Yelm became one of the earliest Western Washington communities through the accidents of geography. Its fertile prairie, close proximity to the Nisqually River, and its location at the crossroads of major trails made it a stregetic and desirable center for commerce and settlement long before Euro-Americans appeared. According to legend the area was originally called “Shelm” (or “Chelm”) and named for the “shimmering heat waves wich played above the prairie when the summer sun shines hot.” The Nisqually Tribe occupied Yelm Prairie prior to Euro-American settlement, and besides this name, the Nisqually presence is found in archaelogical sites which dot the prairie.
According to the 1818 Treay of Joint Occupancy between Great Britain and the United States all of the Oregon Country — the land between Russian America in the north, Spanish American in the south the crest of the Rockies to the est, and the Pacific Ocean to the west — was open to development by citizens or corporations of either country. In 1826 this treaty was continued until 1846 when the boundary between the two countries was established at the 49th parallel.
Fur traders first used this land. Even though open to joint occupancy the area north of the Columbia River was controlled by the British operators of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Yelm Prairie was a travel route for those working its fur trading posts and farms. These transportation routes began as native trails and were used later .by settlers. The same routes later became wagon roads, military roads, railroad lines, and ultimately modern highway.
The main north-south Native American trail in the area was used by Euro-American fur traders as early as 1818. Leading north from the Cowlitz River, this route was also used by the Hudson’s Bay Company when traveling between Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually, located north of Yelm Prairie.
In1839, the Company established farms at Nisqually and on the Cowlitz. The heavily utilized route between the two was the older north-south trail. It wound its way through Yelm Prairie. This route was so well used that in1849 the Hudson’s Bay Company made it into a wagon road. By 1854, the Company established a wagon ferry across the Nisqually. Edward Huggins, a young clerk at Fort Nisqually during this period of time recounted in later years one experience crossing the Nisqually. When approaching the river he took a wrong turn, crossed at the wrong ford, and almost lost his life. The ford he took “… was only used by the Indians at low stage of water… The proper ford is several miles up the river, and by land four or five miles from the point where I left the road…and ’twas always fordable, except at very high stages of water. Two bridges are now crossing the river near this ford, a Rail-road and a County Bridge. The Squally is fordable, at times, at several places, but to a stranger a few of them are unsafe.” (Huggins to Bagley, October 29, 1904) The main ford used by Native Americans and the Hudson’s Bay Company was, according to Huggins, near the present-day McKenna. Loutzenhiser, an early Yelm historian, maintains that this ford, also known as the “Upper Ford,” was also the site of the Company”s Wagon ferry, as well as the William Wagner ferry which began operation in 1869 as the third ferry license granted by the territorial legislature. Huggins, on the other hand maintains that “the ford used by the company was several miles above the Ferry.” (Huggins, 1984) In either instance, it is clear that Yelm Prairie was a highly traveled route for both Native Americans and early Euro-American settlers.
As the trails provided the roads into Yelm Prairie, the land claims of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company assured its early settlement. According to the terms of the 1846 agreement between Great Britain and the United States, these two companies retained rights to land located between the Puyallup and Nisqually Rivers in Pierce County. The United States government had to purchase these rights and survey the land prior to settlement, a process that was not completed until 1869. With Americans kept from this area, early settlers located south of the Nisqually River, including Yelm Prairie, where land could be claimed or purchased.
During this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company was vital to the economic well-being of the American settlers. Until the land settlement was reached, Fort Nisqually was the only stable, relatively inexpensive, source of goods and materials on Puget Sound. It is perhaps no accident that all of the earliest settlements in the Puget Sound region were located within a few hours to a day’s journey of this settlement. Political, economic and geographic factors, therefore, contributed to the location of Yelm on the prairie. The Donation Land Claims, Homestead Claims and Preemption Claims from which Yelm developed were located south of the Nisqually River, between two major fords, and an easy fifteen mile journey to Fort Nisqually along an established well-traveled trail.
The Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company first used Yelm Prairie as a sheep outstation. Small houses were disassembled and moved from place to place as the grass became exhausted. Each outstation shepherd watched flocks of about 500 sheep. Some of the earliest inhabitants of Yelm Prairie were Kanakas, natives of the Hawaiian Islands employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Another early inhabitant of Yelm Prairie was Edward Shearer, who was a shepherd at Yelm Outstation by October 1848. Between 1848 and 1857 periodic entries in the records for Fort Nisqually notes the use of Yelm Prairie by the Company. One of the last entries mentions the settlement of the estate of John Edgar who managed the Yelm Sheep station for the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company in the 1850s, while also farming an American Donation Land Claim north of Yelm at Crystal Springs. He was mortally wounded during the 1855-56 Indian War. After his death, and settling of his estate, there is only one more reference to Yelm Prairie in the Hudson’s Bay Company records. Yelm, as an outstation for sheep seems to have lived and died with John Edgar.
Before 1850, John Edgar was the only settler at Yelm. Edward Huggins has given us a description of the Edgar’s house where he lived with his Nisqually wife Betsy, and their children. The house was surrounded by a lot of zigzag or worm fencing and was a roomy, 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 homemade and the carpets coarse Indian mats made of rushes. If not handsome, they were warm and comfortable. (Huggins, 1984)
Other Yelm Prairie settlers were also former Hudson’s Bay Company employees. George Edwards acquired most of what would become western Yelm. Lewis Barnard became a Thurston County Democratic Party Convention appointed delegate from Yelm Prairie Precinct. (Pioneer and Democrat, July 4, 1856, 3:2) Early American settlers included Levi Shelton, John Hughes, and George Brail. Brail, who lived in the territory prior to 1848, did not remain for long, leaving for Mexico shortly after moving to Yelm Prairie.
The nearest Donation Land Claim was that of James and Bridget McGee Hughes who arrived in the territory on September 1, 1851 and settled near Yelm in the fall of 1852. Hughes was an Irishman who came to the United States in 1840 at the age of 13. James and Bridget had at least one daughter, Mary Ann Hughes. The family fled their claim in 1855 for safety during the Indian Wars, and later settled in Steilacoom. The main north-south Native American trail in the area was used by Euro-American fur traders as early as 1818. Leading north from the Cowlitz River, this route was also used by the Hudson’s Bay Company when traveling between Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually, located north of Yelm Prairie.
From: A Guide to the Historic Resources of Yelm, Washington.