John Dodge / The Olympian
OLYMPIA, Wash. — The legacy of Tumwater black pioneer George Washington Bush and his beloved butternut tree has a new life on the Capitol Campus.
After years of lobbying by South Sound historians, including state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, state officials Tuesday planted a 16-foot butternut tree sapling that is a direct descendant of the seedling Bush brought west with him by wagon train from Missouri to the Tumwater area in 1845.
The original tree still towers over the old Bush homestead on Bush Prairie, in poor health but maintaining its standing as the largest of its kind in the state and one of the largest butternut trees in the nation, according to University of Washington forest ecologist and researcher Robert Van Pelt.
The state Department of General Administration is working on a new landscape plan for the west Capitol Campus, and the historic butternut tree fits into the scheme of things, General Administration cultural resources director Marygrace Jennings said.
Bush’s family was one of five that traveled to South Sound on the Oregon Trail and formed the first permanent U.S. settlement north of the Columbia River. Bush, a free African-American, had owned a farm in Missouri, which allowed slavery at the time. Bush never was a slave but experienced increasing racial discrimination in Missouri, according to historical accounts.
Bush was well-respected in the South Sound pioneer community for his generosity and agricultural talents. It took a special act of Congress petitioned by 55 members of the Washington Territorial Legislature for him to claim his land under the Donation Land Claim Law of 1850, which was created for white settlers.
Bush embodies an important civil-rights story in Washington territorial history and is deserving of a tree in his memory on the Capitol Campus, Alexander and others have said.
The original tree is about 20 feet in circumference at the base, weighs up to 75 tons and stands about 60 feet tall next to the home of Tony and Marilyn Sexton, who bought the 5-acre remnant of the Bush homestead in 2004.
They have cared for the ailing tree with the help of South Sound arborists and others who have volunteered their labor and time.
Tony Sexton was pleased to donate the sapling, which was growing vigorously near their former chicken shed.
“As far as I know, its the only offspring from this tree that will be under government protection,” Sexton said.
At the request of state Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, the tree was planted in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., and will be dedicated in King’s honor on Arbor Day, which is April 24, Jennings said.
The tree has a much more direct connection to Bush and his role in territorial and state history, South Sound historian Roger Easton said. Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, said the role that African-Americans such as Bush and King have played in state and national history are equally deserving of recognition in the Capitol Campus landscape design.
“Planting of this tree is an important first step,” Jacobsen said.