Murray C. Morgan
George W. Bush and the Simmons Party
Northwest Room Home
Copyright, 1960, Murray Morgan
All Rights Reserved
This information may not be reprinted in any manner without
the written permission of the author.
George W. Bush and the
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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."
Greeley in urging young men to go west, meant young white men.
west," said Greeley's Tribune, "shall be reserved for
the white Caucasian race."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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