Tired of Discrimination
In 1844, George Bush, a black man, and John Minto, a white man, talked as they walked beside their wagons on the Oregon Trail. Both men were leaving Missouri and bringing their families to the Pacific Northwest. George Bush was weary of the discrimination he faced in Missouri. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and a wealthy farmer, but Missouri did not grant free blacks citizenship, nor did they have the right to own land. He and his family often faced racial slurs and mistreatment.
Bush hoped to live where character counted more than skin color. But he was uncertain what racial prejudice he would find in the Northwest. ?I?ll watch when I get to Oregon,? Bush told Minto, ?to see how they treat people of color. If I can?t have a free man?s rights, I may go to California or New Mexico and seek the protection of the Mexican government.?
On the Oregon Trail
Bush was a respected leader in the wagon train. He helped his fellow travelers by sharing his food and supplies. He had paid the expenses for two poor families so that they could make a new start in the Northwest.
The route to Oregon was difficult. Over paths blazed by mountain men, creaking covered wagons pulled by oxen or mules bumped along the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail. Like most wagon trains, George Bush and his companions left Independence, Missouri, as soon as the snow melted and headed west across the plains and through the Rockies by way of South Pass.
Their wagons moved slowly, covering approximately 15 miles per day. The people could not go faster than the pace of their farm animals that they herded beside the wagons. In the plains and high deserts, the travelers suffered from heat and thirst. They endured wet and cold in the mountains. The sick struggled to keep up. Families in nearly every wagon train buried loved ones who died along the way.
They woke before sunrise and the wagons began to roll not long after first light. In the evening, they made camp by circling the wagons, forming a corral for their livestock and a barricade for protection from Indians and wild animals. After supper, some sang or played games, while others repaired gear. George Bush and other faithful Christians in his wagon train worshiped the Lord together most evenings in prayer, Bible reading and hymn singing?
Laws Against Blacks
After an arduous eight-month trip, Bush and his companions arrived at The Dalles on the Columbia River. There they discovered that the settlers in the Willamette Valley had passed a law that forbade blacks from entering the region or claiming land. It stated in part: ?Any free Negro or mulatto coming to the country shall leave within two years. If he failed to leave the country after notice, he should be whipped on the bare back with not less than twenty, nor more than thirty-nine stripes, and flogged likewise every six months until he did leave.
Settling Near Puget Sound
However, when Bush and the others in his wagon train learned that the laws were not enforced north of the Columbia River, he and his family and several white families who wanted to stand by him decided to go north and settle near Puget Sound. They started the first permanent American settlements in the area. Bush claimed 640 acres on a fertile clearing a few miles south of present-day Olympia. The area is still known as Bush Prairie.
George Bush developed the most productive farm in the region. He planted fruit trees, grew wheat and vegetables, and bred cattle, chickens and sheep. Bush took seriously Christ?s command: ?Love your neighbor as you love yourself.? It led him to put his friends and neighbors ahead of his own personal gain?
Another prominent African-American pioneer was George Washington. Washington was born in Frederick County, Virginia, on August 15, 1817. His father was a slave and his mother, a poor white woman. Not long after his birth, his father was sold to a new master far away. His mother gave George to a white couple, Anna and James Cochran. They agreed to raise him as their foster son. The Cochrans moved to the backwoods of northern Missouri when George was nine. There he became a crack shot. By the time he was ten, he had killed several deer and could drop tree squirrels from branches 60 feet from the ground. He impressed all who saw him handle his rifle with a steady grip and sure aim. Anna, or "Mother," as George called her, taught him how to cook, sew and knit. By the time he was a teenager, he could make his own shirts, pants and socks. She read the Bible to him and told him of God?s love through Jesus Christ. She taught him to sing hymns. He learned dozens of them by heart.
Missouri, like most slave states, had laws forbidding blacks to be taught to read and write, so George couldn?t go to school. But by listening to Anna read to him and looking at books, he taught himself. He excelled at mathematics and could figure dimensions of land area in his head before others could work it out on paper. George Washington grew to be a powerful young man - six feet tall and 200 pounds of lean muscle. He cut trees and ran a small sawmill. But he often faced racial prejudice. Once a white customer refused to pay him for a large load of lumber. When Washington tried to collect the money, the customer took him to court, claiming that a black man, slave or free, had no rights in Missouri. Although he eventually won his case, Washington tired of the unfair treatment he faced.
To the Northwest
One day he said to Anna, "Mother, I?m going to the Oregon Country."
She thought he was joking. But a few days later, he told the Cochrans, "Yes, I?m going to get a couple of yolk of cattle and I?m going to Oregon. If there is any decent place in the world, I?m going to find it."
"We want to go with you," his foster parents said. George told them he would never leave them. "You can always depend on me," he said.
They crossed the Oregon Trail in a small group of fifteen wagons and reached Oregon City late in the summer of 1850. He got a job cutting timber, but ran into many of the prejudices he had hoped to leave behind in Missouri. In 1852, he left the Willamette Valley with the Cochrans in search of land of his own. He went north of the Columbia River to a sparsely populated area far from Oregon officials who had passed laws denying nonwhites the right to claim land. He settled the Cochrans in a house at Cowlitz Landing, a small town on the Cowlitz River in present-day Washington state. Then George found a beautiful spot with fertile soil where the Skookumchuck River flowed into the Chehalis River. He staked a squatter?s claim by building a small log cabin with one window and a dirt floor. He tilled the land and planted oats and wheat and vegetables. Washington fenced a pasture for his two cows.
When the salmon ran up the Chehalis River every summer and fall, the Indians camped near his cabin along the banks of the river and fished. He got along well with them. They called him "Noclas" which means "black face."
Others Try to Claim His Land
Washington?s cabin door was always open to visitors. People traveling from Portland to Puget Sound often stopped in. Once two men spent the night in his cabin on their way to Olympia. While enjoying dinner, they told Washington that they were impressed with his land. As they left the next morning, they mentioned that they might file a claim on his land at the territorial land office in Olympia. Since, at that time, blacks could not file land claims, a white man could claim a black man?s land. All he had to do was pay the occupier for the cost of his cabin, fences and other improvements and register it with the government. George Washington had settled his land in the hope that in the future the laws would change and he, as a black man, would have the right to legally own his land.
Washington had to act quickly or he would lose his homestead. He ran to Cowlitz Landing and asked the Cochrans to buy his cabin. They did. Then George and Mr. Cochran raced back to his land on horseback. Not long after they got there, the two white men arrived. They told Washington that they had started the paperwork in Olympia to claim his land. They had come to pay him for his improvements. "Sorry, gentlemen," Washington told them. "Mr. Cochran here already paid for the improvements and he is going to take out the claim."
The Cochrans filed a land claim for 640 acres of George?s land. George added on to his cabin and the Cochrans moved in with him. He expanded his fields and livestock and prospered. After four years, he bought the land and the cabin back from the Cochrans. He cared for them until they died. Eventually, the laws against black land ownership were abolished, and George Washington bought more land. In 1869, he married Mary Jane Coonness, a widow with a young son named Stacey. He built a two-story house for his new family.
He Founds Centralia
In 1872, when the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed his land, Washington knew that newcomers would flock to the area. He decided to create a town on his property. When he shared the idea with his neighbors, they thought him foolhardy. "No town will grow out here," they told him. But Washington was convinced. "This is the halfway point on the railroad between Kalama and Tacoma," he said. "It?s a central point. I?ll name it Centerville." Later, the name changed to Centralia. At the dinner table each night, George and Mary Jane talked about their plans for the town. They thought about the Bible?s description of heaven with its gates of pearl and streets of gold. So they named one street Gold and another Pearl. Washington bought a surveyor?s chain and with the help of Stacey and another man, he staked off the building lots. They sketched the townsite on paper and filed their plans at the county auditor?s office in 1875.