The Etymology of ‘Yelm’ and Mount ‘Rainier’

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Yelm is a simple sounding word that first appeared in written form in, “The Nisqually Journal,”  (maintained at Fort Nisqually) in May 17, 1849.  

The entry reads, “Rode to Yelm Ferry accompanied by Wm. Macneill and dispatched an Indian from there with the letters from Vancouver.” (My best guess is that Yelm Ferry refers to the ford just north of the Yelm Prairie.) They must have heard the word from someone who lived in the area. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company used the name at the same place to designate a farm site and herdsman’s station.

A different spelling of the word appeared in the 1850s. In survey maps from that decade the area is labeled Yellem Prairie.

Over the years this area was referenced as Yellem, Fort Stevens (named after the blockhouse built during the fighting in the 1850s), Yelm Prairie, and after the railroad came through — Yelm Station, and eventually simply Yelm. The origins of the word were a matter of speculation for decades.

The following are different accounts of the where the word came from. You will note similarities between the differing explanations. You will also wonder if any of these etymologies was enhanced by an intrepid reporter needing to make a deadline.

Yelm Named After

Indian Chief (1910)

“How the name of the settlement came to be selected is a matter that will probably interest a large number of the people who travel on the railroad to points beyond this place. “The brakeman’s yell of ‘Yelm’ generally nettles the person who has not heard the name before, and repeated yells of the station’s title do not enlighten the puzzled listener, who doesn’t succeed in clearing the mystery until he reads the name painted in big white letters on the little red depot.

“It has happened here just like it has in many more of the towns of Washington at the settling time — the Indian titles were drawn upon to fittingly designate the community. The old chief who held forth in this vicinity was called Yelm Jim. It was decided by the settlers to take for a title the first end of this name so the place became Yelm.”

Wa he lut or Wahoolit, Yelm Jim, was a protégé of Leschi, atoning for the latter’s capture and execution by killing Sluggia. Wa he lut was convicted of murdering William White a little west of Yelm during the “Puget Sound War” in the area in the 1850s. He was granted a full pardon by the governor in 1860. Contrary to this reporter’s 1910 account, the word Yelm was used prior to its application to Wa he lut. More on him at a later time.

 

Yelm is Center of Progressive Irrigated Agricultural District (The Olympian, Jan. 9, 1949)  

“The source of Yelm’s name is a matter of conjecture. It is said that roving tribes of brown-skinned people drifted across the Bering Sea and into Western Washington. One of these early tribes was called Yelm-Pusha.

“Other historians believe that the early Nisqually tribes gave prairie the name Shelm, which indicated shimmering heat waves observed above the land in the summer. It isn’t definitely known whether the tribe took its name from the prairie or if the area was named after the tribe, but the name is of Indian origin.”

This is gleaned from “The Story of Yelm – A Little Town With a Big History, 1848-1948,” by Floss and Richard Loutzenhiser.

 

Early Yelm by

Edgar Prescott (1979)

“The name of the town I learned was a modification of the one given by the Indians to the prairie.  To them the term Shelm applied to the shimmering heat waves which arose from the earth when the summer sun shone hot. They reverence (sic) these waves, believing them to be radiated by the Great Spirit to render the earth fruitful.”

 

Yelm Pioneers and Followers, 1850-1950, by Dean Hooper and Roberta Longmire (1999)

“It is generally accepted the name Yelm sprang from mispronunciation of an Indian word. The local Nisqually Indians used the same word as that of the Salish nation. … They spoke a word which to non-Indians sounded as ShYelm or SSSYelm, describing as spirits, the heat waves which rose from the Prairie. The first syllable was discarded by the settlers.”

 

The final word on Yelm –

In 1999, by Lanny Weaver

from the Washington

State Archives

Weaver interviewed Earl “Babe” Herness about life his life in the Yelm/McKenna area. During the interview Weaver was struck by Babe’s use of the Yel-um. Finally she asked, “Why do you call it Yel-um and not Yelm?”  

Half in jest Babe replied, “I don’t know. Because we were illiterate I guess.”

Nellie, his wife, encouraged more discussion.

“No, tell them why,” she said.  

Babe revealed, “That’s the old way. Anytime you hear anybody say Yel-um you know they were born and raised here.”

 

The Mountain

Those who have lived in this area have most likely heard, or exclaimed themselves, “The mountain is out today.”  

When not shrouded by gray skies or darkness, Mount Rainier dominates the eastern horizon and easily captures one’s attention.

J.C. recalled his first encounter with the mountain the 1870s.  

“So one fine day in February, my friend Henry Fouts, who came with me from Iowa, and I borrowed a couple of horses from Mr. Himes and drove to Yelm. On coming out of the timber to the prairie, we beheld a sight that was enchanting to those who have never seen a snow mountain before. The morning clouds of fog had cleared away and its snowy cap showed up in great splendor. I’ll never forget my first view of that great mountain.”

 

What’s in a Name?

Is it Mount Tacoma, Tahoma, Tacobet or Rainier?

That was one of the debates that raged in Western Washington for decades following the era of settlement.

When P. B. Van Trump wrote about this name game in 1893, he relied on information from a neighbor of his to undermine the use of Rainier for the mountain’s name. Although he did not use her name, that neighbor was most likely Mary Edwards.  

Van Trump wrote that this woman had lived on the prairie for 40 years, placing her in Yelm in the 1850s. Van Trump had personally known her for a decade for she was a customer at his store.   More importantly, his wife, Cynthia Shelton Van Trump, had known her for more than three decades.   Cynthia, the daughter of Levi Shelton, grew up on the Yelm Prairie and the Shelton Donation claim that was next to that of Edwards.  

Van Trump added that Cynthia was a “great favorite” of Mary. In addition, Van Trump stated that this nameless Indian woman was a niece of Owhi, a fact we do know about Mary.

Mary provided two facts for Van Trump’s defense of the use of the name Tacobet. Van Trump noted that Mary had never used a formal name for the mountain when she spoke with Van Trump or his wife. When communicating in Chinook jargon the word she used was “la mountain.”  Finally, in response to a direct question “as to what the Indians call the mountain in their own language,” Mary instantly replied, “Tacobet.”

She said it was always the Indian name of the mountain. She had lived so long among the Nesquallies that she had forgotten, if she ever knew, the Klickitat term ‘Tahoma.’”

This matter, however, becomes more complicated. The use of Tahoma can be traced to pioneer Theodore Winthrop’s account of travel in Western Washington, “Canoe and Saddle.”

Mary, a “niece of Owhi,” was a cousin of Loolowcan, the Klickitat and son of Owhi, who acted as Theodore Winthrop’s guide in 1853, and from whom Winthrop received the Klickitat word “Tahoma.” This word is pronounced with the “h” hard rather as if it were “ch,” and with that pronunciation ringing in his ears from the “ragged but royal son of Owhi,” Winthrop wrote for the first time “Tacoma.”

Suffice it to say, “the mountain is out.”

 

Editor’s Note: Ed Bergh is the longtime history teacher at Yelm High School and creator of the Yelm History Project found at www.yelmhistoryproject.com.

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