When asked about Black history in Clark County, Mary Rose, executive director of Friends of Fort Vancouver, and Aaron Ochoa supervisory park ranger for the National Park Service, share vivid tales of the first Black Americans to arrive in our region, along with their many notable contributions.
Black Slave York Was an Indispensable Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
“The first Black man to pass through our region was a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, a military expedition charged with exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory and continuing on to the Pacific Ocean,” says Ochoa. “Expedition leader William Clark brought along his lifelong Black slave, York, who proved to be an indispensable expedition member.”
York carried a gun — which slaves weren’t normally allowed to do — and frequently provided buffalo and other game to feed the party during the grueling 24-month journey that began in 1804. He scouted routes, cared for the sick, and bartered with the Nez Perce, who were mesmerized by his skin color. A ThoughtCo. article provides more details about York. Alchetron notes that in 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of honorary sergeant in the United States Army.
James Douglas Held the Pinnacle of Positions at the Hudson’s Bay Company
“James Douglas was of African-Scottish descent, born in 1803 in Guyana and educated in Britain,” says Rose. “Had he been born in the United States at that time, his mixed parentage would have classified him as three-fifths human.”
After immigrating to North America, Douglas began working in the fur trade at age 15 and was based at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver starting in 1830. He soon was promoted to the position of chief trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then to chief factor, which was the pinnacle of positions at the company.
“As chief factor, Douglas oversaw all or part of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia,” says Ochoa.
Douglas and his family lived at Fort Vancouver from 1830 to 1849, when they relocated to the Hudson’s Bay Company in Victoria, British Columbia. There, Douglas was appointed royal governor of Victoria, becoming the most important political and business leader in the colony. He retired in 1864 and was knighted by Queen Victoria for his many years of service to the British Empire. He is widely considered “the Father of British Columbia.”
Fur Trader George Washington Bush Was the First Black Person To Settle In Our Region
“George Washington Bush was a free Black man living in Pennsylvania and later Missouri who got fed up with the rampant racism there,” says Ochoa. “He headed west in 1844 on the Oregon Trail, leading a party that included four white families. He even helped finance the trip.”
Sadly, racism wasn’t easily outrun. When the party got to the Oregon Territory, the recently adopted Exclusion Law imposed dire punishment on any Black person who settled there, so Bush and his party pushed north and spent their first winter near the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver.
Bush eventually homesteaded in what became Brush Prairie and his eldest son, William Owen Bush, became the first African American to serve in the Washington state legislature. William Owen Bush was also influential in establishing the agricultural college in Eastern Washington that would become Washington State University.
The Buffalo Soldiers Were the First All-black Military Unit To Serve at Fort Vancouver
The U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers was the first all-Black military unit stationed at Fort Vancouver from 1899 to 1900. According to the Smithsonian, Indigenous tribes may have bestowed the nickname Buffalo Soldiers on the Black unit based on the soldiers’ dark hair, which they thought looked like buffalo fur, and their fierce fighting style, also reminiscent of the buffalos the Native Americans revered.
“Soon after the Buffalo Soldiers arrived at Fort Vancouver, some of them were dispatched to impose martial law near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where a major mining labor dispute was raging,” says Ochoa.
They also served in many conflicts with Indigenous people, protected wagon trains and settlers, built forts and roads, and staffed national parks, serving as park rangers and fire fighters.
“Uniforms for park rangers still have a paramilitary look, due to those origins,” says Ochoa, pointing to his own uniform.
Don’t miss the film “Fighting on Two Fronts,” a documentary about the Buffalo Soldiers, showing Saturday, February 25, 2023, at 1 p.m., at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. Register for the free event on the Friends of Fort Vancouver website.
In 2019, Eagle Scout Wilson Keller, a senior at Columbia River High School, discovered that there was no monument to a Black veteran or the Buffalo Soldiers in Clark County. So, he raised $5,000 to install an interpretive panel and memorial bench in front of the Fort Vancouver Infantry Barracks, 705 Barnes Street. The bench honors Willie Morehouse, a Black veteran of the U.S. Army who served at Fort Vancouver in the 1940s.
Exhibit at Clark College Takes Black History From Pioneer Days To Current Times
Pioneering the Pacific Northwest was just the beginning of Black Americans’ contributions in our region, of course. To learn more, visit the Vancouver NAACP’s exhibit at Clark College, which highlights some of the key accomplishments of our Black residents through 2021. The exhibit is open to the public at Clark College’s Penguin Union Building, in the Penguin Student Lounge, through February 2023. Visitors are welcome Monday through Friday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.