Westward Ho! How-to Use Homestead Records

Issue #44

Washington State became a United States territory in 1853 and was admitted as a state in 1889. During those decades the Pacfic Northwest endured struggles between the native Salish peoples of the region and the European and American settlers and traders who wanted to claim the land and its resources for themselves. As tensions over slavery rose in the existing states, the same issue also affected America’s territories. The remarkable biography of immigrant George Washington Bush, a free man with a Black father and a White mother who immigrated to Puget Sound from Missouri, illustrates the long-reaching consequences of America’s racial struggle.

A Free Man in Washington

The American struggle over slavery was not just an issue of North vs. South. The life of American pioneer George Washington Bush (1790-1863), an early settler of what is now Washington State, was shaped by the constraints of institutional racism and the question of whether slavery would remain the law of the land. 

The earliest details of George Washington Bush’s life are not precisely clear. Some sources reported his birth in 1779, but most date it to 1790.  He may have been born in Virginia or in Pennsylvania; most sources state that he was raised a Quaker and was the son of a White-Irish mother and a Black father. His mother (name and date of birth unknown) worked as a maid in the Philadelphia home of a Mr. Stevenson. Supposedly, Stevenson brought Matthew Bush, an enslaved person, from India to Philadelphia as a servant; whether Matthew Bush was of Indian, African, or some other ethnic descent is unknown. Matthew Bush met Stevenson’s Irish maid in Philadelphia and they married, resulting in a child, George Washington Bush.

Not much can be substantiated regarding the first half of Bush’s life. He is thought to have lived in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Illinois as a child and young man. According to the family’s twentieth-century descendants’ oral histories, Bush may have been a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, but this is not verified. Family sources also claim that Bush headed out west as a trapper and a trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company and may have traveled as far as Vancouver Island and the city of Santa Fe before returning to Missouri, where he was married on the 4th of July 1832 in Clay County, Tennessee, to a White woman named Isabella James. Together they eventually had nine sons.

In 1844 George Washington Bush was living as a free Black man (he was referred to as “mulatto” at the time, meaning mixed-race) in Missouri and while he was a respected and well-liked member of his local community, he was not afforded full rights of citizenship. In 1820 Missouri had been admitted to the Union as a state where slavery was permitted; this was the infamous “Missouri Compromise” in which Congress, trying to retain a balance of power, made Missouri and Maine recognized states at the same time, one a slave state, one a free state. It was a controversial decision even at the time, with most convinced it was just a temporary fix for a much more complicated problem. Thomas Jefferson predicted it would tear the nation apart and, forty years later at Fort Sumter, it did. 

In 1825 Missouri passed additional laws proscribing the rights of Black residents, forbidding any “free negro or mulatto, other than a citizen of some one of the United States” to “come into or settle in this state under any pretext whatever.” By the 1840s this law was fortified by additional punishments: fines, jail sentences, and up to twenty lashes with a whip for those who failed to leave the state when discovered.

According to Missouri state law, a Black person was defined as anyone with at least one Black grandparent. With one black (or possibly a dark-skinned East Indian) parent, George Washington Bush was subject to the same laws controlling slaves, “negroes,” and “mulattos.” These included limitations on his freedom of assembly, voting rights, and the right to own property. Although there is no information regarding whether Bush was ever persecuted on racial grounds while in Missouri, it was without a doubt a precarious way to build a life. By this time a prosperous and popular rancher and farmer, Bush probably saw better prospects for himself and his mixed-race children in a less overtly racist environment. He organized some friends, all of whom were White--even loaning money to those who were unable to afford it otherwise--and headed west. 

In May 1844 the Bushes and four White families left St. Joseph, Missouri and began their trek across the continent with six Conestoga wagons and provisions for a year’s worth of travel. They managed to arrive in The Dalles, at the end of the Oregon Trail, in December of the same year. One of Bush’s friends on the trip was John Minto. "He [Bush]  told me he should watch, when we got to Oregon, what usage was awarded to people of color,” recalled Minto, “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."

In fact, just a month after departing on their journey, another Missouri immigrant (who was White and had immigrated a year earlier) convinced the Oregon provisional government to adopt a “Black Exclusion Law” similar to Missouri’s, making it illegal for Black people (whether enslaved or free) to settle in Oregon Territory. Failure to obey would result in 39 lashes in a public whipping. The slavery ideology of Missouri had arrived in Oregon just six months before George Washington Bush. 

Bush considered moving on to Mexican territory. But his friend and fellow Missouri migrant Michael Troutman Simmons decided they would leave Oregon Territory for English-held land north of the Columbia River, just across the border from Oregon. This land was already settled by the Salish people, Native Americans who had been trading with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) for years. With the help of the HBC’s letters of credit and the cooperation of the native people, the Bushes and Simmonses were allowed to settle on the undeveloped land at the southernmost point of Puget Sound. This spot, now known as the city of Tumwater, is now the oldest Anglo-American settlement in Washington State. 

Most migrants did not succeed in creating a successful settlement, but the Bushes did. Their struggles were exhausting and predictable: freezing winters in rickety shelters, crop failure, weather catastrophes, and the 1855-1856 Seattle Indian Wars, which were a consequence of the encroaching settlement of American migrants. The Bushes maintained good relations with the local native population and were unharmed during the wars. George and Isabella had four sons after arriving on the west coast, who grew up on the frontier. It was a rugged upbringing: supposedly their youngest son got his first pair of shoes at age 12.

The Bush family quickly became leaders in the new community. In 1852-1853 they shared their own crop with several struggling new migrant families. Fellow pioneer Ezra Meeker recalled that Bush “divided out nearly his whole crop to new settlers who came with or without money…. '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'; and in this wise divided his large crop and became a benefactor to the whole community." In 1854 Bush’s White friends and neighbors successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress to grant him legal possession of the property he had developed, despite his status as a “free mulatto.”

George Washington Bush died on 5 April 1863 and his wife Isabella died in 1866, by which time his farm encompassed 880 productive acres, becoming known as Bush Prairie. His children continued to build on this legacy and in 1889 his oldest son, William Bush, became the first Black American to serve in the Washington legislature and was responsible for the legislation establishing Washington State University. Today George Washington Bush is remembered as one of the first American settlers of Washington State.

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Westward Ho! - Homesteading and the Oregon Trail

The 1855 Act for the Relief of George Bush of Thurston County, Washington Territory aided one individual in becoming a land owner, but many other events resulted in land-related acts which provided opportunity for thousands and spurred great growth for the Pacific Northwest.

Following the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which culminated in reaching the Pacific Coast and the famous reaction by Captain William Clark, “Ocian in view! O! the joy!” as he stood viewing the Columbia River Estuary in 1805. This expedition led to the occupation of what would later become the Oregon Territory, and the waves of settlers, who began migrating in the 1840s,  established the Oregon Trail. The settlers were enticed not only by the wonders of the lands of the West relayed by Lewis and Clark, but also by the government offerings of land ownership at little or no cost to those areas which comprise the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and a portion of Wyoming. 

One of the first such acts was one which provided “squatters” rights - The Preemption Act of 1841. This allowed for male heads-of-households, who had reached the age of majority and were living on federal lands for at least 14 months, to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low cost of not less than $1.25 per acre.  In order to retain the land, the claimant had to continue actively residing on the land or to consistently work on improvement of the land for at least five more years. Not adhering to these stipulations allowed the government to seize the lands and sell them to the general public.

A few years after the Oregon Treaty and the establishment of the Oregon Territory, two additional acts were enacted in 1850.  The Donation Land Act, which was created in an effort to promote settlement in the Pacific Northwest, was enacted by the United States Congress. It brought thousands of travelers westward and resulted in the issuance of 7,437 land patents to the homesteaders. The Bounty Land Act was created as a means of payment to individuals who had served in the military during the Mexican War for a period of four to nine months, among other criteria for entitlement.

Compensation for military service provided for a large portion of issued land grants. In fact, between the years of 1847 and 1855, Congressional acts were responsible for the issuance of more than 60 million acres of land to veterans.  Most of the grants were issued before 1860, but the practice continued through the remainder of the 19th century, resulting in approximately 11% of the families in the United States receiving a land warrant for prior military service. Eligibility of entitlement of the land was governed by the Pension Bureau, resulting in grants of up to 160 acres. Factors which dictated the quantity of land differed by individual act, but were generally determined based on the specific conflict, type of military unit, rank during service, state of residence, as well as the land office that held the warrant.

Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 and relatively soon thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on 20 May 1862.  The act provided for individuals to lay claim of public lands for a nominal fee.  Requirements for land ownership included that the claimant be a citizen of the United States or have the intent to become a citizen. Single males over 21 years of age could receive 160 acres of land, while a married couple could claim 320 acres.  After the homesteader had improved and resided on the land for five years the land was conveyed to them by the General Land Office in the form of a patent or title.

Iterations of the Homestead Act continued fulfilling the desires for land ownership over the years and expanding not only the population of the Pacific Northwest, but the nation as a whole. What began with Daniel Freeman, the first claimant in 1863 on the first parcel, led to the processing of over 1.6 million homestead applications and conveyance of more than 270 million acres by 1934. Homestead records can include not only land descriptions, but also affidavits regarding proof of citizenship, receipts and testimonies, among other genealogically-rich documents.

One of the first rules of genealogy is to “follow the land,” and understanding westward migration and the abundance of ways acquiring land for little or no consideration will help to trace down our adventurous and migratory ancestors.  

Happy trails to you and may there be few bumps along your genealogical journey!


Learn more about what the neighbors of ancestors can tell us in this article.

Past Issues Worth Reading


Darrell Millner, "George Bushe of Tumwater: Founder of the First American Colony on Puget Sound" Columbia Magazine (New York, New York), Winter 1994-95, digital file, Washington State Historical Society (https://www.washingtonhistory.org/ : accessed 12 August 2021), citing print edition, vol. 8, issue 4. 

National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “George Bush.” 

Kit Oldham, HistoryLink.org (https://www.historylink.org/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “Bush, George (1790?-1863).” 

Oregon Secretary of State (https://sos.oregon.gov/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “George Washington Bush.” 

Austin Jenkins, KUOW  (https://www.kuow.org/ : accessed 12 August 2021), New monument at Washington Capitol will honor Black pioneer George Bush and family.” 

Missouri Office of the Secretary of State, Missouri Digital Heritage (https://www.sos.mo.gov/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “Missouri's Early Slave Laws: A History in Documents.” 

University of Nebraska, Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “November 16, 1805.”

National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 12 August 2021), digital file, “Land Acts.” 

James W. Oberly, Gray-Haired Lobbyists:  War of 1812 Veterans and the Politics of Bounty Land Grants (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 1985), Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp. 1-2; digital images, JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/ : accessed 12 August 2021). 

National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/: accessed 12 August 2021), “The Homestead Act of 1862.” 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George Washington Bush (1790-1863) portrait.jpg : 12 August 2021), digital image of original illustration, ” File:George Washington Bush (1790-1863) portrait.jpg;” file uploaded by Richard Arthur Norton.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oregontrail 1907.jpg : 12 August 2021), digital image of original map, “The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail 1852-1906,”  by Ezra Meeker, 1907, ” File:Oregontrail 1907.jpg;” file uploaded by Feydey.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 12 August 2021), digital image from original b&w negative, “[Lewis and Clark at the mouth of the Columbia River] 1805,” by Frederic Remington, illustrated for Collier’s Magazine, 12 May 1906, Digital ID: cph.3a50691. 

Washington State Archives (https://www.sos.wa.gov/ : accessed 12 August 2021), “The land claim of African-American George Washington Bush recognized by the U.S. Congress.” 

“U.S., Homestead Records, 1863-1908,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 12 August 2021), affidavit of William H. H. Conley, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1875; citing, Land Entry Case Files:  Homestead Final Certificates, Record Group 49, Bureau of Land Management, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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