Introduction: Little is known about George Brail. His stay on the prairie was short and he left no paper trail after he moved away in the 1860’s.
Among the first settlers to move onto the Yelm Prairie was George Brail (1810 – after 1860). On his application for a Donation land claim, Brail wrote that he arrived in Olympia on January 1, 1847. This suggests that he might have arrived by boat or came up from the Ft. Vancouver or the Willamette Valley settlements. There were certainly no wagon trains coming over the Cascade Mountains that winter. In contrast to his prairie neighbors, Brail was not from some eastern part of the United States, nor the British Isles. He had been born in Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, circa 1810. When he and/or his family came to this country is unknown. How he got the northwest is a similar dead end for the modern researcher. Brail remains one of the most elusive of the early settlers. His name appears on the 1850 and 1860 censuses, but in few other places. His is a story that has no prologue, no coda. Yet he was connected to some other place. In January 1854, the Washington Pioneer listed “Geo Brail” as one of the men with a letter for them being held at the Olympia Post Office. It is a tantalizing fact. Was it a communication from some other Brail, likewise a resident of the United States? Or was it from someone he had met as he headed west from his initial Atlantic landfall. Less tantalizing is the fact that it might have been from a former Thurston County neighbor, now making a go of it in some other, more hopeful, place.
In order to get some cash in his, but more likely to earn some store credit at Ft. Nisqually, George Brail became part of the economic globalization of the Pacific Northwest. The HBC was trafficking shingles as far away as the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. Along with a number of Olympia area residents he began cutting and shaving cedar shake shingles. At $3 per thousand, the shingle trade became a money maker for people just starting to carve out their corner of the territory.
The only other settlers on the prairie at that time were Betsy and John Edgar. Brail chose land that bordered a creek and not far from the Edgar claim. For a long time, before it became known as Yelm Creek, that stream which cut through the prairie was known as Brail Creek. Records indicate that Brail owned 640 acres which would only have been possible with wife who was similarly eligible for 320 as promised by the Donation Land Act. The authors of Yelm Pioneers and Followers said his Indian wife’s name was Mary. Yet, there is no record of this mystery woman in either the 1850 or 1860 census, or a list of any children in either of those enumerations.
After a couple of years Brail had 40 acres of land under cultivation. Besides the usually array of produce consumed at the Brail cabin, he harvested 600 pounds of potatoes and small amounts of beans and wheat. He had a small sampling of livestock, a horse, some milch cows and cattle, a pair of oxen. Agents recording such matters listed his livestock as valued at, roughly, $400. John Edgar’s valuation was six times that amount, $2,400. Without children of his own Brail undoubtedly traded sweat equity with his neighbor Edgar, or hired local Indians in exchange for sundries.
George Brail and his neighbors were a long way from the United States. Just like settlers learned to do with out, their communities were also on their own. As a territory much of the authority and financing for Washington was held in the hands of the “other” Washington. Communication with the national government was slow and seldom satisfactory. Settlers, however, took charge. When word spread that immigrants were coming over the Naches Pass, the settler of the Steilacoom and Olympia area sprang into action. Money was raised, in lieu of federal dollars, to hire men and outfit them, so forest paths could be widened so wagons could cross the Cascade Mountains a little more easily. George Brail pledged his financial support. John Edgar served as guide for the work party. Betsy Edgar’s cousin Quiemuth supplied pack horses.
When fighting broke out in the Washington Territory in the fall of 1855 Brail was not among those men volunteering to for service in the militia. He did, however, join the exodus from the prairie; a fact attested to by James Longmire’s visit to the empty Brail cabin in October 1855.
New Years 1856 was a somber time in which to be hopeful for the coming months. Some settlers had drifted back to the prairie. Edgar, of course, was dead and sorely missed. People were pleased to see a blockhouse going up along Brail Creek. Soldiers seemed like a wise addition to the scenery. Still, not long after soldiers were stationed at Ft. Stevens, Indians moved at will in and out of Thurston County. In late February and early March, two men, William Northcraft and William White were killed just west of Yelm.
In late March 1856 a group of Indians forded the Nisqually River and rode on to the Yelm Prairie. Crossing Yelm Creek they came across Brail’s place. Moving quickly they drove off six of his horses and seven cows. Three of the cows wandered off, but they drove the rest before them. Passing by Thomas Chambers’ claim they added another eight horses. Continuing east they headed past Longmire’s cabin and picked up another horse. The Pioneer and Democrat labeled the incident as the “Robbery at the Yelm Prairie.” The Indians guided the cows and horses towards the Mashel River where the Pioneer and Democrat reported a large encampment of old men, women, and children. The paper concluded they were slaughtering livestock, drying the meat, and stockpiling it for the warring Indians in the area. The latter, reported the paper, were waiting for more ammunition from east of the Cascades.
As the Indians headed east word of the raid traveled west. Responding immediately, Gov. Stevens sent a twenty man detachment to catch up with the raiders.
George Brail went back to his place in the summer of 1856. Events of the previous year were explained away. The raid which had driven off Brail livestock was now three months past, it was safer now. After all, a man had to feed his himself. One night Brail was called to the door. There in the rain was James Longmire, Betsy Edgar, the Frenchman Ozha, and Van Ogle. Then stepping into the light was Quiemuth. He was tired of running and hiding and had decided to place his future into the hands of the territorial governor. Longmire asked Brail to join their party and help deliver Quiemuth to the governor.
The party set off for Olympia. After exiting the trees west of the prairie the road divided. Taking the left fork, they passed where White and Northcraft’s bodies had been found. The rain continued, but did not seem to dampen the spirit of Quiemuth who was enjoying himself talking with Longmire, regaling the latter with tales of gold and future alliances. Brail, Longmire, Quiemuth and the rest rode into Olympia at some time after two in the morning. They stopped at Gov. Stevens’ house and Longmire roused the governor. The tired, muddy, and wet sojourners were renewed by the governor’s hospitality. With food in their stomachs Brail, Ozha, and Van Ogle returned outside and took the horses to the nearest stable. That was the last time Brail saw Quiemuth alive.
Before the morning’s light, Quiemuth had been killed. Murdered in the governor’s office. He had been shot, then stabbed. Brail must have wondered how such a crime had happened. Quiemuth had, essentially, surrendered, then died while under the protection of the government. How could Longmire have slept through this tragedy? Brail returned home where life slowly resumed without the fear of violence. Later, he was pleased to know there was a system to claim damages from the war and obtain compensation
With the death of John Edgar, George Brail became the man to see when it came to animals and their maintenance. On one occasion in 1859 he was called out to Smith Prairie to take a look at a steer and a cow of Robert Shelton’s, both having been shot. Later he testified at the trial in which his not too distant neighbor, James Burns, was being tried for “Maliciously injuring two head of cattle.”
By 1860 Brail had recovered from his loses of livestock from the Indian troubles of the previous decade. His herd of cattle now numbered forty, his horses more than a half dozen. In addition he claimed seven of the swine which nosed the prairie. He had by then “improved” 320 acres of the prairie. Native grasses, medicinal plants and herbs, were turned over and replaced with oats, wheat, and hay. The latter came in handy in the latter days of the rainy season when nibbled stalks were slow to regenerate. To make matters worse in the winter and spring, the trampling of plants by the hoofed grazers buried greenery in the sodden soil. Hay was a back-up. Brail was by then, one of the most prosperous farmers on the prairie.
People gathered at James Longmire’s for a July 4, 1860 picnic. Possibly Brail was among the celebrants. He was by then an American citizen for seven years. Maybe a more playful neighbor enticed him to shout out “Viv ’Etats Unis!” It was an election year and there was a lot to talk about. The Republican Party was bound to nominate Abe Lincoln, not a very well known commodity. But it looked like the Democrats were going to fall apart and Brail, like everyone else on the prairie, was a Democrat. There were rumblings of secession. It was all far away, still it worried them. The Indian wars were only a few years back. Immigrants had started to show up again. Merchants smiled at their new clients, landowners imagined their property would become more valuable. Now that was cast into under cloud of uncertainty. If war came, the federal government would lower its already attention to and presence in the region. Migration would slow down again. John Brown’s raid the preceding year bode ill for the nation, including the Washington Territory.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860. Not long after threats of secession became the reality of the Confederacy. Brail was upset with the turn of events. He was not alone. Among his neighbors, James Longmire and Levi Shelton were equally concerned about what was happening back east. In March they organized a Mass Meeting in Olympia. There they and their allies stated they were “attached to our General Government under its present structure and decidedly opposed to a Pacific Confederacy (should such a dogma be entertained by any portion of our people.)” Though they disliked Republican politics, they loved their nation more.
In 1865 the Civil War ended. According to tradition he emigrated to Mexico. Considering the French role in that nation this is a plausible bit of history. What is known is that George sold his homestead on the Yelm prairie and disappeared from our view.
By Ed Bergh