Sifting Through History

Tumwater archaeological dig reveals clues to early African-American landowner’s life.

by Meryl Lipman

In July and August of 2015, a team of Evergreen student archaeologists led by faculty member Ulrike Krotscheck spent four weeks excavating the original George Washington Bush Farm near Tumwater. The Bush Prairie Farm dig, a mere 20-minute drive from campus, is Evergreen’s first archaeological field study. 

Photo of the archaeological dig

Current property owner Mark Clark and faculty member Ulrike Krotscheck conduct an archaeological dig with a team of Evergreen students at Olympia’s first homestead. Photo by Shauna Bittle ‘98.

The site today is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm owned by Kathleen and Mark Clark, who were instrumental in developing the field school project. Krotscheck also partnered with the Northwest African American Museum, the Thurston County Historic Commission, the Tumwater Historic Preservation Commission, the Squaxin and Nisqually Tribes, and Olympia School District to disseminate new findings from the dig.

Bush Prairie Farm, originally 640 acres of high ground staked out at the tip of Puget Sound, was founded in late 1845 by George Washington Bush, a Pennsylvania-born (1779) freedman’s only son. Literate and financially independent, Bush gave up his successful farm in Missouri to lead a wagon train of settlers to the Oregon Territory in 1843. 

Portrait of George Washington Bush.

George Washington Bush. Photo courtesy of the Henderson House Museum.

When Oregon established “Lash Laws” against African Americans, Bush, his family, and a number of friends set off in 1845 into unsettled territory north of the Columbia River, finally putting down roots on the site of the current farm. 

There, the ever-industrious Bush built a gristmill and saw mill, farmed the land, and was instrumental in promoting the welfare of the community that grew around his farm. However, it wasn’t until nearly ten years after he’d settled that the provisional Washington Territory legislature prevailed upon Congress to grant Bush the title to his homestead. He may well have been the first African American in North America to own land.