Reference Entry

Bush, John

Nicholas Westbrook

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Bush, John

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provincial soldier during the French and Indian Wars of the mid-eighteenth century, prisoner of war, and originator of the Lake George School of powder-horn engraving, was born in the north parish of Shrewsbury (later Boylston), Massachusetts, one of eight children of George Bush, a free black landowner, and his wife, whose name is unknown but who is believed to have been from South America. Nothing is known of John Bush's early life, or whether he ever married or had children.In 1747, during the final years of King George's War, Bush enlisted as a provincial soldier of Massachusetts, and served sporadically for the next eight years as part of the modest garrisons of twenty to one hundred men manning the forts that protected settlements in the Connecticut River Valley. He was on recurring and often extended duty (with deployments ranging from three to sixty-four weeks at a stretch) at remote Forts Massachusetts, Shirley, No. 4, and Dummer. Bush spent his twenties during that eight-year stretch, on frontier duty almost half of the time.When war between France and Great Britain broke out again in North America in 1754, Bush and his brothers enlisted in the Massachusetts provincial service. Bush served again at Fort Massachusetts for almost a year, until his brother Joseph replaced him.In September 1755 full-blown warfare resumed on the Lake George frontier of northern New York. John Bush's brother, George Jr., served with General William Johnson's forces at Lake George during the 8 September 1755 battle and died of his wounds three weeks later. The remaining two brothers served together as part of the winter garrison of some 400 men living in newly roofed but still windowless barracks, holding Fort William Henry against the French from 27 November 1755 to 14 March 1756. Joseph Bush served that winter with Captain Jeduthan Baldwin's company of Colonel Josiah Browne's Massachusetts regiment, but perished the following spring, probably the victim of one of the fevers that ran rampant. John Bush served at Fort William Henry with Captain James House's company until he mustered out in March 1756.Bush enlisted again for the summer 1756 campaign (with Captain Joseph Ingersoll's company of Colonel Jonathan Bagley's Massachusetts regiment) and served again at Fort William Henry as company clerk—a recognized master of spelling and penmanship as well as of military form.In the British and provincial army camps at Lake George during the opening years of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), soldiers sought souvenirs of their military experience. Bush became a skillful engraver of powder horns, made from the outer shells of hollowed-out cow horns and used as waterproof containers for gunpowder. The images and calligraphy engraved on the horns became one of the earliest forms of American folk art. Bush originated the Lake George School of engravers working during the early campaigns of the Seven Years’ War in North America (Guthman, Antiques, 494). Collector and historian William H. Guthman identified key attributes of Bush's calligraphy, format, and decoration that were soon adopted by later carvers in the Lake George SchoolThe earliest wartime souvenir horns that were confidently attributed to John Bush were dated 1755–1756. During long years of service on the western frontier, Bush had served repeatedly under Captain Ephraim Williams Jr., who was the brother of Thomas Williams and older cousin of William Williams; two surviving horns, one signed by Bush, belonged to a “William Williams” and a “Dr. Thomas Williams.”On stylistic evidence, Guthman suggested that at least three earlier horns—all with ties to Shrewsbury, Massachusetts—may have been engraved by Bush between 1748 and 1750. These horns bear the names and dates Samuel L. Crosby, 1748; Asa Hopgood, 1749; and Levi Whitney, 1750 (Guthman, Antiques, 494). Guthman believed that the Crosby horn demonstrated Bush's launch of the Lake George School. Four horns (belonging to Nathan Whiting, Jesse Austin, David Baldwin, and Israel Putnam) attributed by Guthman to John Bush were made at Fort William Henry between September and November 1756 and employed the same verses and similar decorative elements Bush had used on the signed horn he carved for Dr. Thomas Williams the previous year. There has been some contention regarding these attributions by other historians.Correspondence in 1891 between a descendant of David Baldwin (owner of one of the Fort William Henry horns) and historian Rufus Grider suggests that Grider had identified Bush a century ago as an expert engraver: “Your horn was made by a professional horn decorator—his name was John Bush. He had a certain sett of patterns—which he used partly on every horn he decorated & although he may not have subscribed himself [autographed], once acquainted with his work, one can know it” (Guthman, Drums a'Beating, 92–93).Bush continued to serve during the siege of Fort William Henry a year later. He was captured when the fort fell to a French army on 10 August 1757 and was taken north to Canada as a prisoner of war. Surrender terms were not uniformly observed after this battle, and several survivors were massacred. Black British and provincial soldiers, in particular, were reportedly singled out by Indian attackers: “they Pickt out the negrows Melatows and Indiens and dragged them Away and we Know not what is Become of them” (Steele, 123). “They killd & Scalpt all the Sick & wounded before our faces, and then took out from Our troops, all the Indians and negroes and Carried them off” (Kochan, 356). By the end of 1757 more than 300 of the Fort William Henry garrison were still listed as missing.By September 1757 the French governor-general in Canada had begun shipping home to France prisoners captured in the capitulation of Fort William Henry so that they did not become a burden on dwindling food supplies in New France (territory which included much of what is now Canada east of the Rockies and large portions of the American Midwest south to Louisiana). Bush escaped servitude in New France, the fate of many other blacks, and was shipped to France as a prisoner of war. He died “on board in the Passage to France” (Boston Gazette, 9 Oct. 1758).Bush's artistry was so distinctive that key elements such as his floriated capitals and animal and fish icons were adopted by other carvers after Bush “went missing” after the 1757 siege of Fort William Henry. The Lake George School of carvers had its origin in John Bush's richly decorative work.

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Subjects: History

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