American Legal History

No Suffrage, Little Attention; Nonetheless, Some Prosperity

A wealthy half-Black war veteran and frontiersman named George Washington Bush altered the course of history in the Pacific Northwest. Bush was among the first Oregon Trail settlers in present-day Washington. (1) Racism persisted north of the Columbia River, yet policies in Washington Territory were more conducive to Black prosperity than contemporaneous laws in Oregon Territory. Between 1844–1870, small Black enclaves established livelihoods in hardscrabble Washington Territory. The Bush family became prominent. (2) In comparison, Oregon Territory enforced two “Black Exclusion” laws, and its constitution codified abject White supremacy. (3) (4)

Given that Washington Territory’s legislature demonstrated greater interracial tolerance compared to its southern neighbors, did any Black men vote in Washington?

No. (5)

My research concludes that no Black man appeared on a Washington Territory voter roll before states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

Nonetheless, by 1870, over two hundred free Blacks and “mulattoes,” mostly single men, acquired land or earned a living in Washington Territory. (6) (7) (8) (9) Before his death in 1863, Bush became prominent for business, charity and civics. (10) His son, William, served in the state’s first legislature in 1889, and William introduced a successful civil rights bill in 1890. (11) Bush was instrumental in early Washington's growth—but he never voted.

Background: Hostility Toward Blacks in Oregon Country

A small settler population convened the Oregon Provisional Government in 1843. Skirmishes among settlers and Indians preoccupied the nascent government. After the deadly Cockstock Incident, arising from a dispute between a Black settler and a servant Indian, Oregon enacted the first of two Black Exclusion laws. (12) (13)

The law forbade Blacks, free or slave, from entering or residing in Oregon Country, and it released bonded Black servants and subsequently required their removal from the territory. Black settlers were to be publicly lashed every six months until and unless their departure from the territory. Oregon’s legislature repealed the statute in 1846 before a public whipping occurred. Instead of the lash, Whites banished Blacks at risk of being auctioned into slavery if they stayed. (14)

In 1849, the Oregon Territorial Government enacted a second Black Exclusion law. This effectuated the expulsion of (only) one Black man, Jacob Vanderpool. The Oregon Territorial Government repealed this law in 1853 but imposed similarly exclusionary laws it in its 1857 constitution, effective upon statehood in 1859. The constitution forbade Black residence, real estate ownership, contracting, suffrage and use of the state’s judicial system. These laws did not include enforcement mechanisms or grant jurisdiction to counties to police the exclusion laws, which is why a relatively small (and beleaguered) Black population tenuously existed in Oregon between 1850 — 1860. (15)

Bush Goes West

George Bush’s African father, born in colonial India,

No, not even the one source you are copying from says this. According to the document at, "His father, Matthew Bush, of African descent, was said to be a sailor from the British West Indies." That's not an African from India, for sure. There are, according to the HistoryLink tertiary source, a number of secondaries to have consulted. If you did, for example for the inheritance story you tell below, which is not in any source you cite, you certainly should have cited it.

and mother, Irish-American, inherited a fortune in 1787 from an heirless Philadelphian merchant in whose manor they served. Young Bush was educated, and he fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans at 21 years old. After the war, Bush fur-trapped in Oregon Country for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Bush is believed to be the first free Black man west of the Rocky Mountains.

Believed by whom? What sources on that subject were consulted? Where does the Battle of New Orleans story come from?

After a decade of trapping, Bush raised cattle in Illinois and Missouri. In 1844, Bush embarked from Missouri with his White wife, Isabella, four mixed-race sons, and several thousand dollars’ worth of ingot. Bush led a predominantly White party comprising several well-to-do families. (16)

Upon Bush’s arrival to the Willamette Valley, the present White community enforced Black Exclusion. Bush's party relocated to the southern tip of Puget Sound, at Tumwater (presently Olympia), between the Black and Deschutes Rivers. (17) There, Bush established Bush Prairie, a successful farm, and financed a gristmill and a sawmill that served White settlers and Indians from St!sch!a's village. (18)

That doesn't look like a genuine citation: An entire book for one fact, with no page reference. Did you see the source?


In 1850, Bush owned real property in Lewis County worth $3,000 (according to the federal census). (20) Among the county’s 558 residents, only seven heads of households had real property worth more. (21) One other Black man, William Phillips, a sailor, lived in Lewis County. A Black man and woman, each a servant to a White Army officer, lived in Clark County. (22) In 1850, nine Black people resided in Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River, of 1,201 total inhabitants. (23)

Founding Washington Territory, But Not Necessarily Voting In It

Settlers in Clark and Lewis Counties began organizing a provisional independent government in 1851. They drafted a petition to Congress to form a new Territory at the Monticello Convention, November 25–26, 1852. Upon enactment of the Organic Act, Washington Territory split from Oregon on March 2, 1853. (24)

The Organic Act did not adopt Black Exclusion policies. Indeed, the act does not mention Black people. Under the Organic Act, White and mixed-race White-Indian male residents had exclusive voting eligibility to elect the first assembly. Voter eligibility in subsequent elections was to be determined by this assembly. (25) The initial election elevated 29 men to the Territorial Assembly. One of the Councilmen, Michael T. Simmons, was in Bush’s 1844 Oregon Trail party. (26) Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens presided. The first assembly session concluded February 27, 1854. (27) (28)

Legislators declined to give the few Black men voting rights. (29) Consequently, I found no record that Black people attempted to register to vote between 1854—1870. In comparison, many mixed-race White-Indian men participated in elections.

A Small Population Aroused Little Attention

Black people who came West lived under less pointed racist public policies in Washington than in Oregon. (30) For instance, in 1855, Washington’s Assembly unanimously voted to petition Congress to confirm Bush’s freehold title on Bush Prairie; Congress granted it. (31)

For the most part, Washington Territory’s laws were silent on Black affairs. However, the same 1855 Territorial Assembly session that supported Bush’s property claim enacted an anti-miscegenation law. (32)

Washington’s White-Indian population swings can explain the legislature’s silence on Black affairs. By 1860, 40 Black people lived and worked among small encampments and budding cities. Most were single men employed by the Army or Navy. Whites numbered 11,318. Indians’ populations may have exceeded 25,000. (33) By 1870, 207 Black and mixed-race Black people lived in Washington Territory. Whites numbered 22,195. Indians numbered 14,796. (34) (35) As remarked in Esther Mumford's Seattle's Black Victorians, the Black community in settler-era Washington was relatively meek, so they did not garner much legislative or political attention – nevertheless, a step up from the abject racism that many Black settlers fled. (36)

Same problem. An entire book is cited for one editorialization, without a page reference. Is the reader supposed to procure the book and look in the index for "meekness"? Did you see the source? On what basis should we conclude that there wasn't any "abject racism" facing a population of scarcely 200 Negroes among roughly 40,000 other people?

Throughout this period of Washington’s history, from settlement to territory, the legislature sought to engender White rights in predominantly Indian-held territory. The relatively few Black people did not enjoy civil rights, particularly suffrage;

"Particularly" or only? What other evidence is there concerning "civil rights"?

however, the land was rich and Washington’s policies did not strip Blacks of the right to till the soil and trade wares. Despite persistent difficulties, some natural and some social, Black people could prosper in Washington. As a result, Washington was a superior territory to Oregon for Black livelihoods.

I'm not sure what this all adds up to. You have apparently verified that there were no Negro voters in Washington before the 15th Amendment, though you don't give any parallel information from the period thereafter. Census data and electoral information should be available for 1880 and 1890 if it is available for the earlier period. In any event, this fact in itself doesn't give us anything to interpret or to understand beyond the immediate negative.

The anecdotes about George Washington Bush and his offspring don't seem to take us far beyond the run of the local history mill. (You refer to his children as "mixed-race," and to him as "Black," but there doesn't seem to be any reason for the distinction. His own father is said in the only source I could consult to be "of African descent," and his own mother was white. Under "one drop" doctrine such as would have applied in Louisiana or Mississippi [were those the rules of the Oregon Territory Negro exclusion law?] all of them were colored; under your vocabulary, they all appear to have been of "mixed race" to an unknown degree.) How does anything we learn about George W. Bush affect anything we are supposed to conclude from the presence of a few dozen households of "Black" or "Negro" people who didn't vote in Washington before and immediately after territorial organization?

-- JohnOMeara - 02 Nov 2016 - 04 Dec 2017



1 , 16 : Oldham, Kit, "Bush, George W. (1790?-1863)" <>

2 , 17 , 21 , 22 , 25 , 29 : Id.

3 : Millner, Darrell, "Blacks in Oregon", The Oregon Encyclopedia. Sept. 11, 2017. <>

4 , 15 : Nokes, Greg, "Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon", The Oregon Encyclopedia. Sept. 12, 2017. <>

5 : *A note on sourcing:* Washington Territory voting roll records, dated 1853—1870, were accessed by myself at the Washington State Library, in Olympia, WA, with the assistance of librarian Sean Lanksbury and Deputy State Librarian Crystal Lentz Rowe. Digitalized records were not (and could not be made) available. I cross-referenced Black adult male names from the 1850, 1860 and 1870 federal census records and the 1857 territorial county census records with contemporaneous voting roll records; there were no Black registered voters.

6 : "Clark County, WA - 1850 Federal Census; Oregon Territory", <>

7 : "1850 Federal Census of Lewis County, Oregon Territory", <>

8 : "United States Census, 1860 - Washington Territory", <>

9 : "United States Census, 1860 - Washington Territory", <>

10 : Oldham, see supra

11 : Caldbick, John, "Bush, William Owen (1832-1907)". Aug. 2, 2013. <>

12 : Taylor, Quintard. “Slaves and Free Men: Blacks in the Oregon Country, 1840-1860,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 83, 1982: 153-170.

13 : McClintock, Thomas C., The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), pp. 121-130. <>

14 : McClintock, see supra

18 : Buerge, David M., Chief Seattle and the town that took his name: the change of worlds for the native people and settlers on Puget Sound, Sasquatch Books. 2017.

19 , 35 : see Attachment 5, below

20 :;

23 : I independently tabulated these numbers during a thorough review of the review of the 1850 federal census of Lewis and Clark counties, which were the only two counties in Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River at the time.

24 : Organic Act [of Washington Territory], Mar. 2, 1853, <>

26 : Oldham, see above

27 : Statutes of the Territory of Washington, 1st Leg; Ass., Feb. 27, 1854. <>

28 : see Attachment 2, below

30 : An invaluable compilation of historical codes was accessed at:

31 : H.R. 707, "A Bill For the Relief of George Bush" (1855), <>

32 : see Attachment 4, below

33 : Caldbick, John, "1860 Census: First census to count Washington Territory as discrete entity; population nearly 75 percent male; Native Americans counted for first time, but badly." July 11, 2010. <>

34 : Caldbick, John, "1870 Census: First census since abolition of slavery; population of Washington Territory more than doubles in 10 years; all but one county show growth; attempts made to more accurately count Native Americans." July 19, 2010. <>

36 : Mumford, Esther H., Seattle's Black Victorians, Ananse Press, Seattle. 1980.


Webs Webs

Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf 03-Organic.pdf props, move 130.3 K 12 Jan 2018 - 14:51 JohnOMeara The Organic Act of Washington Territory (1853)
png Screen_Shot_2018-01-12_at_10.04.04_AM.png props, move 266.8 K 12 Jan 2018 - 15:05 JohnOMeara Anti-Miscegenation Law, WA Terr. Laws (1855)
png Screen_Shot_2018-01-12_at_10.10.30_AM.png props, move 685.9 K 12 Jan 2018 - 15:23 JohnOMeara Census records, 1870
png Screen_Shot_2018-01-12_at_9.49.49_AM.png props, move 314.9 K 12 Jan 2018 - 14:52 JohnOMeara Section 5 of the Organic Act, "Qualifications of voters"
pdf bc950d6c-0d19-49bb-8766-3ec9608c8b2d.pdf props, move 4145.9 K 12 Jan 2018 - 13:45 JohnOMeara 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Lewis County, Ore. Terr.
r10 - 12 Jan 2018 - 22:13:24 - EbenMoglen
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