The first group of American settlers arrived in 1853 after crossing the Cascade Mountains was by way of the Naches Pass Trail.
Among those arriving was James Longmire, his wife Virinda and their four children. The couple were natives of Shawnee Prairie, Fountain County, Indiana. The Longmires settled their claim about 6 miles southeast of Yelm in 1854. Although located a considerable distance from Yelm, James played such a pivotal role in the early community that he was viewed by many as the town’s first citizen.
The arrival of more settlers and the attempt to extinguish aboriginal land claims led to the Indian War of 1855 and 1856. In the general way this episode, had little impact on Yelm Prairie. No houses were burned and there little destruction. Yelm Prairie Pioneers suffered a limited number of casualties. This was partially due to the cautiousness of the settlers. As the November 16, 1855 Pioneer and Democrat noted, the area was deserted with all the settlers relocated in a fort nearby on Chambers Prairie. In addition, Native American reprisals were selective, and many of the former Hudson’s Bay Company employees in the area were married to Nisqually women.
In early 1856 Fort Stevens was founded on Yelm Creek east of town and some settlers returned to their claims. “In a few days a substantial block-house will be erected on the Yelm Prairie,” reported the Pioneer and Democrat on February 15, 1856. Construction on the Fort began on February 19th and was finished by March 22, 1856. (The Volunteers — Capt. G. Hayes Co. ‘B’ and the ‘Pioneer’ company under Capt. White, moved on Tuesday morning last from Yelm Prairie…leaving behind a depot and suitable military protection.” (Pioneer and Democrat, February 22, 1856) Fort Stevens was occupied by a half company of the 2nd regiment of Washington Territorial Volunteers but never by regular United States Army soldiers.
With exception of John Edgar, the only fatalities south of the Nisqually River occured after Fort Stevens was constructed. Corporal William Northcraft, a member of the regular army stationed at Steliacoom, was killed by hostilities on his way “to the post on the Yelm Prairie” on February 24, 1956 (Pioneer and Democrat, March 7, 1856) William White, a settler on the Yelm Prairie, was attacked on March 2, 1856 when he and his family were returning from a candled church service. White was killed and his family barely escaped. Another attack occured on March 28th. By August 5, 1856, following the Fox Island Council, hostilities ceased and Yelm Prairie settlers returned to their homes.
Fort Stevens played a secondary role in the history of Yelm. On November 18, 1857 it became the local post office with Lewis D. Barnard the first postmaster. There it remained until March 4, 1858 when it was moved to the Levi Shelton homestead. Even though its location and description is unknown, Fort Stevens symbolizes the real beginning of a community of the Yelm Prairie.
During the early territorial period the small farming community on Yelm Prairie began to prosper. Gold strikes in California, British Columbia, Idaho, and northern Washington created a demand in the mining camps fro the agricultural produce found throughout the Puget Sound region. Former Indian, Hudson Bay Company and immigrant trails were upgraded to year-round roads to provide reliable routes for this commerce. Yelm’s proximity to the Hudson’s Bay post that Fort Nisqually, and the United States Army post at Fort Steilacoom made it an important stop along these early roads and provided additional trade outlets for Yelm farmers.
By the early 1970s, the future townsite for Yelm was owned by George Edwards and John McKenzie. Edwards, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee, acquired most of the western part of the future town through purchase from the United States. John McKenzie owned all of the land in the eastern portion of what would become Yelm.
The defining moment for Yelm came when the Northern Pacific Railroad extended its line from Portland, Oregon to Tacoma in 1873. This route followed the old Hudson’s Bay wagon road through Yelm Prairie. A buisness and residential district quickly grew along Yelm Avenue where this road crossed.