a conversation with Bush while on the Oregon Trail in 1844.
I struck the road again in advance of my friends near Soda Springs. There was in sight, however, G.W. Bush, at whose camp . . . I had received the hospitality of the Missouri rendezvous. Joining him we went on to the springs. Bush was a mulatto, but had means, and also a white woman for a wife, and a family of five children. Not many men of color left a slave state so well to do, and so generally respected; but it was not in the nature of things that he should be permitted to forget his color. As we went along together, he riding a mule and I on foot, he led the conversation to this subject. He told me that he should watch, when we got to Oregon, what usage was awarded to people of color, and if he could not have a free man's rights he would seek the protection of the Mexican government in California or New Mexico. He said there were few in that train he would say as much to as he had just said to me. I told him I understood?
Ezra Meeker, another friend of Bush, said that he had left Missouri "because of the virulent prejudice against his race in the community where he lived.
Bush had lived in Tennessee, Illinois and in Missouri for over twenty years. He had also been employed by the Hudson's Bay Company, and may have visited the Far West in the 1820's. In 1832 he married Isabella James and they raised a family of boys, five of whom survived beyond infancy. Bush left Missouri as a middle aged man of wealth; stories were told of the false bottom in one of his wagons that concealed over $2,000 in silver coins. The crossing to Oregon was full of the usual problems of scarce food and water, and heavy rains delayed the party so that they arrived at The Dalles late in the fall of 1844. Bush spent the winter on the south side of the Columbia River near The Dalles, tending the livestock. Michael Simmons, his friend and partner, spent the next spring and summer exploring the Puget Sound area, and in October, 1845, the two men and their families left The Dalles and settled on good farm land near modern Turnwater, Washington. Oregon had declared its prejudice against black people by passing the first of the exclusion laws in 1844, but the law could not be enforced in the wilderness north of the Columbia River. Bush enjoyed a free man's rights in that unsettled country, in an area still called Bush Prairie, and helped to secure American claim to modern Washington State.
The first years were hard, complicated by severe winters, but the Bush family prospered, raising wheat and vegetables. Isabella raised poultry and sheep, and seeds of fruit trees brought from Missouri soon began to bear fruit. The family's reputation for kindness and generosity were well known. One year, wheat was in short supply and Bush was offered an unheard-of price for his entire crop. His response was not forgotten.
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?
Washington was organized as a separate Territory in 1853. Under the provision of the Donation Land Act, Bush could not legally claim title to the 640 acres of land he had settled and farmed since 1845, because he was a black man. His white friends did not forget him, and the first legislative assembly passed a petition on his behalf, urging that Congress pass a special act giving George Bush title to his land. The following year this was approved.
Black people shared the pioneering spirit that transformed Oregon from a wilderness into a thriving American territory. They came because of special talents, an accident of fate, or by deliberate efforts to enjoy a freer life. A few participated in the early expeditions that provided the information that changed the image of Oregon from an unknown wilderness into a rich agricultural paradise in the West. Others by individual efforts helped to create a thriving community. The first indications that this was not to be an unblemished land of promise for black people began to appear in the decade of the 1840's, as the pioneer government passed laws designed to discourage black people from making a new life in Oregon.
The End of Chapter One
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