What’s in a name? How city became Yelm

Mispronunciation of native word leads to area being named


Editor’s note: This year, Yelm will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city’s official incorporation, which took place on Dec. 8, 1924. Every month this year, the Nisqually Valley News will present an aspect of the city’s history since its incorporation. How Yelm got its name is the focus of the second volume of this series.


Have you ever wondered how the City of Yelm got its name? 

Yelm’s name, according to HistoryLink.org, is believed to come from the Coast Salish indigenous people’s word “shelm,” which means “land of the dancing spirits” and refers to the prairie floor’s shimmering heat waves in the summer. 

Three published books: “The Story of Yelm 1848-1948,” “Early Yelm,” and “Yelm Pioneers and Followers,” share similar stories on how the city was named. The common connection between the publications was that the name Yelm comes from an indigenous word used to describe the old prairie lands. 

“The Story of Yelm,” published by Richard and Floss Loutzenhiser in 1949, claimed that early Nisqually Tribe members said that Shelm was the word used to describe shimmering heat waves, which glistened above the prairie when the summer sun shined hot. 

“A prairie had a great haze, which was correspondingly emphasized by drawing out the syllables, thus: S-s-s-helm,” the Loutzenhisers claimed in “The Story of Yelm.” “The hurry-up white man naturally contracted this to Yelm.” 

Dean Hooper and Roberta B. Longmire, authors of “Yelm Pioneers and Followers” (1999), said the origin of Yelm’s name is clouded, but it’s generally accepted that the name sprang from the mispronunciation of a native word. 

“The local Nisqually Indians used the same word as that of the Salish Nation of Indians [which included the Okanogan Indians, as well as the Nisqually]. They spoke a word to which non-Indians sounded as ShYelm or SSSYelm, describing as spirits, the heat waves which rose from the Prairie,” Yelm Pioneers and Followers claimed. “The first syllable was discarded by the settlers and thus became Yelm.”

Reshaping of indigenous names and words was quite common, Hooper and Longmire wrote. One national example of this is with the word Quinnehtukqut, which means “beside the long tidal river.” People know that word today as Connecticut. Locally, the native name for the Nisqually River originates from Skwale’absh, which is also spelled Quallyamish and Skwalliahmish, according to an Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction document “Origin of Washington Indian Names.”

Edgar Prescott, who published “Early Yelm,” in 1979, also claimed and wrote that Yelm originated from the word, Shelm. He wrote that the name could’ve been based upon a spiritual connotation between the prairie and the heat waves. 

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

In 1853, James Longmire ignored the Hudson’s Bay Company’s warning of settling north of the Nisqually River. After eventually reaching the Yelm prairie, Longmire used nothing but strong, positive words to describe the region. 

“We crossed the river and went to Yelm Prairie, a beautiful spot, I thought, as it lay before us with tall waving grass, a pretty stream flowing through it, bordered with shrubs and tall trees, and the majestic mountain, which the Indians almost worshiped and to which they gave the name Ta-ko-bed, as it seemed standing guard over all in its snowy coat,” Longmire said, according to “The Story of Yelm.”