The 205th birthday of Centralia’s founding father, George Washington, is coming up.
At the Centralia City Council’s Aug. 9 meeting, local historian Heather Beaird gave the council a brief history lesson about the life of the city’s founder.
George Washington was born near the town of Winchester, Virginia, on Aug. 15, 1817. His father was a slave named Washington and his mother was thought to be an English woman, although their exact identities are still unknown. After his birth, Washington’s father was sold to another plantation further south of Virginia that had a reputation of being more cruel to slaves.
“We don’t know for sure why that was. That’s not in the records that we have,” Beaird said. “But very often being sold further south was a punishment and it would make sense for having relations with a white woman.”
His mother didn’t want him to be sold into slavery like his father was, so she gave him to a couple she had befriended, James and Anna Cochran, to raise and keep safe.
From Virginia, the Cochran family moved to Missouri in the early 1820s. Due to the racist laws in the state at the time, Washington was not allowed to attend school because of his race.
His adoptive mother taught him how to read, initially using a Bible and her hymnal, and Washington taught himself how to write and perform arithmetic.
These weren’t the only things he learned before coming to the Pacific Northwest, though.
“Anna taught George to cook, sew, spin yarn and thread and to weave. He made all of his own clothes for the rest of his life,” Beaird said.
Once old enough, he started his own business in the 1830s, a sawmill on the banks of the Missouri River. When a customer refused to pay him, Washington sued the man and won. Despite winning the suit, the man who owed Washington money then went to the state and turned him in as the racist laws at the time prohibited Black men from operating businesses that took money from white people.
Washington sued the state in response and won, and on Jan. 30, 1843, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that made Washington a citizen of the state. That meant he was free to own land and operate his business.
“Lancaster, Missouri’s first home was built by George Washington with logs that he personally cut and hauled to the site,” Beaird said.
Following his sawmill business, Washington attempted to get into distilling, but right when he had purchased the equipment, Missouri passed a law that prohibited Black people from producing and selling alcohol. He was forced to sell the equipment he had just bought and decided to move to Illinois.
There he faced discrimination still in the form of a $6,000 bond that Black men were required to post for “good behavior,” and anyone could view any mistake he made as a break in good behavior and he would be forced to pay the bond.
Washington went to his foster father and told him, “I’m going to try to find a decent place in this world.”
On March 15, 1850, both Washington and the Cochrans began their journey on the Oregon Trail and 117 days later arrived in Oregon City. Washington then traveled up the Cowlitz River and settled in the Centralia area in 1852.
Using a squatter’s claim, he acquired the land where the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers converge and built a cabin as well as a pole ferry to cross the river. The Cochran family moved in with him and operated a way station as well as the pole ferry.
Even with his squatter’s claim, Washington almost lost the property he settled on to two men he provided shelter to.
Despite outlawing slavery, the Oregon Territories still had laws that prevented anyone who wasn’t white from owning land. The two men simply planned to go and claim the land Washington had already settled on.
Washington was able to retain what he built as he went to his foster father and had him lay a claim to the land before the two men could.
On Dec. 17, 1852, the Oregon Territory Legislature passed a special act giving Washington special dispensation to live in the territory.
“In both this one and the case in Missouri, George’s free birth and his ‘upstanding moral character’ were cited in the decisions,” Beaird said. “For the rest of his life, he’d be known for his generosity and his kindness and his justice.”
In 1869, Washington married Mary Jane Cooness, a widow who had a 14-year-old son. A few years later, in 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed Washington’s land and he decided to start building a town as he was centrally located between Tacoma and Kalama where the railroad ran.
“On Jan. 8, 1875, in Saundersville, now Chehalis, George and Mary Jane filed a plat which established the town of Centerville. It was four blocks square, and the original lots sold for $10 to anybody who would settle with their family and erect a building worth at least $100 within a year,” Beaird said.
Even during times of economic prosperity in the region, Washington always kept lot prices fair because, “I want to do right by my fellow men, and if I do I’ll never lose anything by it.”
The town began to prosper and grow, but had to change its name from Centerville to Centralia because there was another town in Eastern Washington also named Centerville and it was causing confusion.
Washington was a deeply religious man who was known to sing hymns while he worked. He famously refused to sell to anyone who planned to open a saloon or brothel and said he “would rather burn the place down then have it used for a purpose like that.”
He also wore a wig, which according to Beaird, children would have to chase on windy days to keep it from falling into China Creek.
A total of five homes were built in the town by Washington, though none still stand today. Beaird stated that a door from one of the homes has been preserved and is on display at Centralia Middle School.
Centralia’s first public school was held in the first log cabin Washington built that he later donated to the town.
In 1893, an economic panic began and many investors left the area. Those who couldn’t leave looked to Washington for help, and he didn’t hesitate to provide it.
“George responded by buying rice, flour and sugar by the ton in Portland. He bought wholesale lard and side bacon from the packing house in Chehalis,” Beaird said, “and he distributed the food to everyone in need. For two years, he had an open tab at a local clothing store, so as he was walking through town and saw people who needed shoes, he would send them to the store and he would settle up every week.”
Washington also gave out loans with 0% interest and told the people he gave them to, “don’t repay me until you’re able to do so without hurting your family.”
Despite all of this, he still faced racist discrimination. He was forced to leave the first Baptist church in town because newcomers didn’t want to worship with a Black man. It was a church he had donated the land for and even helped construct.
“He felt it was more important that they (the newcomers) have a place to worship, so he left the church and built a second one,” Beaird said.
During the late 1890s Washington endured a murder attempt resulting from someone switching a bottle of wine he kept at his bedside with a bottle of carbolic acid. Even after that, he refused to name a single possible suspect and only said, “I have some enemies in this town who would delight in doing away with me.”
Toward the end of his life, he estimated that his wealth was around $150,000, the equivalent of about $4.2 million today.
Washington was wary of banks and upon hearing a rumor that the local bank would take customers’ money and run, he withdrew his entire balance and kept his wealth at his home.
“Allegedly he kept the money in a whiskey barrel at his home for the rest of his life. And also allegedly, the whiskey barrel has never been found,” Beaird said.
Although he was in good health, Washington suffered injuries from a buggy crash and as a result died on Aug. 26, 1905, 11 days after his 88th birthday. Every business in town closed on the day of his funeral and almost 3,000 mourners attended the service, which was held at the second church he helped build, according to Beaird.
Beaird stated that she truly believes Washington was a special man.
“He focused on not just helping people but teaching people how to help themselves, too,” said Beaird.
For more information about George Washington and his life, visit the Lewis County Historical Museum located on 599 Northwest Front St. in Chehalis.