Lewis Barnard & the Prairie Environment
By the spring of the next year he was out on the Yelm Prairie befriending George Brail in the process. By June 1851 Lewis Barnard (1825 – February 28, 1875) had filed a Donation claim to 320 acres, some of the land bordering Yelm creek and all of it situated on the prairie northeast of the current town of Yelm. His land was situated between the claims of George Brail and John Edgar smack dab in the middle of the prairie. Soon he got to know all of his prairie neighbors, southerners Levi and Christina Shelton, James Hughes and his Irish wife. Nearby the Englishman George Edwards had a farm.
Lewis Barnard had moved west with the dreams of a farmer. He chose prairie land; it seemed farmer ready. A creek flowed through the property on its way to the Nisqually River. All around him was prairie grass. It grew, in the words of traveler, to the “belly of his horse.” Another outstretched his arms to demonstrate the length of the “macaroni” like grass. William Briskoe visited the area circa 1840 and noted the biological rhythm of the prairie. Briskoe wrote:
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, drying without being wet is like made hay; in this state it remains until the autumn rains begin to survive it.
To an itinerate farmer like Barnard a farm with a source of water and seemingly fertile soil could not fail. Life on the prairie, however, would not be that easy. The bunch grass on the prairie had taken thousands of years to adapt to the gravelly, sandy, porous soil that was frequently watered by rain, yet had at least two months with virtually no water at all. Productivity of this prairie land was nothing compared to the land surrounding Vancouver or in the Willamette Valley. To make matters worse, beneath the prairie grass were rocks; an endless eruption of rocks. Smooth surfaced, oval shaped rocks of all sizes from pebble to two man rocks. They were plow slowing rocks. Clearing the rocks seemed fruitless, more welled up to replace them.
Little understood at the time was that the Yelm Prairie environment had been shaped thousands of years before during the last great glacier age. At that time the land had been under a sheet of ice thousands of feet thick. Later named the Vashon lobe, the glacier expanded and contracted according to the seasons, but slowly retreating north. In the process, rock that had been caught in the glacier, slowly ground into oval shapes like in a giant rock tumbler. Then at the edge of the glacier, water, rock, even slabs of ice broke away depositing rocks in all shapes and sizes in what were later termed outwash plains or prairies. The process of deglaciation left the prairies denuded of trees, but which did take root in the nearby hills and river bottoms.
Natives who moved into the area relied on the river to provide much of their food, but they also found dozens of plants on the prairie that served as food or medicine. Eventually the Nisqually people engaged in burning the prairie to kick start plant regeneration for food harvesting and fodder for their growing herds of horses after the 1750s. Consequently trees were kept at bay in the hills, though small stands of oak dotted the prairie. Charles Wilkes passing through the area a decade before Lewis Barnard arrived was captivated by the “most beautiful park scenery.” For Wilkes, it was hard to believe that nature could create such a “perfect landscape.” In a sense he was right. Similarly the authors of the aptly titled 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, exclaimed that the land surrounding Lewis Barnard’s cabin “look[ed] 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.” The authors of the railroad report were wistful about the future of this magnificent park for although “Nothing seems wanting but the presence of civilized man . . . it must be acknowledged that he oftener mars than improves the lovely face of nature.” Lewis Barnard was now part of that process of marring. Barnard and his neighbors brought new animals to the prairie while killing or driving off the native species. Plant life on the prairie was disrupted by the plow, eaten by increased numbers of grazing animals, and choked out by invasive species. Indians were discouraged from their burning agenda.
The description of the prairie by the above observers was Eden-like. In a sense, the wide open space of the prairie was a dark place. The forests outlining the prairie seemed sometimes to be claustrophobic, unyielding in their solid green façade, never losing leaves in the fall. The sky was often cloudy, thus sunlight seemed set eternally at twilight. Combined with the forests it created a sense of being boxed in.
Rain often seemed a possibility. After a while one became adept at predicting rain or when the gray would burn off, revealing the distant mountain. “The mountain is out today,” was a popular phrase. The rain was little more than the national average, seldom falling in buckets, more often a mist, a drizzle. The worst month was November when one fourth of the yearly average came down. It seemed the darkest month of all, with the sun having less working hours and dark rain clouds combining to form a lumpy gray mass overhead.
At least it did not snow very much. Maybe there would be four inches of snow during a year, but it seldom lasted. Though on occasion, the Nisqually River froze solid, as did some of the surrounding lakes. The rain continued on and off as the winter became spring. By July the weather became hot. In August, the rainfall disappeared, not to return until October. It was during those months that the mountain always caught their attention and popped up in conversation.
Alone in the rainy northwest he dug in and started creating his new life. Shelter must have been his top priority. Help was nearby, Indians and settler boys would work for trade goods. Barnard visited Olympia and Steilacoom to pick necessities and future needs. He settled in.
By Ed Bergh