Bush, William Owen (1832-1907)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/02/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10435
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William Owen Bush was the eldest son of George Bush (1790?-1863), of Irish and African American descent, and Isabella James Bush (1809?-1866), a German American. In 1844 he accompanied his parents and four younger brothers on an arduous wagon trek west with several families of white settlers. Their original goal was the Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory, but the provisional government there had recently passed a law banning black residency. Most of the party moved north, eventually settling around present-day Tumwater in Thurston County. The Bushes were an exceptional family, close-knit and known and respected for their thrift, industriousness, and above all, generosity. Owen (the name most commonly used for William Owen Bush in historical accounts) married a widow, Mandana Kimsey (1826-1899). They established a farm of their own at Grand Mound Prairie, about 12 miles south of the family homestead. When George Bush died in 1863, Owen, as the oldest son, took over the original farm, which he operated together with his brothers until his death in 1907. He became an accomplished agronomist, coaxing high yields of exceptional grains from his land and winning national recognition at several expositions. He also found time to serve from 1889 to 1891 in the first legislature convened in the new state of Washington, where he played a significant role in the establishment of an agricultural college in Eastern Washington, the precursor to Washington State University.


The productive lives of pioneers George and Isabella Bush have been reasonably well documented (including on HistoryLink.org), but much less has been written about their six children, the oldest and most noted of whom was William Owen Bush. To understand how he became the man he was it is useful to at least briefly recapitulate the story of his forebears, so far as it is known.

George Bush's father was Matthew Bush, an African who was either born in India or taken there at a young age. The importation of African slaves to India started as early as the 1300s, and other Africans came to the subcontinent as sailors and mercenaries. It is not known what Matthew's status was in India, but when he was taken into the household of a British merchant and sea captain named Stevenson, it appears from all accounts that he was regarded by the Stevenson family as a trusted personal servant rather than a slave. And he was, in the end, treated very much as a member of the family.

Like so much else about his early life, the origins of Matthew's Christian name are unknown; he may have been given it by Stevenson or by some other Westerner with whom he had come into contact in India. What is known is that Matthew Bush came to America with the Stevensons, who settled in Pennsylvania while it was still one of the original 13 British colonies. There was also an Irish maid in the household, and she and Matthew soon married. They would have but one child, George Bush, who was born in Philadelphia. He, in turn, would father William Owen Bush and five other sons.

The Stevensons were wealthy Quakers and owned several merchant ships. They apparently had no children of their own, and it is said that when Mrs. Stevenson died some years after the death of her husband, her sizeable estate was left to Matthew Bush and his wife, the family's longtime servants. The dates of Matthew's and his wife's deaths are not recorded, but when the last of them died, the remaining estate was passed down to their only child, George, who became uncommonly wealthy for a free black in pre-Civil War America.

The Second Generation

George Bush's early life is not well documented either. Family lore held that he was born in 1779, but the 1850 federal census listed his age as 56, which would place his birth some 15 years later, in 1794. To further confuse matters, the 1860 census indicated that he was born in 1790. One of the latter dates seems most likely; if Bush was born in 1779 he would have been 65 years old when he, his family, and 32 other settlers began their challenging trek to the Pacific Northwest.

It is generally accepted that George served under Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) during the War of 1812 and fought in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Less certain is the lore that in 1820 or 1821 he worked as a trapper in the Pacific Northwest and, later, for the Hudson's Bay Company. While sources seem consistent in stating that George inherited the remainder of the Stevenson estate from his parents, it is at least possible that he accumulated much of his wealth through his own efforts and thrift. At least one source states that while living in Illinois, Bush, then in his 20s, "entered the cattle business, an occupation that is believed to have financed his Oregon trip" (Millner). It also is family lore that George Bush fought with the Missouri Militia and was wounded in the 1832 Blackhawk war, but this is yet another claim that is unsupported by contemporaneous documentation.

Sometime in the 1820s, George Bush moved from Illinois to Clay County, Missouri, where, on July 4, 1830, he married Isabella James, a white woman and the daughter of a Baptist minister. They owned a prosperous farm there, and over the next 11 years produced five sons: William Owen in 1832, Joseph Talbott (1833-1904), Reilly Bailey (1836-1866), Henry Sanford (1839-1913), and January Jackson (1842-1888).

The picture becomes clearer after the Bush family decided to move west. In 1844, George and Isabella sold their Missouri farm and with their five sons and five families of white settlers began the slow march west, hoping to acquire land in the fertile Willamette Valley in Oregon Territory. Bush and Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867) soon emerged as the leaders of the party. They arrived at their destination in 1845, only to learn that the provisional government there had the previous year taken the salutary step of banning slavery, but at the same time also banned settlement in the territory by blacks. Some of the party, including the Bush and Simmons families, decided to move farther north, into Puget Sound country. It was, in 1845, still part of Oregon Territory and would be for eight more years, but enforcement of the ban on black settlement did not reach to the territory's northern regions.

The Simmons family founded a settlement in the future Thurston County that they called New Market, renamed Tumwater (Chinook Jargon for "waterfall") in 1863. Simmons and Bush together built the region's first grist mill and first sawmill, and New Market became the first permanent American settlement in what would many years later become Washington state. The Bush family staked out a homestead just south of Tumwater and established a farm that became the envy (and the savior) of their neighbors. The farm's locale soon was called Bush Prairie, and it was here that young Owen Bush developed his agricultural skills. A sixth son, Lewis Nisqually Bush (1847-1923), was born on the farm. Some sources say that he was the first non-Indian child born in Thurston County, but one of Michael Simmons's sons also claimed that distinction.

Prosperous and Generous

The Bush family prospered greatly and was held in high esteem by all who knew them. George Bush's generosity was legendary, and it was said that he personally saw to it that new settlers would be supported while establishing their own farms and businesses. During one year of brutal crop failures, Bush refused to sell his grain supply to speculators, telling them that he wanted to ensure that "my neighbors will 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 I can provide them" (The Museum Gazette).

Bush's wealth was said to be such that he was able to fund the purchase of the settlers' first oceangoing ship, the Orbit, which some sources claim, almost certainly in error, cost $35,000 (the equivalent of at least $1 million today). This claim, too, is short on documentation, but the purchase of such a ship would have enabled Bush and his fellow setters to transport their lumber and agricultural products to more populated areas in Oregon and California.

George Bush's generosity and kindness were repaid in part in 1854. In 1850, Congress had passed the Donation Land Claim Act for the Oregon Territory, which mandated that only white males, married white females, and "American half-breed Indians" could hold legal title to land in the territory ("The Donation Land Claim Act, 1850"). Washington Territory was carved off from Oregon Territory on March 2, 1853, but the strictures of the law were thought to still apply. By 1854, the Bush Prairie farm was perhaps the most prosperous in the territory, and the Bush family had earned the deep respect and appreciation of their neighbors. In the first session of the new legislature of the new Territory of Washington, a resolution was passed asking that Congress permit Bush to take legal title to his farm. In that resolution it was stated, "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 ... " ("Memorial to Congress ... ")

On January 30, 1855, the House of Representatives in the nation's capital passed House Resolution 707, which read in relevant part:

"That the claim of George Bush to 640 acres of land in Thurston County, Washington Territory, in virtue of his early settlement and continued residence and cultivation ... is hereby confirmed -- the one half to the said George Bush and the other half to his wife ... " (H.R. 707)

All doubt was now removed regarding the legal ownership of the Bush Prairie farm, and by 1860 it had grown to more than 800 acres. On April 5, 1863, George Bush died from a cerebral hemorrhage, mourned by all who knew him. Despite his meticulous attention to the family business, he died without having written a will. Isabella owned 320 acres, pursuant to the congressional resolution, but more than 50 years after George's death, family members found it necessary to file a "friendly" lawsuit to have a court determine the proper allocation of 180 acres of George's land that was purchased after the congressional resolution was passed. Everyone from the third generation save Lewis Nisqually Bush was by this time dead ("File Friendly Suit").

Isabella Bush lived another three years, passing away in 1866. Most of her sons never married. At least three of the brothers were living on their parents' farm at the time of Isabella's death, but it was Owen who eventually would take over and lead it to even greater success and prosperity.

The Third Generation

William Owen Bush was born in Missouri in 1832, the first child of George and Isabella Bush. A few sources give his birth date as July 4, a year to the day after his parents were wed; this most likely is incorrect and the actual month and day have not been established with certainty. Owen was 12 years old when the Bush/Simmons party headed west. In those days, even the young children of settlers were expected to work for a family's survival and prosperity, and Owen's agricultural skills, which would later win him a measure of fame, were learned at his father's side on the Bush Prairie farm.

The Bush family was on good terms with the Nisqually Indians who lived in the area around Bush Prairie. Owen Bush learned the local language, and he served on occasion as an interpreter for Washington's first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). After the Indian Wars of 1855 and 1856, Bush spoke up in defense of the Nisqually chief Leschi (1808-1858) and the local people who had become the family's friends and had helped them survive the harsh early days of settlement:

"[Leschi] was as good a friend as we ever had. He was dignified in his intercourse and proud of his country, and, I may say, proud of himself ... . Stevens wanted me to go into war, but I wouldn't do it. I knew that it was his bad management that brought on the war, and I wouldn't raise a gun against those people who had always been so kind to us when we were so weak and needy. The Indians could have killed us all any time during the eight years we were here before Governor Stevens came, but instead of molesting us in any way they helped us all they could" (South by Northwest).

In 1859, Bush married a widow six years his elder, Mandana Smith Kimsey (1826-1899). A white woman, she had come west from Missouri in 1847 with her parents and her first husband, Duff Kimsey. (Some sources use the spelling "Kinsey," but "Kimsey" appears in several places in Mandana's obituary.) Her father, Dr. J. Smith, did not survive the trip, but Mandana and her husband settled in Marion County (of which Salem is today the county seat) in what would become Oregon Territory the following year. The Kimseys farmed there for approximately 10 years, until Duff's death, and the marriage produced one child, a daughter.

Owen and Mandana Bush soon established their own farm at Grand Mound Prairie, not far south of his parents' homestead. Their first child, John Shotwell Bush, was born in 1862. A daughter, also named Mandana but called "Belle," was born in 1865. The family prospered at Grand Mound, but a major change was on the horizon.

It appears from the available records that Bush, after his father's death, stayed on his own farm for a few years while his mother and several of his younger brothers ran the Bush Prairie farm. Then, in January 1866, his brother Reilly Bush (George and Isabella's third-born son) committed suicide by shotgun. Nine months later, in September, Isabella died. The farm then passed into the control of three of the five remaining sons -- Owen, Joseph, and Henry -- and Owen, as the eldest, became the farm's manager. It is somewhat unclear what year he moved back to Bush Prairie from Grand Mound, but 1870 is most commonly mentioned.

A Great Grower of Grains

Under Owen Bush's management the Bush Prairie farm prospered as never before. In addition to the cultivation of cash crops, Bush and several of his brothers logged portions of the land, milling much of the lumber themselves. At least three of the Bush brothers -- Joseph, Henry, and Reilly -- never married and lived and worked on the family homestead their entire lives (as noted, Reilly committed suicide before Owen took over the farm's management).

Bush's greatest talent proved to be in the cultivation of grain crops, and he became one of the territory's, and later the state's, most celebrated farmers. He was deeply involved in the affairs of the farming community, and in 1872 he, his wife, and his brothers were founding members of the Western Washington Industrial Association, which organized fairs for the display and promotion of agricultural products. Bush also served as president of the organization. The first fair was held in Olympia in 1872, and the second was in Seattle the following year, on the grounds of the University of Washington.

Grains grown at Bush Prairie won numerous awards at these regional events, and this encouraged the legislature to finance a trip by Bush to represent Washington Territory's agriculture at the nation's 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Wheat from the Bush Prairie farm took a "first premium" prize and was recognized as some of the best in the world. Bush then went on to display his grains to great acclaim at other national and international expositions, including Chicago (1893) and Buffalo (1901). As one historian wrote:

"With the flight of years the Bush homestead developed into a model farm under the skillful management of W. O. Bush, who took great pride in raising and preparing for exhibition samples of the grain and produce grown on his place. Exhibits were made at the World's fairs of Philadelphia, Chicago and Buffalo, which attracted general attention and won for Bush medals and diplomas from all three fairs. These exhibits were of inestimable value in advertising the resources of the Territory of Washington and besides the medals and diplomas awarded Mr. Bush personally, the County of Thurston and the Territory and State of Washington were also awarded medals for the best exhibit of grains made by any section of the entire United States. In the planting, selection and arranging of the specimens, Mr. Bush was assisted by his young daughter, Belle, who took as great an interest and pride in the exhibit as did her father" (Early History of Thurston County, Washington, 324).

Although the foregoing source does not mention it, Bush also exhibited, just three years before his death, at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis, where his grain again was honored.

The First Washington State Legislature

After a failed attempt at statehood in 1878, a constitutional convention was held in Washington Territory in 1889 to again write a proposed state constitution and seek admission to the Union. This was ratified by the voters on October 1, 1889, and President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) issued a proclamation admitting Washington as a state on November 11 of that year. Voters also elected the state's first executive officers and legislators, and one of those chosen for the state House of Representatives was William Owen Bush.

In the legislature, Bush pushed for the passage of laws touching on two basic aspects of his life -- agriculture and race. His efforts on both were successful, and the laws were approved on consecutive days of the first legislative session.

Race came up first, with Bush and other legislators pushing for "An Act to Protect All Citizens in Their Civil and Legal Rights," which was approved on March 27, 1890. It mandated:

"That all persons within the jurisdiction of the State of Washington shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the public accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theatres and other places of public amusement and restaurants, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens of whatever race, color or nationality" (Session Laws, 524).

This was the first civil rights act passed in Washington, and it came seven years before similar legislation was approved in California.

The other topic close to Bush's heart was agriculture, and the following day, on March 28, 1890, the House of Representatives passed a law entitled "An Act to create a Commission of Technical Instruction, and to establish a State Agricultural College and School of Science, and to declare an emergency." The statute was enacted pursuant to the educational land grant provisions of federal law, and the State set aside 90,000 acres to be used for "the use and support of agricultural colleges in the state ... " (Session Laws).

Under the act, a "college of science" was to be established within which there would be a "department of agriculture" and an "agricultural experimental station." Bush, among others in the legislature, understood the importance of ever-increasing scientific knowledge to successful farming and ranching, and the statute mandated a specific curriculum in agricultural education:

"First, physics, with special application of its principles to agriculture; second, chemistry, with special application of its principles to agriculture; third, morphology and physiology of plants, with special reference to the commonly grown crops and their fungus enemies; fourth, morphology and physiology of the lower forms of animal life, with special reference to insect pests; fifth, morphology and physiology of the higher forms of animal life, and in particular of the horse, cow, sheep and swine: sixth, agriculture, with special reference to the breeding and feeding of livestock, and the best mode of cultivation of farm produce; seventh, mining and metallurgy. And it shall appoint demonstrators in each of these subjects, to superintend the equipment of a laboratory and to give practical instruction in the same" (Session Laws, 263).

In April 1891 a site for the college was selected at Pullman in the Palouse wheat-ranching country near the border between Washington and Idaho. The "Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington" opened there on January 13, 1892. It had an initial enrollment of 59 students. In 1895, instruction began in what would become the College of Veterinary Medicine. In 1905 the school's name was changed to State College of Washington and in 1959 it became Washington State University.

End of a Long Era

Despite its hard-won prosperity and success, the Bush family was not without its share of troubles. The suicide of Reilly Bush in 1866 may have been due to depression, and in 1891 Joseph Tolbert, second-born son of George and Isabella Bush, was admitted twice to the "insane asylum" at Steilacoom. According to a newspaper of the day, Joseph "was at first possessed of a religious mania, and recently has manifested homicidal and incendiary tendencies" ("Sent to Steilacoom"). He was judged to have regained his sanity the following year and was released to return to the family farm. He died in 1904 at the Soldiers' Home in Orting.

Owen Bush's wife Mandana died on March 30, 1899, at the Bush Prairie farm. They had been married for 40 eventful years, and she left behind her husband, their two children, and the daughter from her first marriage.

William Owen Bush lived on into the twentieth century, finally passing away on February 13, 1907, at St. Peter's Hospital in Olympia. He avoided the confusion that accompanied the distribution of his father's estate by dividing the Bush Prairie farm into three equal portions, with one-third each going to his son John and his daughter Belle. The final third was left jointly to Nellie Kimsey, his stepdaughter, and one "J. Hanner," who is otherwise unidentified. These four were given only life estates in the property, and the will stated that any who attempted to mortgage their portion of the land would be disinherited and their share divided among the remaining legatees. Upon the death of the last of the four, the entire estate was to be distributed in equal shares to their surviving children.

Three years before his death the Olympia Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution praising Bush's contribution to agriculture. It noted his "enthusiastic and efficient work ... in putting before the world a faithful exhibit of the agricultural products of this county at Philadelphia, in '76; at Chicago, in '93; at Buffalo, in 1901; and at St. Louis, in 1904" ("W. O. Bush Honored ... ")

In acknowledgment of his advancing age, the resolution ended: "

We desire to extend to Mr. W. O. Bush our hearty congratulations on the successful issue of his efforts. We trust that his closing days may be as golden as the beautiful grain he has gathered and that he may come to his final reward 'like a shock of corn fully ripe to the harvest'" ("W. O. Bush Honored ... ")

His final reward was not too long in coming. In announcing his death, the Morning Olympian newspaper said of Bush, "Probably no resident of the state or territory throughout its history has done more to advertise the state than W. O. Bush" ("Pioneer W. O. Bush ... )

Bush's brother Henry died in 1913 and Lewis Nisqually Bush, the youngest of George and Isabella's children and the only one born at Bush Prairie, passed away in 1923. Thus came to an end the pioneering generations of this remarkable family.

But the Bush family and its contributions were not easily forgotten. In 1969, 106 years after the death of George Bush and 62 years after the death of William Owen Bush, the Washington State Senate passed Resolution 1969-29. It said, in part:

"WHEREAS, Notwithstanding the fact that George Washington Bush, as with all Negroes in those days, had no citizenship rights, no vote, no clear title to his lands, was nonetheless well known for his many acts of kindness and unselfish devotion to the early settlers, and leadership and advancement of agriculture in the State of Washington ... ;
"WHEREAS, Continuing in his father's footsteps, son William Owen Bush made further contributions to the early settlement of the territory and State of Washington, being chosen in 1889 to represent Thurston County in the first Legislature convened in the State of Washington;
"NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That we, the Senate, do hereby acknowledge and recognize the contributions made to the history of his people and to the history and development of Thurston County and to the State of Washington by this sincere and worthy Negro and his family" (Senate Resolution 1969-29).

The Bush homestead no longer survives intact. In 1928, much of the land was taken over for the Olympia Airport. In 1947, after John Shotwell Bush, Owen's son, died, the property sat vacant for 12 years, falling prey to neglect and the elements. Ironically, in the same year the Senate resolution praising the family was adopted, the legislature refused to allocate money to restore the house, and in 1970, deemed too far gone, it was demolished. But all was not lost; a portion of what the Bush family so ably built survives in 2013 as a Community Supported Agriculture farm, still providing quality fresh fruits and vegetables to its neighbors.


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