Introduction: John Edgar arrived in the northwest as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He eventually terminated his service them, married a native women, Betsy, and moved on to the Yelm prairie. They were the first family to settle there. The following depicts part of there life there.
Betsy & John Edgar: Pioneers on the Prairie
The U.S. government offered 320 acres to any male American citizen and another 320 acres if the man was married. John Edgar had formally married Betsy in 1849 and acquired his American citizenship in 1853. Then he applied for and received a Donation Land claim on the Yelm Prairie. John Edgar had chosen 640 acres on the edge of the Yelm prairie to start his farm, build his home, and raise a family. The Yelm Prairie was like all of the others in the area. The common terms to refer to the soil there were “sandy” and “gravelly.” Others would use the term” rocky.” That gravelly soil was covered by bunchgrass and camas, with stands of oak punctuating the roughly fifteen square miles of prairie. The large prairie was surrounded by stands of timber more than 100 feet tall. In the distance, seeming to float above the intervening fifty miles of forests between itself and Yelm, Ta-co-bet’s (Mt. Rainier’s) snow-covered shape dominated the horizon. Often obscured for days or weeks at a time by the fog, mists, and rains of the region, the mountain’s sudden re-appearance made it seem to loom merely a few miles away. When John Edgar faced the mountain in the morning the sun arose over its white shoulder, creating dazzling displays of yellow and orange light, occasionally streaked or wreathed with clouds. There was a certain calming quality to the mountain. “His place is a very beautiful one,” wrote Edward Allen, an 1853 visitor.
Aesthetics aside, John Edgar chose his land wisely. Not far from the Nisqually River, his Donation claim straddled a creek (now Yelm Creek) and ran along the edge of the forest. Edgar had decided not to spend years of his life cutting the trees and removing the stumps from anticipated farm land, opting for primarily prairie. He was going to use the prairie as pasture and graze his animals on the bunchgrass, which grew to be two feet tall. The nearby forests would provide logs for his cabin. A visitor noted another reason for Edgar’s choice of land, “Upon it is one of the best springs [later known as Crystal Spring] that can be found in all the territory, gushing out almost large enough to turn a mill, and as cold as ice.” Another visitor to the Edgar place in 1853 he commented on Edgar’s “good taste to leave standing, in one of his fields, a number of scotch firs, beautiful shade trees, and evergreens.” Soon the prairie was dotted with great numbers of South Downs sheep, which had been delivered to Edgar from Portland.
Edgar’s chosen profession was shepherding, having worked as a shepherd in England and Ft. Vancouver, as well as for the PSAC at Ft. Nisqually. On the Yelm prairie he continued this chosen trade, both for the PSAC and his own private interests. In less than a decade on the Yelm Prairie Edgar had seen his flocks and herds increase in size, sometimes dramatically. His flock numbered over fifty sheep. He had a large herd of more than forty horses: a collection of mares, colts, fillies, yearlings, geldings, and at least one special riding horse. He owned four dozen horned cattle, including oxen which he now used for hauling logs. The cattle provided meat, milk, and butter for the family, but the meat and butter were great items for trade in an economy where cash was scarce. Rooting about the prairie were Edgar’s swine. Pigs, sows, boars and shoats competed with native nuts-and-roots gatherers for the natural produce of the prairie. As the stock grazed on the prairie, the depredations of local wolves and big cats were a frequent concern for Edgar and his hired men. Even the crows reaped their toll, occasionally swooping down and carrying off a chicken.
There were no other families on the Yelm Prairie at the time. During those first few years in the cabin John and Betsy lived miles from their closest neighbors. One of those neighbors was the Orkney islander and former Hudson Bay employee Thomas Linklater, who lived near the Deschutes River near what is today the town of Rainier. Linklater had worked in a number of capacities for the company over his twenty-year career, shepherd being one of them. He moved to the Tenalquot Prairie in the fall of 1849 and within a year he was managing flocks of over 2,000 sheep. In 1851, Linklater ended his career with the HBC, married a native woman, became an American citizen, and eventually filed a Donation Land claim. He developed a strong friendship with Edgar, the latter naming Linklater, along with Ft. Nisqually Chief Factor, William Tolmie, as the administrators for his will.
Heading west from Edgar’s place was twenty miles to Olympia, and to return to Ft. Nisqually one had to ford the river, proceeding wet to Steilacoom. Indians passed through the Edgar’s corner of the prairie, possibly on their way to the Cowlitz River, or merely hunting for camas bulbs or acorns that had fallen from the oaks which were scattered around the prairie. Soon Edgar’s free range hogs would be competing for this nutty bounty. Salmon came up the creek at the appointed time of the year. Many years later Allen Yellout recalled a temporary Nisqually village located near the Edgar home. The small community of cedar-bark houses stood on both sides of Yelm Creek near where it emptied into the river. Nisqually usually stayed at that locale for five or six weeks during the fall’s dog salmon run. Yellout remembered a fish trap of cedar boughs usually being set up by the Nisqually who emptied it every morning. The Indians stayed long enough to dry their catch, then moved on. For Betsy it was always a time to look forward to. She had married a successful rancher who possessed a large number of animals and with the Nisqually nearby, she could talk about her good fortune in her own language with people who understood her. One can imagine John Edgar walking down to where the men were spear-fishing and trying his hand at it, accompanied by hoots of delight and derision from his Nisqually neighbors. Meanwhile, further up Yelm Creek, John Edgar’s horses, sheep, and cattle walked through the creek, muddying the water, as well as urinating and defecating in the salmon habitat. Thus, the slow degradation of the stream began.
The Edgar’s new home was a typical log cabin. It was built with the help of local Indians who provided day labor, working for hand-me-down pieces of clothing, foodstuffs, or other trade goods. Their efforts paid off. Surrounded by a “zigzag or worm fencing,” Edward Huggins considered Edgar’s place a:
[R]oomy, warmly constructed log house, of course, very plainly furnished, as were all the houses in the country at that early date. The furniture was all home-made and the carpets coarse Indian mats made of rushes. If not handsome, they were warm and comfortable.
Some of that homemade furniture included a cubbord [sic], a beaurow [sic], and five chairs. They owned a cooking stove (most likely a dutch oven), but still had a large iron kettle for cooking in the fireplace. There was tableware for meals and a coffee mill for grinding coffee beans. There were moulds for making candles. The clock was a prized possession.
Edward Huggins enjoyed his visits there, for he was treated “right royally.” [Like Heath, Edward Huggins recognized Edgar’s special personality, “John [Edgar] was a good looking fellow, hospitable, and kind-hearted.”] Another traveler who stayed with the Edgars was Second Lieutenant William Trowbridge. He stopped by in August 1853 as he made his way from Cowlitz Landing to Ft. Nisqually. Trowbridge was glad to be there. He had ridden in from Muck Station (Near today’s Roy). Crossing the Nisqually at dusk, the forest prevented the sun’s last rays from helping light his way. Splashing through a “roar[ing] river,” uncertain of its depth, and unable to see his Indian guide, Trowbridge was happy to finally ride up to Edgar’s house. Promising his guest supper, Edgar led him inside. Ignoring Trowbridge’s protestations to do nothing special, Edgar turned to his sleeping wife, saying (in Chinook jargon) “Betsy! Okuk Tyhee tikeh muk-amuk.” (“Betsy! This chief wants to eat.”) From under her blanket she responded in jargon. Edgar served up some bread and showed the Lieutenant where to spread his blankets for the night.
In the morning’s light Trowbridge surveyed his surroundings. He was not impressed by the clutter of mats, blankets, saddles, “rumpled” beds, clothes, pails, and even farm implements covering much of the floor. A tangle of dirty arms and legs signaled children about. According to Trowbridge “charming Betsy” was “little concerned” with the “disorder,” going on to compare her attitude to that of a dog. She serenely sat on the hearth cracking and eating hazelnuts with her children. Later Betsy “hung her papoose over her shoulder like a raccoon” and walked to the woods to gather more snacks. Edward Allen also noted the children. He was struck by their “unattractive” and “dull almost African features.” Still, Allen concluded, “He [Edgar] seems very proud of his children” and was bringing up his family in a Christian-like manner.” It appears that often the disarming hospitality of the Edgar family diffused prejudice that arrived at their doorstep.
John Edgar was a well-equipped farmer. Breaking up the root systems of the prairie was an arduous, time-consuming task and he owned both a shovel plow and a regular plow to make the work easier. He had a set of harrow teeth. For harvesting grains he had a scythe and a grain cradle (something he and his neighbor George Brail went halves on). There was the usual array of hoes, shovels, saws (hand and crosscut), and axes. Edgar had a lot of gear to be used with his stock: ox yokes, wagon harness, a saddle and bridle. He had a wagon, but by the mid-1850s it was broken down.
Census records from 1850 show Edgar had 80 acres under the plow, harvesting impressive amounts of oats, potatoes, peas, and wheat, which he took to the grain mill in Tumwater. His efforts earned a certain reputation in the county. The Pioneer and Democrat made it a point to note his success, writing that John Edgar,
[O]f the gallant, democratic little Yelm prairie, afforded us a rare treat in the shape of green corn, colliflowers [sic], beets, onions, carrots, etc. of mammoth growth and epicurean flavor. The Yelm prairie is a trump every time, and in connection with its vegetable reputation, it might be proper to observe that with the handsome present of the aforesaid luxuries, was accompanied a stalk of wheat, perfectly matured and well headed, measuring eight feet in length.
This was not the first time Edgar had been heralded for his agrarian acumen. Previously the Puget Sound Courier in Steilacoom had sung praises for his enormous white potatoes, some weighing three or more pounds. Similarly his red cabbage was “solid” and his garden had also yielded “nice” specimens of beets. One year his fields yielded 30 bushels of peas and 600 bushels of Irish potatoes. Another year it took him two trips to Fort Nisqually to deliver his bounty of peas. He was a walking advertisement for farming on the prairie.
The Columbian, ever ready to add superlatives to an event that could be remotely tied to increasing settlement in the region, concluded,
In a country possessing soil capable of producing vegetables unsurpassed in any respect, by any in the world-where wheat arrives at unsurpassed perfection-a climate of the most inviting character-a land of unequaled healthfulness, with a noble and generous population-soon may be completely settled-become an independent territory and a sovereign state.
Thus, John Edgar’s beets and cabbage played a part in the Washington Territory becoming a state some 37 years later.
John Edgar was not only a producer for the frontier economy; he was also a consumer. He had open accounts at the Hudson’s Bay Company at Ft. Nisqually as well as Allen and Co. and the Bettman Brothers in Olympia, among others. In the spring of 1855 he rode to Olympia and visited Allen and Co. to get nails, molasses, salt, twine, and canvas. In July 1855, he made the trip to the fort on two separate occasions, probably using the ferry down at Packwood’s place to cross the Nisqually River. He picked up necessities like gunpowder, nails, sugar, and tobacco, as well as luxuries like soap. Off-the-shelf clothing always caught his attention. He bought Beavertown trousers, corduroy trousers, Guernsey frocks, and shirts for himself. For Betsy there were new shoes. Edgar also bought all types of cloth, intended for further trading or for homemade clothing. During that July, records show him leaving with yards of calico, gingham, flannel, damask, and cotton prints. On his shopping spree on July 19th he purchased some moleskin and 3 pt. blankets. To help balance his account with the HBC, Edgar dropped off 43 lbs. of butter, 840 lbs. of beef, some lamb, and 313 lbs. of wool. In August, he made the trip to Olympia at least three times. He picked up lumber at Clanrick Crosby’s mill in Tumwater and had John Shelton drive the wagon load back to the farm. He also employed Shelton for five days to thrash his wheat. Day laborers cost $1.50 per day or $40 per month.
Edgar was a congenial fellow, but a little slow on taking care of his financial liabilities. In July 1855 Shirley Ensign felt obligated to have the court force Edgar to settle accounts for work Ensign had done for him. Back in 1854 Ensign had cleared land for Edgar. The former claimed to have hewn timber for the construction of a barn. He had hauled lumber and shingles for the project. In the barn he had installed mangers and stalls. He had even taken time to break two horses that Edgar had acquired. In return, Ensign had received ten dollars in cash, and a deduction from his pay for having borrowed one of Edgar’s horses for a time. Ensign wanted the more than $200 owed to him by his employer, Edgar. It would take more than a year to settle accounts.
A round-trip to Olympia was a forty mile trek, so sometimes Edgar stayed the night in town. He would leave his horse at Edmund Sylvester’s stable. There he would have his mount checked for horseshoe needs. To pay for some of his Olympia purchases Edgar plunked down over 150 lbs. of meat. That fall he bought shoes for his delighted children. The tea and brown sugar he bought were also a big hit. Then, with winter approaching, Edgar brought home three gallons of whiskey for those long, rainy, winter nights on the Yelm Prairie.
By Ed Bergh