In the shadow of a nearly 170-year-old butternut tree, students from The Evergreen State College are hoping to unearth a bit of South Sound history.
An archaeological dig began last week at the Bush Prairie Farm off Old Highway 99 Southeast, just southeast of Tumwater.
“The goal is to find artifacts from the Bush family,” said student Michelle Wallace, 37, an Evergreen junior. “It was their homestead.”
George Bush and his wife, Isabella, and their children were among the first settlers in South Sound.
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“I have a lot of admiration for him,” said Don Trosper, a public history manager with the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. “He was really the inspiration for the Simmons-Bush party to make the trip across on the Oregon Trail in 1844.”
There were once four homes on the property, and an archaeological survey indicates that the dig is taking place at or near Bush’s original cabin, according to Trosper.
“It’s very close,” he said. “It should be pretty much right on.”
Last week, students prepared for the excavation by clearing squares of land. One of the plots is about 16 feet by 16 feet, according to Evergreen spokeswoman Meryl Lipman.
“It was a pretty grassy area,” said Michael Kollen, 23, an Evergreen senior. “This was all cow pasture before we got here.”
As of Thursday, the students had found more than 200 items during the clearing, pieces of pottery and glass, bits of shells and charcoal. Each item was placed into a small plastic bag and inventoried.
They expect to find more items during the next three weeks, as they use trowels, screens and other archeological tools to excavate the area. They’ll also use a tripod-mounted total station — an electronic surveying device that combines the ability to measure a position horizontally and vertically at the same time — to help identify and map the original location of each artifact.
“It’s definitely an opportunity to educate people about this family,” said Kelson McConnell, 25, an Evergreen junior. “They were really significant in Washington state becoming a state. They’re not as well-known as they should be.”
There are only two things that could halt the dig: the discovery of human remains or Native American artifacts, Lipman said.
Bush was a free man of African and Irish heritage, and his wife was white.
“He was a pretty well-to-do rancher in Missouri before they made their decision to come West,” Trosper said.
Driven north by the Oregon “Lash Laws” — laws that prohibited blacks from claiming land and allowed for periodic whippings of them — the family became one of the first families in the Tumwater area. The lure of free land, the idea of helping build a new area of the country and the chance to escape racism were all factors in his decision to settle in the area, Trosper said.
Much of the land, which was in excess of 500 acres, was sold, and a large part of it is now the Olympia Regional Airport. The former homestead site is now part of Bush Prairie Farms, a Community Supported Agriculture farm owned by Kathleen and Mark Clark.
The couple was instrumental in getting the field school set up for Evergreen, according to Evergreen faculty member Ulrike Krotscheck.
“They want the artifacts displayed,” she said.
The items removed from the site will be passed along to several places, including the Northwest African American Museum, the Thurston County Historic Commission, the Tumwater Historic Preservation Commission, the Squaxin Island Tribe, the Nisqually Tribe and the Olympia School District, according to an Evergreen news release.
“We can learn a lot about their lives from their dishes and glassware; what they were eating, what their trading connections were, etc.,” Krotscheck said.
“Mostly we will be dealing with trash — the things that were broken or thrown away. Most findings at archeological sites from all over the world are things that were left behind or thrown away.”
Working on an archeological dig isn’t easy: The students will have to deal with hot weather, long hours of physical work, and the fact that they might not come up with a major discovery.
But then again, they might.
“You just have to dig slowly, and carefully hope,” McConnell said.
WATCH THE DIG
Visitors are welcome to observe The Evergreen State College’s archeological dig at the historic Bush homestead between 12:30 and 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Aug. 20. The site is at 8400 Old Highway 99 SE, Olympia.
People also can follow the class’s progress at blogs.evergreen.edu/bushhomestead/.