No Easy Loyalty

Mark Twain’s adage about how “history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes” got me thinking about how we think about refugees and immigration.

I am reminded of the story of George Washington Bush traveling over the Oregon trail with his family in 1844. He was African American in the days when slavery was still an institution in many states, western territories and land was torn between politicians and zealots looking for both slave and free states. And, most important of all, our part of the world existed in a floating diplomatic status, claimed by both the U.S. and the vastly more powerful British empire.

When the Bush-Simmons party arrived overland in Oregon, the mostly American population settled south of the Columbia River appointed a legislature and hastily passed a law outlawing free blacks in a targeted message to the new immigrant group. So the families in the wagon train (all of which were white except for the Bush family) decided to stay together and cross the Columbia into the hotly disputed territory that would become our future state. After all the risks of crossing half a continent on foot with everything they owned carried along in wagons, the entire group risked moving on to land that might soon become foreign soil rather than leave the Bush family.

No easy loyalty motivated Washington’s first immigrants and when the Canadian boundary was fixed in 1846 they became the first Americans to settle in the Puget Sound country. On Christmas Day 1847 Lewis Nisqually Bush was born into the family. With black parents, named after the first nation people who sheltered the party and the legendary U.S explorer, he was the first child born on American soil in Washington State.
The paintings are from George Washington Bush series by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy Washington State History Museum

 

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