The dawn of the railroad age at Yelm Prairie began integrating residents into the national economy.
By November 1858 the number of people living on the Prairie justified a post office and as a result of his Democratic ties, Lewis Barnard was appointed postmaster at Ft. Stevens (the blockhouse built during the recent fighting). Note that he was not appointed postmaster of Yelm. At that point in time there was no such place. The blockhouse known as Ft. Stevens, however, was a structure with a name. Lewis was Yelm’s first postmaster.
The Democratic Party was pretty much the choice of the men who settled on the Yelm Prairie. The focus of the party was the control of county government, the territorial legislature, and sending a non-voting delegate to Washington, D.C. They were not allowed to vote for the president. There on the prairie, thousands of miles and months removed from the political debates, Barnard and his allies excoriated the “Black Republicans” for their tolerance for negroes, while defending the presidency of James Buchanan (Democrat) and the Supreme Court which had only recently dealt anti-slavery forces a blow in the Dred Scott decision.
The federal government had, by Barnard’s day, become known as an important employer for the party occupying the White House. In 1858 James Buchanan, a Democrat, was still appointing postmasters, nearly two years into his term. The slow pace of appoint-ments was primarily the result of the more than 16,000 postmasters he could choose. It was known as the spoils system. Introduced by Thomas Jefferson and expanded by Andrew Jackson, both parties now rewarded their supporters with federal employment. How Lewis Barnard made the short list was related to Democratic politics and his continuing support of the territory’ most prominent Democrat, Isaac Stevens.
For his efforts Barnard would receive a salary based on the amount of postal services purchased by prairie residents equal to 30% of the first $100 worth of postage. Con-sidering the small number of people in the area, the volume of 5-10 cent stamps was not enough for Barnard and his family to give up farming.
The postal connection flowed out of eastern seaboard states, across the Isthmus of Panama and by steamship to Astoria, Oregon. From Astoria the mail continued to its final destination. Whether the mail accumulated in Olympia for Barnard to pick up or was dropped off on the prairie is unclear. The address of people receiving mail was not Yelm or Yelm Prairie, it was Ft. Stevens, the blockhouse built during recent fighting.
The postal system was just beginning to switch over to prepaid postage, with letters and publications providing the bulk of the volume. The mail from the east arrived in Olympia roughly six times a year and that would have been true for Yelm also. Local letters and newspapers were a more regular responsibility of the postmaster. Barnard might have handed over letters to his immediate neighbors, but everyone on the prairie knew to stop by just in case. Possibly Barnard operated out of his house since there was no public structure on the prairie except for Ft. Stevens. One can imagine Barnard working in his fields when Levi Shelton or James Longmire rode by and ask, “Anything for me?” With a shake of his head “no,” Barnard continued to work; the post office was closed.
Yelm During Reconstruction
By Ed Bergh
Charles Wheeler rode into Olympia in June to stand against Gov. Stevens. Wheeler was a W. H. Wallace man. In Yelm he was a faint voice among the chorus of Stevens’ supporters that lived there. At the convention he ran into his old commander, Gilmore Hays. Hays and Elwood Evans teamed up to give their best arguments for Wallace. The response to their speeches was unbridled enthusiasm. Catching his attention was the demise of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party. Republicans, soon to be the party of Lincoln, were pretty sparse on the Yelm Prairie. Men there were Stevens’ men who defended his Indian policies and nationally they supported states’ rights and limited government. When Abraham Lincoln won the four way presidential race of 1860 the southern states started seceding from the union. Inspired in part by their unwillingness to experience the Republicans use of power when it came to national economic and race policy these predominately Democratic states formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America.
Thousands of miles removed from this increasingly bellicose debate, most Democrats on the Yelm Prairie remained pro-union, but not without a critical eye on the Lincoln presidency and its policies. Though Wheeler did not join with many of his neighbors in contributing money to provide care to disabled soldiers, he did name a son born in 1863, Abraham Lincoln Wheeler, an obvious compliment to the President. When President Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864, the Republican strategy was to form a coalition between their party and pro-war Democrats to represent a bi-partisan front in tamping out the fires of secession. Support for the war had waxed and waned with the report of each battle or the sacking or appointment of some military man, though by 1864 the Confederacy had been reduced to half of its original size.
The cost, however, had been far beyond the realm of the imaginable just three years before. Now Gen. Ulysses Grant was leading his army into a brutal and bloody war of attrition that was intended to simply wear down the Confederate Army through constant battle. Grant’s more numerous, better fed, and better equipped army could better withstand the losses than its southern counterpart. The cost of the war in terms of proscribed civil liberties and its endless grim reality discouraged many who wanted to end the war, maybe even let the south leave and simply be done with them.
Men who did not share such sentiments rallied in a Thurston County schoolhouse on May 14, 1864. Two men from the Yelm Prairie showed up the Union Convention, Charles Wheeler and James Burns. One of the resolutions passed summarized their purpose, “it is the sacred duty of every citizen to sustain and aid the Government in its efforts to crush the rebellion.” To their way of thinking there was no middle ground. They were Lincoln men. At the meeting they reiterated their support for the President’s use of power to save the Union. They supported his suspension of the writ habeas corpus, better to lose the constitution than the country. The attendees probably thought about the implications of black equality, but they did rally behind the Emancipation Proclamation and concurred with the President’s decision to enlist black troops. They had no problem with the Confiscation Act, but agreed with the outreached hand contained in an amnesty program. Yet make no mistake about it, all slavery must be extinguished. It was a violation of God’s law and man’s. From their point of view there was no going back. The war was to be fought until the “last vestige of treason” was rubbed out. By holding such views Wheeler and Burns were in a distinct minority in Yelm, but their faith in the President was rewarded with his victory in November. By the spring of 1865 the war was over.
Abraham Lincoln had died a little over a year in May 1866. Andrew Johnson, a pro-union Tennessee Democrat, fiery tempered man with a drinking problem, was President. Congress was controlled by the Republican Party which was increasingly dominated by men referred to as “Radicals.” Slavery had been ended, but the battle over the protection of freedmen sharply divided Congress and the President. Another divisive issue was how to treat the traitors. The principle of “malice toward none and charity for all” had been espoused by Lincoln, but that was no longer the case.
Interestingly, Washington territorial politics, thousands of miles away was dominated by these same issues. This was particularly true for the Democrats of Thurston County. They met at the Democratic and Conservative County Convention early in May. Levi Shelton and F. Goodwin were delegates from the Yelm Precinct. Lewis Barnard, now living on Chambers Prairie, was also in attendance. Shelton was named to the Credentials Committee.
Their concern focused less on the needs of the territory, but wanted to make their voices heard regarding national issues. They had supported the war, but they rejected Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and his silencing of newspapers. They worried about increased federal power and the corruption that grew with it. States’ rights had always been part of the Democratic Party. Democrats similarly concerned about the expanded power of the military in the nation, called for demobilization. In the fight between Johnson and Congress they were Johnson men.
Much of their discontent with the national government centered on race. James Longmire was no friend of the black man. Although not as outspoken than his Copperhead friends Levi Shelton and William Packwood, Longmire nonetheless resisted and possibly resented government help to freedmen. He applauded President Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau and civil rights laws. When the Thurston County convention passed a resolution calling for the “jealous care of the elective franchise,” the message was clear, no votes for blacks. Longmire stood against black suffrage. Longmire and these like-minded Democrats also insisted on the immediate re-admission of southern states to the U.S. which would mean more Democrats in Congress to tempter Republican majorities. This convention chose Longmire as one of their nominees for legislator and in the summer election he once again was voted to represent Thurston County.
In the 1866 election the Republicans lost their majority in the House. The Democrats in the majority, however, were deeply divided. Being pro-Union was now a moot point. The dividing line was now over race and Reconstruction. These were, in a sense, philosophic debates with little direct impact on the territory. This discord among Democrats made the House, on many issues, a three party body with shifting alliances. For historian, Donald Brazier, the House was “hard to define in partisan terms.” He concluded, the “session may have been the least productive up to that date.”
Guns had been silent for over a year when men traveled to Olympia to participate in the Democratic and Conservative Convention in 1866. Union had been restored, but President Lincoln had been murdered. Now a war of words was being fought through speeches, laws, and written commentary. Spared the destructive forces of the war in the east, the men in Thurston County now squared off over race and politics.
Levi Shelton made sure he was at the convention and found a place on the credentials committee. Coming in from Yelm with him was Frank Goodwin. Once there, they
met former Yelm resident L. D. Barnard representing Chambers Prairie. They were Johnson men. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Democrat, a southerner, and unabashed racist had assumed the presidency when Lincoln had died. Being unable to constructively channel his sense of social inferiority nor understand the political realities of the war just ended, Johnson quickly alienated potential allies within the Republican Party. He rejected that party’s philosophy of an expanded role for the federal government, but it was in the realm of civil rights that Johnson was heard loud and clear. He opposed civil rights for former slaves. This was exactly what Levi Shelton wanted to hear.
Shelton and the other men gathered in Olympia that week, applauded Johnson’s veto of the Freedman’s Bureau and other civil rights legislation. They yelled their support for the President, the force that stood between them and the “amalgamation” of the races. There was no support in this assemblage for the granting of suffrage to blacks. They demanded the immediate restoration of southern representation in Congress. The convention looked back at the usurpations of power by Lincoln, the suspension of habeas corpus, censorship of speech, profligate spending, and to these vowed never again. The Washington Standard rated Levi Shelton as one of the more staunch copperheads (a term used to identify anti-war northern Democrats during the Civil War) in the county. For Shelton that was a badge of honor. He was quite pleased when James Longmire, who shared these beliefs, was elected to the territorial legislature.
Tall Tale or History: Edgar on Sauvie Island
By Ed Bergh
In 1853, Edgar joined a group of men who set out to establish a route over the Cascades that might be used by wagons arriving from the east. They were led by Edward Allen who called them the Committee and considered them a wonderfully “motley group.” Allen kept a journal of their trip. Sitting about the campfire, shadows cast on the screen of the surrounding woods they engaged in a delightful “interchange of thoughts and confidences.” One night George Shazer kicked off the evening with one of his “life yarns.” Cannibalism was involved and his description of a “compost” of bear and human flesh. It was disgusting.
Edgar’s turn came next. He had spent time at Ft. Vancouver down on the Columbia River earlier in his Hudson’s Bay career. There he spent time on Sauvie Island where the forces of the native world and the newly arrived Euro-Americans had engaged in biological warfare. The Indians had lost. Invisible wave after invisible wave, smallpox, intermittent fever, smallpox again had destroyed the island’s original inhabitants. Bones were scattered across the island. Finally, John McLaughlin at the Hudson’s Bay Vancouver ordered the bones gathered and any structures burned to the ground to dissipate the danger. They departed, leaving small clusters of cattle and hogs. Edgar had crossed to the island and observed their feral descendants. Allen recounted that Edgar considered those “wild times.” Edgar reasoned that their numbers, located on an island in the Columbia River, had become “so numerous and destructive that it became necessary to wage a war of extermination against them.” Edgar had hunted down and killed the cattle and hogs that had gone feral. New sets of bones bleached on the sands of Sauvie Island, and birds returned to lay their eggs among the rejuvenated plant life. Reminiscent of the scene of extermination on Sauvie Island, on the current trip the men had decided to empty their revolvers into the wild cattle of Muck Prairie. For reasons unknown they stopped short of carrying out their wasteful mission.
Edgar’s other memorable story during the trip must have started the men speculating about Ta-co-bet. Around the campfire, in front of their horse blanket tents, Edgar told the story of Mt. St. Helens blowing its top. A sulfurous ash coated the pastures of Ft. Vancouver, killing cattle who ate it. Edgar added that they moved most of the cattle to Nisqually at that time. The next prairie that crossed afforded a view of the quiet volcano, Ta-co-bet.
A wilderness trail was a conduit of commerce and a frontier bulletin board as strangers crossed paths, sharing information and ‘life yarns.’ Edgar and the Committee were not far from the White River when they came across a band of Indians. They too had been headed east, but had halted on receiving news that smallpox was on the march up the Yakima valley. Allen recorded that the Indians told “doeful tales of the small-pox being very bad across the country— [with] many dying.” He also noted the practice of feverish pox-ridden Indians plunging into extremely cold river water that was denigrated as a medical technique by Euro-Americans who witnessed the resulting spike in mortality rates.
It had been five years since the last measles outbreak. When combined with other newly-arrived microbes, like smallpox and malaria, the impact on Indian populations had been catastrophic. This particular infection had literally crashed on the shores of Washington territory somewhere between the Columbia River and Grays Harbor. Between December 1852 and January 1853 a number of ships engaged in the San Francisco oyster trade had run aground in winter storms. There among the beached shipwrecks Chinooks salvaged trunks of clothing and money. It is more than likely that the clothes were infected. Within months half of the Chinook were dead. Trade carried smallpox to Ft. Vancouver on the Columbia River. By May 1853 the disease had made its way up river to The Dalles where Indians were “dying in crowds” according to Peter Skene Ogden. Edgar and the party left in June of that year.
By the time Edgar and the party were on the way down the eastern side of the mountains it became apparent that smallpox had arrived earlier. Short on food, the Committee tried to trade for dried salmon. But the Indians had none for sale. Smallpox had carried off so many tribesmen that the remaining ones had not caught enough salmon for subsistence, let alone trade. There, “scattered about” in groups of twos and threes, they scoured the valleys for roots and berries.
They told Edgar and the Committee that the plague had come from Ft. Vancouver. There, “bad Indians” had robbed a store. The owner, seeking revenge, invited the Indians to a great dinner. He cynically lavished his guests with small gifts, sugar, and “every Indian luxury.” Unknown to them he infected the gifts so they carried the disease back to their homes in the Yakima Valley and its tributaries. Allen wrestled with the possibility that the men at Ft. Vancouver had intentionally infected their trading partners. He wrote, “I can hardly believe such a fiendish act of retaliation possible, but it seems not improbable, when one recalls Sublette’s devilish revenge [on the Sioux who robbed him] by causing a mule load of inoculated blankets to be exposed to their depredations.”
As far as Edgar knew, Betsy and the rest of the children were safe. Living away from the fort had protected them from the measles and he hoped it would be similarly true with the smallpox. It was. The entire family greeted him on his return. [From “Betsy and John Edgar: Pioneer Settlers on the Yelm Prairie”]
Historical Treasure Lies Beneath Yelm Ave. McDonalds
Nisqually Valley News August 18, 2000
Buried somewhere under the Yelm McDonalds restaurant may be a veritable trove of pioneer artifacts, tools, and mementos from a century and half ago, when Yelm had barely started. On this spot was where homesteader George Edwards built the first house inside city limits, sometime between 1850 and 1860. Edwards, an Englishman who came to the area as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and became an American citizen, at one time owned most of what is now Yelm. Currently, the Yelm Historical Preservation Committee is working to put the original Edwards homestead on the city’s historical register. Citing the location’s association with the city’s pioneer history and the importance of the Edwards family in the local past, the city plans to erect a historical marker on the site and put up photos or an informational display inside the restaurant.
According to local historians Edwards came by ship from England, joining in Hudson’s Bay Co., an English company traded in furs and explored throughout the Northwest. He worked as a gardener and laborer at Fort Nisqually until 1851 when he became an American citizen. He left the fort, breaking his Hudson’s Bay Co. contract. During the Puget Sound Indian War of 1855-56, Edwards served in the Washington Territorial Volunteers. In 1856, he married a Nisqually Indian woman named Mary, who was also a niece of the Klickitat chief.
Edwards was the original owner of most of the area now occupied by northwest and southwest Yelm. He gained the land under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was designed to reward settlers to help win the boundary settlement in the west. At the spot where the Yelm McDonalds and a car wash now stand, he built a two-story gabled farmhouse with attached shed. The building, which may be the first such structure in the Yelm area, stood for over a century until it was leveled by an arson fire in July 1960.
Yelm Historic Preservation Commission chairwoman Ronnie Nutter said last week that the group will vote September 6th to include the property on the town’s history list. After that, an enamel marker will be set up in the small grove in front of the building, and members are working to get permission for an informative display, with photographs, to be hung somewhere in the store. Nutter said the most of the locals who know about Yelm’s history are growing old, and that kids don’t see or hear much about the early settlement.
“We think it’s a shame they don’t know about that,” Nutter said “it’s a good way for them to be in contact with the past.” Former McDonald’s manager and history buff Rick Holmes helped the historical commission get the go-ahead from McDonalds Corp. for the list inclusion. Current manager Randy Schwartz said last week that the historical significance will be a boon for everybody. “They’re going to do a traveling tour, and this is going to be one of the stops,” Schwartz said. “It’d be great for business.”
(Prepared by Brendan Young)
Mere Mention November 28, 1890 Washington Standard
A medical commission decides that cigarette-smoking by boys and gum-chewing girls were born for each other. So there is hope for the dudes and dudines of Olympia.
Mere Mention November 28, 1890 Washington Standard
Scarlet fever has prevailed to some extent in the vicinity of Yelm station, and the district school has been discontinued in consequence of prevalence among the children.
[Irrigation] 1911 -14 Washington Standard
Letter From J. C. Conine
Do you know where Squim is (spelled Sequim) too? Well, it is in the eastern part of Clallam County, on the entrance from the Sound to the Straits of Fuca. On the 5th of July, after the Carnival of Nations, I took a boat and landed at Sequim at 6 o’clock a.m. after a night’s ride without a wink of sleep. Of course I went on a visit, but my principal object was to investigate the results of the irrigation. I found quite a prosperous community of perhaps 500 families. The homes are small, generally from 5 to 40 acres each, but they all show thrift. Fifteen years ago this land was not worth more than $5 per acre. Today it ranges from $100 to $500 per acre, the result of irrigation. By industry and good judgment an abundance of water is conveyed by ditches through every plot of ground from the Dungenness River, about five miles distant. The land is no better than the land on Yelm, and yet it produces three times as much. I had some doubts as to the success of the Yelm project on account of the porosity of the soil but those doubts has dissipated. I believe now that the Yelm irrigation scheme will be a big success and increase production at least 100 per cent., changing a comparatively barren prairie to a splendid agricultural community, provided, however, the owners of the soil don’t get so avaricious that they will set too high a value to the purchaser. A portion of the Nisqually River flowing through the center of Yelm Prairie would be a sight for the gods. Here’s hoping it will materialize. J.C. Co9
Washington Standard July 21, 1911
R.D. White, of Yelm, has filed notice, as agent of the Yelm Irrigation Company, of intention to appropriate 2,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Nisqually River, for irrigation purposes on Yelm Prairie. With the appropriation of the water rights it is apparent that all details have been perfected and one of the grandest schemes for the improvement of farming lands will soon begin its sphere of usefulness. The effect of simply copious supplies of water on arid lands has been a gratifying surprise of the possibilities in store from this simple alternative. It has been found that it is a veritable Midas-touch to large areas that had up to a quite modern date been regarded as almost worthless. The notice also states that this water may also be used for generations of electric power.
Washington Standard February 26, 1912
The Yelm Irrigation Company are well pleased with their steam shovel and are busy every day now. Washington Standard November 29, 1912
The stockholders (and their families) in the Yelm Irrigating company’s ditch ate their Thanksgiving turkeys picnic style, near Bald Hill where work on the ditch is being done. Washington Standard December 6, 1912
Reports from Yelm are to the effect that the irrigation ditch in which every farmer in the district is particularly interested, is progressing rapidly and than its early completion is assured. Washington Standard January 24, 1914
Pioneer and Democrat June 19, 1857
A son of Mr. Levi Shelton, of the Yelm prairie, while engaged in drawing a cover over a yeager to protect it from the rain, preparatory to a hunt for game, accidentally shot himself through the palm of the hand, whereby most shockingly mutilating that limb – Upon surgical examination, it was discovered that all the fingers of that hand had been rendered useless, and amputation, above the wrist, ad to be resorted to, to save not only the arm, but probably the patient. This operation was ably performed by Dr. Burns, of this place, assisted by Drs. Willard, Kiser, and Glenn of Oregon, while the patient was under the influence of chloroform. The invalid is now doing as well as can be expected.
Education Memories by David Longmire – Washington Historical Quarterly
I have had but little educational advantages. I started to school first in a log cabin school house in Indiana. When father took up his claim on Yelm Prairie, I helped to cut down trees and dragged them to the place chosen and then helped to build a log school in which I became one of the first pupils. One of the teachers in that school was Dillis B. Ward, now a pioneer citizen of Seattle. Later I went to school at Chamber’s Prairie and part of the Indian war years I was in school at Olympia. Some of my pioneer schoolmates were John Yantis, John Miller Murphy, the veteran newspaper man, and Hazard Stevens, son of the Governor. Rev. George F. Whitworth was one of my teachers and so was Mrs. Hyde and Mr. Cornelius.