Local author and local history

I first met Judge Frank Cuthbertson in a year-long leadership class nearly nearly 20 years ago.  I was (and still am!) impressed by Judge Cuthbertson from the start.  Yes, by his intellect, but more by his heart.  His compassion for his community stood out strongly.  As well as his commitment to his family AND his sense of justice for our community.

Judge Frank Cuthbertson

Frank shared recently an article he wrote and I wanted to share it with you, as well.  I found it very powerful.  Think of how challenging it was to be an early pioneer in our state and then to add these exclusionary laws that attack you for being who you are.

How Black Exclusion Laws Led the Earliest African-American Settlers to Washington State

February is African-American History Month. The story of the first African-American settlers in the Puget Sound dates back to the 1850’s. One of the very first African-American pioneers, George Washington Bush and his family, left Missouri with their neighbors by wagon train on a journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Oregon Territory, eventually settling in Washington. Their journey gives us a vivid example of how racially biased laws helped shape our nation, even here in the Pacific Northwest.

George Washington Bush was born in Pennsylvania around 1790, of a white mother and African father. His mother was a maid and his father was a servant. He was a free African-American, a veteran of the War of 1812 and had become a successful farmer in Missouri.  Historians suggest that when his wagon train of five families headed westward on the Oregon Trail Bush was both the financier and organizer of the journey. Bush had been a trapper and trader for the Hudson Bay Company and he is believed to have explored the Northwest and Canada before establishing his farm in Missouri.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed slavery to continue to exist in Missouri, however, importation of additional slaves to the territory was prohibited.  Bush, like non-slave holding white farmers, found it difficult to compete with slave owners. As a result, in the 1840’s many non-slave holding white farmers from Missouri and other border states, began a westward migration to the Oregon Territory.

 It is reasonable to assume that the raging national debates over fugitive slave laws, and slavery itself, also influenced Bush’s decision to leave his successful farm in Missouri and head West.  These historic debates eventually consumed the nation in civil war.

The Oregon Territorial Laws in 1844 prohibited slavery but also prohibited blacks from settling in the Oregon Territory. The 1844 Oregon Law required Oregonians who owned slaves to free them within three years and further required that the freed male ex-slaves had to leave the territory within two years, females were forced to leave the Territory within three years. Ex-slaves who remained were punished under what was known as the “lash law”.  In 1849 the territorial laws were amended to prevent blacks from entering or residing in the Territory.

 [1] After a perilous four-month journey Bush’s group reached the Oregon Territory only to find that Oregon Law prevented him from settling there. The settlers who headed west to Oregon hated slavery based largely on practical economic reasons. They also greatly feared black settlers forming alliances with local indigenous or native people and fomenting uprisings against the whites.

The entire group decided not to remain in a place where Bush’s race made it unlawful for him to settle. They decided instead to move across to the north bank of the Columbia River beyond the reach of Oregon’s Black Exclusion laws. They stayed first at the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver then, in the summer of 1845, settled permanently into the Puget Sound Region of Washington State.

After establishing another successful farm in what is now known as Tumwater, Bush became a well-known figure in Western Washington. He was close friends with Chief Leschi and with the Nisqually and Puyallup tribes.  He also befriended other pioneers such as Ezra Meeker. According to the National Parks Service, the Bush Family and the Families that accompanied them, established the first permanent American settlement in the Puget Sound area.

When Bush first settled in the Puget Sound the territory was under British control. When the United States boundaries expanded to extend the Oregon Territory to the 49th parallel in 1846 the Racial Exclusion Laws of the Oregon Territory expanded north to the Washington territory as well.  In 1855 Bush’s friends in the territorial Legislature urged Congress to pass a resolution creating an exception for the Bush Family allowing them to keep their farm and remain in Washington. In 1889 Bush’s son became the first African American to serve in the Washington Territorial Legislature.

[1] In 1857 Oregon’s black exclusion laws were included in the first State Constitution. Article xviii prohibited blacks from being in the state, owning property or making contracts.

I wish I had known George Washington Bush.  He must have been extraordinary. I did not know George Washington Bush, but I do know Frank Cuthbertson – and he, too, is extraordinary.  Judge Cuthbertson retires from the bench this year.  Our justice system and our community are the better for his leadership and compassion – as am I.

We are very fortunate indeed to have several members from our black community serving as local judges.

Here is a profile of one, Judge Helen Whitener, that I also wanted to highlight.

I close this week thankful for the sunshine this week.  Much needed after all our days of rain!