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Murray C. Morgan
George W. Bush and the Simmons Party

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Copyright, 1960, Murray Morgan
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George W. Bush and the Simmons Party

spacerThere was an exquisite appropriateness in that first party of Americans to reach the Sound in the fall of 1845. They symbolized, as Lieutenant Peel indicated, the filling up of the Willamette Valley by the covered wagon pioneers and the overflow of American settlement across the Columbia.
spacerThe dam of HBC opposition had broken. And they symbolized, too, the diverse motivations at play in the great migration that began in 1843-patriotism, curiosity, land-lust, health, poverty, prejudice. All played a part in bringing the Bush-Simmons party not only across the plains and over the mountains to the Oregon Country but across the river and through the trees to the inland sea the British had monopolized.
spacerAn odd pair, these family men: Michael Troutman Simmons, thirty, born in Bullock County, Kentucky, one of ten children; George Washington Bush, at least fifty-four, maybe sixty-six, born in Pennsylvania or New York, if not Louisiana, an only child, a man of color, his mother Irish, his father possibly East Indian, probably black.
spacerSimmons, big-framed, bearded, blue-eyed; Bush, big-framed, bearded, brown-eyed. Simmons, by his sworn testimony all but illiterate; Bush, by others' testimony, well-educated. Simmons, a self taught millwright; Bush, a mountain man turned rancher.
spacerThey met in western Missouri where Bush raised cattle and wheat, and Simmons ran a gristmill he had put together from an illustrated book on mechanics by the cut-and-see-if-it-fits method. It is not known how much the Bush and Simmons families influenced each other in the decision to join the covered wagon train to Oregon in 1844, the year after the first mass crossing of the plains by Americans, but they formed the nucleus of a group of Clay County residents, which included Simmons' mother and father-in-law and his wife's brother and sister-in-law and their neighbors, the James McAllisters.
spacerBig Mike westered for all the standard reasons: he was, to begin with, a mover-on. His mother left Kentucky with her brood of ten when he was still a boy. They settled in Pike County, Illinois. From there Michael went to Iowa, where at the age of twenty-one he had married fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Kindred, small enough to stand under his outstretched arm.
spacerAfter five years they moved to Missouri and now, another four years later, it was time to think of moving on. Times were tough in the Midwest, drought-stricken tough; Missouri was full of talk about the Willamette, a land of deep soil and blessedly frequent rains, where crops never dried up, a land that might be lost to the British who wanted it, the politicians said, not to cultivate but as a preserve for beavers and the wild Indians who hunted beaver-and to encircle the United States and block Uncle Sam's way to the Pacific.
spacerIt was patriotic to go west, and patriotism might turn a man a profit. Congress was considering a bill to guarantee each settler in the Oregon Country 640 acres-a square mile-with another 120 acres for every child. To Simmons, father of three, that meant 1,000 acres. Why not Oregon?
spacerTo Bush, at fifty-four going on sixty-six, wealth and land were not the problem. Color was the problem. Historians and genealogists may debate Bush's ancestry but to the man himself what mattered was that he, and his children, could fall within the reach of laws restricting nonwhites from possession of land, from citizenship, even from the right to testify in court against white men.
spacerThe chance to be himself had drawn Bush to the frontier, that cutting edge of American independence, but others who also sought freedom brought with them the virus of discrimination. One recourse open to white men who found it difficult to compete with slave labor was to move on. Opposing slavery, they saw in the exclusion of blacks the surest way to prevent slavery. Institutionalized exclusion moved with the American frontier, ahead even of apple pie.
spacer"The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states which have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists," reported Alexis de Tocqueville, "and nowhere is it so important as in those states where servitude has never been known." Ohio in 1807 excluded blacks from residence unless they posted bond of five hundred dollars for good behavior.
spacerIllinois in 1813 ordered every free Negro to leave the territory under penalty of thirty-nine lashes every fifteen days until he did so. Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin denied blacks the franchise. Indiana and Illinois in 1840 wrote Negro exclusion laws into their constitutions. Congressman David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso which excluded slavery from free territories, explained his object as "to preserve for free labor of my own race and color those new lands."
spacerHorace Greeley in urging young men to go west, meant young white men.

"The unoccupied west," said Greeley's Tribune, "shall be reserved for the white Caucasian race."

spacerThough the Missouri census of 1830 listed Bush as a "free white person," there was clearly a question about his ancestry. Perhaps it would be different in Oregon.
spacerBush bought six broad-wheeled Conestoga wagons, apparently furnishing four to the Kindreds and the McAllisters. In the family wagon he nailed at least $2000 in coin and bullion in a false bottom. The little party ferried the Missouri at the crossing where Joe Robidoux, a retired fur trader for whom Bush had worked in the west, had a log-cabin warehouse. There was enough traffic going by to cause Robidoux to lay out a town, which, as a government official put it, "with proper self-regard he named after himself, St. Joseph."
spacerOn the prairie west of Robidoux Crossing the pioneers gathered to organize the wagon train. Simmons was elected "Colonel," secondin-command, an honor somewhat diminished by the election of the blustering Cornelius Gillium as "General," but one which gave him a title he carried to his grave.
spacerSo they set off along the Oregon Trail, a trail not yet rutted deep. They were beleaguered not by Indians but by unseasonable rain, then drought, then the shortages and disasters and dissension inevitable to such a caravan. A man died of cholera; his wife gave birth to a daughter then fell under the wagon wheel, which shattered her leg.
spacerThere could be no waiting. The train moved on and the injured woman gasped out her life in the jolting wagon. The Bushes helped look after the orphans. Farther west, an Indian rode off with Bart and Rachel Kindred's baby boy, then brought him back with a new buckskin shirt, beaded moccasins, and his wife's compliments.
spacerThe journals give glimpses of other moments beyond the routines of the trail: Simmons in flaming argument with Gillium; the Simmonses abandoning Elizabeth's heirloom oak chest at a crossing of the Platte, Bart Kindred and Bush hunting antelope for the party, Bush warning men sent on ahead that they'd be crossing hungry land and should shoot and eat anything big enough to hold a bullet.
spacerOne day Bush and a young Englishman, John Minto, who kept a journal, were ahead of the party, "he riding a mule and I on foot. He led the conversation to this subject [of prejudice]. He told me he should watch, when we got to Oregon, what usage was awarded to people of color 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. He said that there were few in that train he would say as much to as he had just said to me."
spacerMinto later was detailed to ride ahead to Fort Vancouver, get supplies, and meet the party at The Dalles with a barge. When the Bush-Simmons wagons got there December 7, Minto informed Bush that the Provisional Government of Oregon, an ad hoc settlers' organization which had no legal power but did reflect the mood of the populace, had just voted to exclude blacks.
spacerThe method was to be periodic whippings for any black, slave or free, man or woman, who sought to stay in Oregon. This barbarous penalty was never exacted, but its presence on the books greeted the man of color and his party on arrival.
spacerThere is no hint in any known journal of the influence the black exclusion law had on the decision of the Bush-Simmons group to settle not on the "American" side of the river but on the north, where the Hudson's Bay Company dominated, and soon afterwards to migrate to Puget Sound. The journals and later volumes of reminiscence speak only of love of country, of the desire to penetrate an area from which the HBC sought to exclude Americans.
spacerMost of the Clay County contingent wintered at Washougal on the north side of the Columbia, upstream from Fort Vancouver. Bush, the experienced cattle man, stayed on the south side at The Dalles, looking after their herd as well as some cattle of other members of the train. Simmons rented a three-walled sheep pen at Washougal, paying a Hawaiian a yellow, homespun shirt (well worn), and moved his family in.
spacerIn the spring, Elizabeth Simmons gave birth to a son conceived on the trail. His name reflects their venture and the river of their destination, Christopher Columbus Simmons. The Indians called him Kickapus, the White Seagull.
spacerAlready Big Mike was ready to move on. in the spring he and five other men set out by canoe to look at the land around Cowlitz Prairie and the Sound. The Cowlitz was high with rain and snow-melt. They struggled up as far as the forks, pulling themselves along by the branches that showered them with water at the touch, avoiding trees that swept down on the flood, but Simmons recalled a bad dream he had had in Missouri of disaster on a river, and they went back to Washougal.
spacerIn July Simmons tried again, this time with a party of eight and a French Canadian guide. They spent several weeks on the Sound, getting as far as Whidbey Island and Hood Canal, but selected for settlement the area at the extreme southern reach, where the Deschutes River falls into Budd Inlet. Simmons saw in the plunge of the river from the prairie to sea level at Tumwater the power needed for grinding grain and cutting lumber.
spacerBush was at Washougal when Simmons and the scouting party returned in September. The younger Kindreds, Bart and Rachel, chose to settle near Astoria, where Bart became a bar pilot, but the rest of the Bush-Simmons group, thirty-one in all, stuck together.
spacerIn the last week of September, with the fall cloud cover low over the hills and the rain incessant, they set out for the Sound, a party of men driving the cattle overland, the others, including all the women and children, moving by flatboat down the Columbia to the Cowlitz, then trans-shipping to canoes for the upstream struggle. They paddled to Cowlitz Landing, just upstream from today's Toledo and set out along the Indian trail. Although it had been improved by traffic between Fort Nisqually and Cowlitz Farms, they needed fifteen days to move fifty-eight miles.

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A collection of essays

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