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Yesler, Henry L. (1810-1892) Essay 286 : Printer-Friendly Format

Henry L. Yesler secured Seattle's future success by establishing Puget Sound's first steam-powered sawmill in the young village in 1852. He maintained good relations with local Native Americans, and sired at least one child by a Indian woman before his wife Sarah arrived from Ohio in 1858. Yesler served as King County's first auditor in 1853 and was elected mayor of Seattle in 1874 and 1885. He also founded Seattle's first water system, established its first community hall and theater, and ultimately made his fortune in real estate. He and his wife built an opulent mansion at present-day 1st Avenue and James Street in 1883 and were leaders in numerous civic and social causes, including public libraries and woman suffrage. Henry Yesler died in 1892, five years after the passing of his wife.

Yesler's Mill

Born in Washington County, Maryland, Yesler learned the trades of carpenter and millwright as a boy before running a sawmill in Massillon, Ohio. He sailed into Puget Sound harbors as a sea captain, noting the region's ample supply of timber.

In the fall of 1852, after working in a Portland, Oregon, sawmill, Yesler moved north to Puget Sound with his partner John Stroble, with the intent of establishing the region's first steam-powered sawmill. They were courted by communities from Olympia to Bellingham. Seattle founders Arthur Denny (1822-1899), Carson Boren (1824?-1912), and David S. "Doc" Maynard (1822-1899), made him an offer he could not refuse, and Yesler chose Seattle in October 1852.

There are conflicting accounts of Yesler's decison to locate in Seattle. Clarence Bagley reports that in 1852, while searching for a Puget Sound site for the region's first steam sawmill, 42-year-old Yesler looked with favor at Charles Terry's Alki settlement in West Seattle, and then paddled across Elliott Bay to the town site of Seattle proper on October 20, 1852. The best Seattle site for a mill was owned by Doc Maynard and Carson Boren. After talking to Maynard and Boren, and realizing that their cleared waterfront land was not available, he started back to Alki.

Maynard and Boren thought things over, giving special consideration to the opportunity for immediate employment and revenue that Yesler's proposed mill offered. Hailing Yesler's craft, the Marylander, the two Seattleites gave Yesler the "Sag," or low point north of Maynard's claim. Maynard and Boren then shifted their corner stakes, which allowed Yesler a strip running uphill from the shoreline -- a total of 320 acres.

Bill Speidel offers a very different construction of these events in his biography of Doc Maynard. He reports that Maynard was well aware of Yesler's mission, having been offered the same mill machinery that Yesler ultimately purchased in San Francisco. According to Speidel, Maynard and Boren were prepared in advance of Yesler's arrival to donate portions of their claims to accommodate his mill (Speidel, p. 76-77).

After accepting the donation, Yesler returned to San Francisco to purchase the necessary machinery. He commissioned construction in his absence of a log cookhouse for future mill workers. An adjoining shed was also erected as a bunkhouse. The 25-square-foot cookhouse became Seattle's first social center, and the mill and its large wharf jump-started Seattle's economy.

Before the mill was complete, Yesler quarreled with his partner, who then departed. Unfortunately, John Stroble was the real mill expert of the two, and Yesler struggled for five months to build a functioning facility. The operation was never particularly efficient, but it worked well enough to secure Seattle an early economic advantage on the Sound (Speidel, p. 151).

Skid Road: Fact or Myth?

Maynard and Boren's donation to Yesler included a narrow strip of land between the waterfront and upland forests. Conventional histories have long maintained that logs were sent sliding down this steep "Mill Street" (now Yesler Way), earning it the nickname "Skid Road." Based on more recent research by HistoryLink staff historian Greg Lange, this seems unlikely. Yesler's mill was actually oriented to take in raw logs from Elliott Bay, not from the land, and Mill Street itself was steeply canted north to south and interrupted by a deep ravine near present day 4th Avenue making east-west transport of logs very difficult.

In the mid-1800s, the term Skid Road was commonly applied to logging camps throughout the region. The area around Yesler's Mill may have acquired this nickname by such association. The phrase was not popularlized until the early twentieth century, when crusading local prohibitionist Rev. Mark Matthews (1867-1940) invoked Skid Road to condemn the saloons and brothels clustered in an all-but-official vice district south of Yesler Way -- long after both Henry Yesler and his mill had passed into history. In later usage, Skid Road morphed into "Skid Row" to denote any derelict urban neighborhood -- and Pioneer Square definitely qualified between the Great Depression and its restoration in the 1970s.

More than Just a Friend

Yesler was known as a trusted friend of the local Indians, whom he employed in his mill. He also sired a daughter, Julia Benson Intermela, by a Native American mistress in 1855 -- three years before his wife arrived in Seattle from Ohio. His marriage to Sarah Burgert Yesler (1822-1887) survived such indiscretions and the death of their 12-year-old son in Ohio.

Tensions between Native Americans and settlers intensified soon after Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), the new Territorial governor, arrived in 1854 to negotiate reservation treaties and move most tribes off their ancestral lands. Because Yesler enjoyed the confidence of many local Indian leaders, Stevens asked the sawmill operator for help. Yesler traveled to the camps of several Indian groups to propose peace terms, which most accepted. He also received early warning of native plans to attack Seattle in January 1856.

Civic Improvements

Two years after Seattle's founding, Henry Yesler built the town's first "water system." His V-shaped log flumes carried water from springs on 3rd Avenue, site of today's King County Courthouse lawn, to his sawmill. Within a year or two he extended the flumes to the end of his and neighboring docks as a fresh water source for ships.

By the 1860s, the rustic Yesler cookhouse had seen better days. Yesler approached the 1865 Fourth of July committee of the Masonic Lodge and asked if they would subsidize the construction of a new hall on his property. He couched his request in patriotic terms, suggesting that such a building could be used for orations and the Independence Day ball. The Masons gave Yesler $200, which, combined with his own $150 worth of planed lumber, resulted in the erection of a 30-by-100-foot hall at present-day 1st Avenue and Cherry St.

Besides featuring Americana, Yesler's Hall proved just right for traveling road shows, including minstrels, ventriloquists, baritones and for Seattle's first professional play, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Yesler was proud to report that the hall brought him $60 a month in rentals.

Yesler served as King County's first auditor beginning in 1853 and was later elected to a one-year term as mayor of Seattle in 1874. In 1876 he offered his sawmill as first prize in a public lottery, and then reneged after the drawing. Despite the fraud, Yesler's real estate holdings had made him a wealthy man and he was elected again as Seattle mayor in 1885.

Life in Yesler's Mansion

In 1883, after selling his waterfront sawmill and starting another mill on Union Bay, Henry and Sarah Yesler built the most grandiose home in Washington Territory on the present-day site of the King County Courthouse. The Yeslers entertained and bedded visiting dignitaries in their home before an appropriate hostelry was established. Sarah also donated space in the mansion for Seattle's first public library. When not home, the couple vacationed at a "luxury" hotel on a Snoqualmie Valley hop ranch.

Despite their standing in high society, the Yeslers were unorthodox in many respects. They were active believers in astrology and spiritualism, the "New Age" religion of its time, and defended the city's Chinese immigrants when the Chinese were forcibly expelled during labor riots in February 1886. Sarah Yesler was a leader in numerous charitable and civic projects, including the first public library. She was also a vocal champion of woman suffrage and "free love," and is known to have had at least one female lover.

Sarah Yesler died on August 28, 1887. She was followed by her husband on December 16, 1892 -- 40 years after he had first set foot on Seattle's muddy shore. They were both outlived by their opulent home, which had also survived the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. It was not so lucky on the morning of January 1, 1901, when a mysterious blaze reduced it to ashes.

At the time, the mansion housed the Seattle Public Library, and its destruction prompted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to underwrite erection of a modern facility in 1904. Thus, among the many place names and structures which honor the Yesler name today, one might also include the city's library system.

Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Bill Speidel, Doc Maynard, The Man Who Invented Seattle (Seattle: Nettle Creek Publishing, 1978). Also see: Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Company, Publishers, 1950); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City: Seattle (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1951).
Note: This biography was revised by Walt Crowley on October 17, 2002; the date of the fire that burned the Yesler home was corrected on December 5, 2011.

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A young Henry Yesler (1810-1892)

Sarah Yesler, 1868
Courtesy UW Special Collections

Henry Yesler's first sawmill, Seattle
Courtesy Bagley, History of King County

Native American mill workers at Yesler sawmill cookhouse, 1866
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. UW5870)

Henry Yesler (1810-1892), ca. 1885
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

Henry Yesler's sawmill, on a wharf at the foot of Skid Road (Yesler Way), 1870
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

The Seattle Public Library, formerly Yesler mansion (William Boone, 1884), Seattle, ca. 1899
Photo by Anders Beere Wilse, Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. 1988.33.1)

Henry and Sarah Yesler's gravesite at Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill, October 2000
Photo by Priscilla Long

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