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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 191

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This is the grave of Henry Yesler.

Probably born in 1810 in Hagerstown, Maryland, Yesler was a unsettled young man. He left his home by 1830 and worked in New Orleans for awhile, spent some time in New York, and settled in Massillon, Ohio on and off through the late 1830s and 1840s. While in Massillon he got involved in sawmills and saw an opportunity on the West Coast. Even though he was married and had young children, in 1852, he moved again, first to the Gold Rush settlements of California and then to the tiny settlement of Seattle, in what would later become Washington. He became involved in the timber industry and became among the first timber magnates in what would become the nation’s leading timber producer by the late 19th century. This was a small trade compared to what it would become, but the mills of Yesler and others served the booming economy of California and increasingly a Pacific Basin trade that included sending timber to Hawaii, Australia, and China. He became rich and by most accounts, he was pretty much an asshole about it. He was sued many times and nearly brought the city of Seattle to bankruptcy through his dealings on a few occasions. Even to start his first Seattle mill, he got a $30,000 loan from a friend of Ohio and would only pay $12,000 of it back, even though he was doing really well. Finally, after a lawsuit, he paid the rest back. He needed the money as he basically had to ship the whole lawsuit from the east, but of course that didn’t matter to him when money was involved. In all of this, he wasn’t much different than many capitalists of what was becoming the Gilded Age, looking for personal gain while couching his actions in the language of morality.

In 1856, just after the genocidal Indian wars of Washington that exterminated many of the tribes, Yesler was named the Indian Agent for the area and he convinced most of the indigenous people living around Seattle to move to Bainbridge Island, effectively making Seattle a nearly all-white settlement, even as its residents couldn’t keep it that way with the arrival of Hawaiians and Chinese. His wife finally demanded she come join him in 1858. One slight problem: Yesler had sort of been fucking a Native American woman and had a child by her. Such things were common on the settler colonialist frontier. He basically gave his mistress and daughter to another white settler and we of course have no idea what she thought about all of it. He later hired his own daughter as the housekeeper for he and his wife. Incidentally though, Yesler and his wife were both believers in free love and she evidently knew about the whole thing. She seems to have had relations with other women, although to call those modern-day lesbian relationships might be more projecting the present upon the past. In any case, we can’t really know, but we do know she had intense relationships of some kind with other women. And he was OK with that too. A couple of other free love spiritualists met in their house. They had sex, had a baby, and the little guy became Jack London. Although he made a fortune and then briefly lost it, he had so much property that as Seattle grew, he became rich again on the rents he charged. His wife died in 1887. He then married a distant relative who a mere 60 years younger than he. Seriously, he was approximately 80 and she was 20. She didn’t really get that much of the estate, even though he had no surviving children, but the city fathers claimed a lot of it. Well, I don’t know about the half-native daughter, but c’mon, it’s not like she was going to get the estate. However, his second wife did notably live to be 105 and died in 1973 in Los Angeles. Yesler died in 1892. Yes, she outlived her husband by 81 years.

Henry Yesler is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Seattle, Washington.

Sorry for the even worse than usual photo, my phone is getting very very old and I don’t want to pay for a new one.

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