Lewis Barnard: Yelm’s First Postmaster

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.


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