As with most archaeological sites, there is more to know about the original homestead of Tumwater pioneer George Bush than meets the eye.
In recent years, most of the attention paid to the small knoll rising from the south away from the Deschutes River where Bush, a man of African and Irish descent, brought his family to settle in 1845, has centered on the majestic butternut tree that stands guard over this significant historical site.
The tree, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, has seen better days. The spring foliage this year seems sparse, not fully cloaking the 60-foot tree Bush brought to the Oregon Territory from Missouri by wagon train, eventually anchoring it in the Nisqually loamy soil, ground that produced crops and seeds that were the saving grace of many South Sound pioneer families in the mid-1800s.
I saw the tree again the other night at the invitation of Mark and Kathleen Clark – the new owners of the home and 5 acres that represent what’s left of the Bush homestead.
I was joined by South Puget Sound Community College anthropology professor Dale Croes, who, along with SPSCC students and Thurston County Historical Commission members, conducted a cultural resource inventory of the pioneer property last spring.
Using archaeological survey procedures, they recorded more than 200 surface artifacts at what they believe to be the site of the original Bush log cabin and barn.
Among the artifacts are glass, brick, metal and ceramic fragments, nails, bolts, a white cup with a broken handle, a decorative plate, a stove plate lid, a hay hook and a wood stove leg.
The farm artifacts may be associated with both the original log cabin dating to 1845 and a home Bush’s son, William Owen Bush, built on or adjacent to the cabin in 1878.
“There are several written papers that indicate the Owen Bush home was built in the exact location of his father George’s log cabin that was torn down prior to the building of the new house,” the cultural resources report prepared by Croes states.
Surface artifacts found so far could be from either the log cabin or the son’s house, Croes said. But if the Clarks allowed an archaeological excavation in what is now a grassy pasture, who knows what artifacts from the log cabin might be found?
“Potentially we could find the foundation of the Bush log cabin,” Croes said.
Tumwater natives and high school sweethearts from farming backgrounds, Mark and Kathleen Clark bought the property from Tony and Marilyn Sexton last year, vowing to carry on the Sexton tradition as guardians of the tree and preservers of the property’s historical legacy.
They also have plans to expand the farming activities that the Sextons enjoyed so much. They have cultivated several garden plots this spring, including one with 65 tomato plants still protected from the cool, wet spring weather under miniature plastic hoop houses. They envision a day when they will invite the residents in the adjoining Bridlewood housing development to grow a community garden at the northeast end of the property.
Sharing food with the neighbors is a time-honored tradition on Bush Prairie, started by the Bush family. The generous pioneer family used to feed travelers on the nearby Oregon Trail and help settlers start their own homestead fields of crops and grains.
Before the Clarks bought the place, I remember seeing Tony Sexton down at the Olympia Farmers Market, donating a truckload of corn, which grows like a weed in the rich prairie soil.
Clark, who is the executive director of the Washington Conservation Commission, is no stranger to the challenges when farming and cultural resources collide. It’s not easy preserving historically significant sites on private property.
But Croes is no stranger to the challenge; he has spent 11 years overseeing the archaeological dig at a Squaxin Island Tribe fishing camp uncovered on the Mud Bay property of Ralph and Karen Munro.
One of the lessons learned at Mud Bay is that private-property rights and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive.
As I stood on the grassy knoll next to the log cabin site just before dusk the other night, I gazed upward at clouds tracking across the prairie sky, just like they did for the Bush family on an early June night 160 years ago.
“The original non-Indian homestead that started Washington state is right over there,” Croes said.
This special place in South Sound still has more stories to tell. I left that night comfortable that the Clarks want to help uncover and share those stories.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/soundings