Unusual to the watersheds of Puget Sound are the presence of open prairie-like lands which in other Northwest watersheds would be forested. These prairies occur in the gravelly outwash plains of not only the Nisqually, but also the Deschutes and Chehalis Rivers. Early explorers and settlers to the area must have been surprised to break out of thick forests and into the patchwork quilt of the prairie lands.
Yelm Prairie pioneer James Longmire, who left Shawnee Prairie, Indiana, to travel the overland trail to Nisqually country in the mid 1800s, naturally gravitated to such familiar country. Here were flat and rolling plains of thick turf dotted with wildflowers such as camas and interspersed with groves of Douglas-fir, Oregon white oak and even ponderosa pine. This inviting appearance soon proved to be deceptive. Longmire and others soon discovered that unlike mid-western prairies which had deep and rich soils, Puget Sound “prairies” overlay coarse, gravelly glacial till. These early settlers to southern Puget Sound noted that the Indian people burned the prairies in order to ensure a good crop of camas, a flower in the lily family whose underground bulbs were baked and boiled. These deliberate burns also attracted game at night. In doing so, these stewards of the land destroyed invasive tree seedlings and maintained the open prairie.
Mature trees are another striking feature of the Nisqually prairies which dot the lower valley. Interspersed as either individuals or in groves, these trees are unique. Douglas-fir, tall and dear of limb for one hundred feet or more in the cramped quarters of the lowland forest are here laden with branches which sweep the prairie grasses. The only oak indigenous to Washington, Oregon white oak, is common in this habitat. Within the longstanding military reserve of Fort Lewis are groves of rare native ponderosa pine. These 250-year old trees are very rare on the west side of the Cascade divide.
The oak prairies have always been host to a myriad of animal species. Black bear, bobcat, cougar, raccoon, Douglas squirrel, western gray squirrel and black-tailed deer were all common to Nisqually prairies. When the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived in the Nisqually Basin in the early 1800s, so too did domestic livestock. Unlike deer, sheep and cows concentrate in large numbers, often overgrazing the land. With its protective layer of turf removed, tree seeds could easily take root and the balance between grove and prairie shifted. The settlement of the Nisqually Valley by pioneers and the subsequent elimination of wildfires and Indian burns further favored the encroachment of trees into the open prairie. With the introduction of exotic grasses and more damagingly scotch broom, Nisqually prairies are today a fraction of their historical size. Consequently, the western gray squirrel has been declared a threatened species by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fortunately, a program of prescribed burning by the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of Fort Lewis maintains a trace heritage of this unique Nisqually habitat in places like Ninety First Division Prairie and Tenalquot Prairie on the military reservation. (From: The Living River: A Guide to the Nisqually River Basin 1996) Used with permission.
Introduction: Charles Wilkes led a mapping expedition through the Northwest in 1841. He traveled from Fort Nisqually to the Chehalis River and recorded these scenes of the prairie:
“…Our route lay through the most beautiful park scenery with the prairies here and there breaking through the magnificent pines. . . .took our departure exclaiming at the beauty of the Park scenery. It was almost impossible to realize our being in a savage & wild country & it but wanted some building country seats to assure us that art not nature had perfected the landscape here.” (From: Haskett, Patrick J. The Wilkes Expedition in Puget Sound, 1841. Olympia, 1974)
Introduction: Another member of the Wilkes expedition commented:
“This country . . . is perhaps one of the best for grazing in the world. . . .Everywhere in this part of the country the prairies, open wide, covered with a low grass of a most nutritious Kind which remains good throughout the year. In September there are slight rains, at which time the grass starts; and in Oct. and November there are a good Coat of green grass, which remains so until the ensuing summer; and about June is ripe in the lower plains, dryng without being wet is like made hay; in this state it remains until the autumn rains begin to survive it.” (From: [William Briskoe], “Journal of William Briskoe, Armorer Aboard the Relief and Vincennes August 18, 1838-March 23, 1842.” Quoted in Farming the Frontier – The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846 by James R. Gibson)
Introduction: In the 1850s a survey party led by George McClellan arrived in the south Puget Sound region after crossing the Cascade Mountains. Not only was this group looking for good road and railroad routes to open the “wilderness,” but naturalists with the party recorded some the first written descriptions of the Yelm and neighboring prairies.
“At short intervals, all along the upper Chehalis, and beyond it to Steilacoom, we passed through similar fine prairies, which-occupy a large portion of this valley between-the Coast and Cascade ranges.
“The “Nisqually plains,” about thirty square miles in extent, lie in irregularly oval form between Puget Sound and the Cascade range, with the Nisqually river on the south and the Puyallup north of them. Their surface is smooth and level, rising in successive terraces from ten to forty feet high, and generally parallel to the mountains. At short intervals occur lakes, small but beautifully clear, though usually without visible outlet, the gravelly soil rapidly absorbing the water during the dry season. Few, however, dry up completely, and they become neither muddy nor stagnant, thus indicating, perhaps, a subterranean flow. Around these are beautiful groves of poplar, aspen, ash, maple, and a few pines and oaks. Scattered over the surface are rounded hills, looking like islands in the level plain, and covered with groves of the usual fir, which also sometimes grows on the slopes of the terraces. The whole plain looks like a magnificent park ornamented by the highest skill of the landscape gardener, while to the southeast, and in full view from all parts of it, stands the majestic Mount Rainier forty miles distant, though in appearance not more than five.
“A few remarks are necessary upon the origin of the dry prairies so singularly scattered through the forest region. Their most striking feature is the abruptness of the forests which surround them, giving them the appearance of lands which have been cleared and cultivated for hundreds of years. From various facts observed I conclude that they are the remains of much more extensive prairies, which, within a comparatively recent period, occupied all the lower and drier parts of the valleys, and which the forests have been gradually spreading over in their downward progress from the mountains. The Indians, in order to preserve their open grounds for game, and for the production of their important root, the camas, soon found the advantage of burning, and when they began this it was only those trees already large that could withstand the fires. Occasionally gigantic fir trees, isolated or in groups, show, by their immense size, that these prairies have not been produced nor always exposed to fires, for they must have attained a considerable age before they could have resisted fire.
“The introduction of the horse, about the beginning of this century, was a further inducement for burning, and doubtless also caused an increased settlement in the prairies by these people, hitherto accustomed to travel mostly by water, and to depend upon fishing for their subsistence. On some prairies near Vancouver and Nisqually, where this burning has been prevented for twenty years past, young spruces are found to be growing up rapidly, and Indians have told me that they can remember when some other prairies were much larger than at present. That they never were covered with forest is shown by the perfect smoothness of their surface; while in places very completely cleared of forests By fires are always found mounds and hollows, left by stumps, and an immediate growth of shrubs and trees follows, showing a tendency to return to forest, instead of to form prairies. Great changes must have occurred in the conformation and climate of this part of the coast since forests began to cover a surface once probably as bare as that of the Central Plains.
“With all this magnificence there is not wanting scenery of a milder and more home-like aspect. The smooth prairies, dotted with groves of oaks, which in the distance look like orchards, seem so much like old farms that it is hard to resist the illusion that we are in a land cultivated for hundreds of years, and adorned by the highest art, though the luxuriant and brilliant vegetation far excels any natural growth in the east. Nothing seems wanting but the presence of civilized man, though it must be acknowledged that he oftener mars than improves the lovely face of nature.” (From: Suckley, George & Cooper, J. G. The Natural History of Washington territory and Oregon; with much relating to Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, and California between the thirty-sixth and forty ninth parallels of latitude: being those parts of the final reports on the survey of the Northern Pacific Railroad route, relating to the natural history of the regions explored, with full catalogues and descriptions of the plants and animals collected from 1853 to 1860. New York : Baillière Brothers, 1860)
Introduction: An early traveler through the region in 1853 was Theodore Winthrop who wrote in Canoe and Saddle that:
“This rough was would be enlivened by a prairie, with beds of fern for my repose, and a long grass for my tiring beasts, – grass long as macaroni, he measured it with outstretched hands.” (From: Winthrop, Theodore. Canoe and Saddle. John H. Williams, Tacoma, 1913)
Introduction: Writing about his arrival on the Yelm prairie several decades after the fact, James Longmire recounted:
“Leaving our families in camp, E. A. Light, John Lane and I started out to look for homes after having received due notice from the Hudson Bay Company not to settle on any land north of the Nisqually River. We crossed the river and went to Yelm Prairie, a beautiful spot I thought as it lay before us covered with tall waving grass, a pretty stream flowing through it bordered with shrubs and tall trees and the majestic mountain which Indians almost worshipped and to which they gave the name Ta-Ko-Bed, as it seemed standing guard over all in its snowy cover. It was a scene for the artist’s brush – the most beautiful I have ever seen and good enough for me . . . . On the prairie the grass grew tall and rank and herds of deer wandered leisurely as cattle in their pasture.”
Introduction: Edward Huggins worked at the Puget Sound Farm at Fort Nisqually. In the 1890s he contributed a number of articles recalling his days on the “frontier.” Huggins writes:
“I knew must be the Yilmn, on the south side of the Squally River. This prairie was covered by a luxuriant growth of that magnificent indigenous bunchgrass which was called blue bunchgrass and which at that time covered all the gravelly prairies of Pierce, Thurston and Chehalis Counties.
“It was something like the grass to be found east of the mountains, but covered the ground thoroughly and did not grow in spots as it does east of the range. The undergrowth was thick, and kept comparatively green all summer, and when it seeded it was about two feet in height.
“During the Indian War of 1855 and 1856, when the settlers were ordered to leave their farms and move to the towns and fortified places, most of the livestock was moved away also. In the Fall of the year I have seen this grass waving in the breeze like fields of grain, but alas; over stocking of sheep has caused this most nutritious of all native grasses to disappear, and a kind of a worthless grass or weed has taken its place.”
Huggins writes: “I think many of the old residents of this county will bear me out in this assertion. I recollect that as late as 1860 the grass in the Elk Plain, Walla Walla plain (Montgomery), South Muck, Puyallup, Sastuc, Tlithlow, Red Pines, (F. Goodwin), and Squally plains were covered with a thick sward of the native blue bunch-grass which entirely covered the ground, and in the fall of 1855-56 and ’57 when the Indian war was pending I have seen the grass on almost all of these plains, having ripened its seed, waving in the breeze like a field of grain.
“I think this same species, of a more nutritious character than the bunch grass common to the prairies east of the mountains which I saw on journeys there I noticed that the grass late in summer dried up, but with us the undergrowth remained comparatively green. The character of our grasses was well established as a grass of nutritious quality as in the early days, we had no means of caring for but a small number of live stock during the winter months, and our poor animals would come out of the timber in the spring, looking exceedingly thin and woe-begone, but after a few weeks’ feeding on the blue bunch grass would gain flesh, the horses able to perform extraordinary work and the horned cattle make beef of a very fair quality.
“The horses especially, as many of the early settlers in Pierce and Thurston counties can bear me out in, soon recovered from the enervating effects of winter pasturage, and became full of life, and able to endure a day’s ride of many miles in extent. I have often, in the fifties taken a horse from the band of seventy-five or one hundred head, started from the Fort at sunrise and made the company’s post on the Cowlitz prairie before sunset, on the same day, a distance of seventy miles, and at the journey’s end the horse appeared to be not so tired as its rider.
“A good opportunity was afforded me, I think to form an opinion of interest to our farmers as to the great value of the Nisqually bunch grass above referred to. In 1854,1855, and 1856, this country was afflicted with an Indian war, and during its pendency, our settlers were compelled by an edict of the governor of the territory, martial law prevailing, to abandon their farms for the time being, and they moved with their live stock to the fortified stations contiguous to the plain. Fort Steilacoom, Fort Nisqually, Fort Raglan, and Fort Montgomery, and the only stock feeding upon the plains was that belonging to the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and it was managed in such a way as to cause but little injury to the grass, a system of rotation of pastures having been adopted and rigidly adhered to by the officer in charge of the company’s business and frequently in the fall of the year I have seen the grass on many of our prairies, after having matured waiving in the breeze.” (From: Edward Huggins. The Weekly Ledger. Tacoma, Washington. January 1,1892)
Introduction: In 1888 one of America’s preeminent naturalists, John Muir, got off the train at the Yelm Station and bedded down in a stable for the night before beginning his journey to Mt. Rainier’s summit. In his account of this trip in Steep Trails, Muir describes the prairies of the area in the following passage:
“The largest of the prairies that I have seen lies to the south of Tacoma on the line of the Portland and Tacoma Railroad. The ground is dry and gravelly, a deposit of water-washed cobbles and pebbles derived from moraines – conditions which readily explain the absence of trees here and on other prairies adjacent to Yelm. Berries grow in lavish abundance, enough for man and beast with thousands of tons to spare. The woods are full of them, especially about the borders of the waters and meadows where the sunshine may enter. Nowhere in the north does Nature set a more bountiful table. There are huckleberries of many species, red, blue, and black, some of them growing close to the ground, others on bushes eight to ten feet high; also salal berries, growing on a low, weak-stemmed bush, a species of gaultheria, seldom more than a foot or two high. This has pale pea-green glossy leaves two or three inches long and half an inch wide and beautiful pink flowers, urn-shaped, that make a fine, rich show. Thee berries are black when ripe, are extremely abundant, and, with the huckleberries, form an important part of the food of the Indians, who beat them into paste, dry them, and store them away for winter use, to be eaten with their oily fish. The salmon-berry also is very plentiful growing in dense prickly tangles. The flowers are as large as wild roses and of the same color, and the berries measure nearly an inch in diameter. Besides these are gooseberries, currants, raspberries, blackberries, and in some favored spots, strawberries.” (From: Muir, John. Steep Trails – Edited by William Frederic Bade, 1918)
Introduction: Edgar Prescott arrived at the Yelm Prairie in the 1940s. He was a teacher in the Yelm School System and wrote numerous articles about the people and history of Yelm. Among his papers at the Washington State Historical Society Research Center in Tacoma is an unpublished memoir where he recounts his personal experiences with the Yelm prairie and, more importantly, what lay beneath the surface. Edgar Prescott writes:
“Yelm wasn’t surrounded by a forest of big trees the way we had figured it might be. It was flat, dry prairie. At least it was dry right then. I’ll never forget what one of my kids in school told me later. “There are two seasons in Washington,” she said. “There is August, and the rainy season.”
“From the road, as we came into town, we had seen fields bordered by rock-piles-not stacked neatly to make fences, the way Dad had told about there being in Maine, but just dumped, hit or miss, into heaps. Some of the fields had been planted to berries-We could see the rows of dead canes sticking up-but now they were over- grown with grass.
“It was a glacier of the most recent ice age, I discovered in a reference book-I was doing a lot of reading to get ready to teach a course in Washington history that the state required high school students to take-that determined that Yelm should be a prairie. I could understand, when I tried to dig my first post hole-That was sometime later when I was working with other members of the Lions Club to fence the athletic field-how discouraging it would be for a tree to try to put down roots there. By the time my hole was two and a half feet deep, it was close to four feet across the top.” (p. 391)
“I figured by then that it was high time for me to start working on the yard. My first plan was to get a garden space ready to plant. You wouldn’t believe the rocks that Milt Johnson turned up when he came over to plow the place for me. You could hardly see the ground for them. I borrowed Archie Ferguson’s pickup and for the next two or three weeks, Saturdays and Sundays and evenings after school, I loaded and hauled rocks. Some of them were too big for me to handle alone, and Frank Bower came over to give me a hand.
“By the time we got through picking up those rocks, I’ll swear that that garden space was close to a foot lower than the rest of the land around. The only thing we could think to do about it was to have dirt hauled in, and we surely didn’t want any more Yelm dirt. Good topsoil, we wanted, and we went all the way to Puyallup, about twenty-five miles away, before we could find any for sale.
“After we’d had a couple of big truckloads hauled in, rich, black loamy soil it was, and I. had spread it around with a wheelbarrow and leveled it, it looked like a carpet. Not one rock in sight. It wasn’t long though before they started shoving up, like something under them was pushing at them from below. I remembered how Dad used to tell me about how the rocks in Maine used to do that.” (From: manuscript by Edgar Prescott. Washington State Historical Society Research Center)
Introduction: Edward Huggins also noted the changes in the prairies described above. In this selection, published in Tacoma in 1892, Huggins reflects on the altered prairie environment. Huggins writes:
“I have often thought that I would like to say a few words with reference to the capabilities, past and present, afforded by the Nisqually plains in Pierce County, Washington, for the purpose of breeding and rearing live stock, and also give a short account of its first introduction. For the past eight or ten years, I have frequently ridden across the country between Tacoma and the ‘Squally River and with sorrow noticed the arid appearance of the plains. Where, in my early days was exhibited a luxuriant growth of the most nutritious, in my opinion, of all grasses, the “blue” bunch grass,” indigenous to the country, and especially this portion west of the mountains, there is now a changeable or short lived growth of very inferior grass and weeds, which is very fugitive in character, coming early in the spring, maturing very early, and disappearing almost entirely in latter months of summer, rendering our plains during the summer months of July and August almost as worthless for grazing purposes as are the semi-tropical deserts of Arizona and New Mexico in their heated season, and to this cause I attribute the decay and almost annihilation of our sheep industry, the source of food for that animal having been destroyed and a growth of very poor grass and weeds taken its place.” (From: Tacoma Sunday Ledger)