Biography of Hon. Henry L. Yesler

HON. HENRY L. YESLER. – There are two very distinct types of men – those that think, and those that act. One of the former class finds his satisfaction in reaching a conclusion. One of the latter class finds his satisfaction in performing a deed. The man of thought must of necessity act more or less; but his acts are characterized by hesitation, doubt, or perhaps carelessness. He may be borne along by the activity of others, his choice of this or that being overruled by the general stream of the world’s or the community’s business. His performances may turn out well, or ill, not so much from anything which he does or leaves undone, as from the drift of the circumstances of others’ creation. He may think like a Socrates, or like a Diogenes, and like them go barefoot, or live in a tub. Such men are of the greatest use to the world, and in the course of their lives may make plain and simple a world of discordant facts by discovering the true theory of their relation; but their tremendous mental fervor seldom goes outside of their own brains.

On the contrary, the man of action, while he thinks, plans and examines, does all his thinking merely to carry it into some visible effect, to form an empire, to make a state, to build a railroad or mill, to open a farm, or to make a home. The thinker is conscious chiefly of the process of his thoughts, and cannot well hold his mind upon anything else. The actor is chiefly conscious of what he is doing, and usually has no sensation or remembrance of the course of thought which led him to his deed. His actions seem to be intuitive; and there is no appreciable period between impression and performance. His hands and feet move with the operations of his mind; and at every important turn his acts are impulsive. When a man has this type of temperament or character joined to a strong and accurate brain, he can do almost anything. The greatness of his exploits are limited only by the field or age in which he is born; and even in any place or time he will find room for greatness.

We need not look to the bright – or dusty- names of the world’s history – to Alexander or Hannibal or Caesar, to Fulton or Arkwright or Grant or Sheridan – for examples of the men of action. It is a mistake to suppose that we must go a thousand miles away from home, or a few centuries back in the world’s history, for the first and best qualities. We find them on the Pacific coast as well as on the Atlantic or in Europe. We have them here, perhaps in the rough quartz, not yet refined by the process of history, in which the trivial, the “common and unclean” is separated and lost out of sight from the perfect and enduring.

We are led to these reflections from observing how many of the pioneers of the Pacific slope have been almost typically men of action. Brought face to face with dangers and difficulties by sea or land, having before them the solution of Indian troubles, and of the problem of existence when the means of subsistence were the most scanty, their faculties for prompt and courageous action seemed to have been sharpened; and a thousand hard experiences have crystallized into a second nature distinguished by penetration and facility. This type of mind, so largely developed by the conditions of pioneer days, shows itself in the business men of the coast. We sometimes hear that our business is sluggish, that our methods are superannuated, and that our leaders are slow. But the cold statistics show that per capita the people of the Pacific Northwest produce more than any other people in the world. The volume of business done here per year is enormous. it is true that our great resources have been scarcely touched as yet. Gold, silver, lead, iron, copper and coal lie undug and almost unknown. The plow has scarcely scratched our fields. The orchards of the future are not yet planted. We have water-power sufficient for the world, five falls of the Columbia being sufficient to supply force, to be conveyed away by electric cables, for all the manufactories of the Union; and all yet remain in their primal wilderness.

It is yet to be fully recognized that Washington and Oregon have facilities enjoyed by no other part of the world for great world-wide enterprises. When we mine mill and manufacture for the world, we shall reap the full benefit conferred upon us by the bounty of nature. In a few lines has this been done, and with the most satisfactory results. Our wheat, our fish and our lumber o to all parts of America and the old world.

We may appropriately name this ere; for Mr. Yesler, of Seattle, of whom we are writing, is the pioneer in the manufacture of Puget Sound lumber for the world’s market. He is one of our Western men of action, whose nerves are not far from his brain; and he, of all men, was the first to put into practical and remunerative effect, if indeed, he did not first conceive, the plan of opening the great forest of the Sound to the markets of all ports. California, Mexico, Central America, the Pacific coast of South America, the South Sea Islands, Japan, China, the Straits Settlements and Australia are now regular consumers of Puget Sound lumber; and timber grown on our shores floats on every sea in the world. This gigantic business once existed only as an idea in Mr. Yesler’s brain. Beginning with his efforts, it now exists as a notable part of the world’s commerce. It is yet, however, but upon the threshold of its future magnitude. There are two hundred billion feet of timber left standing, despite the ravages of the axe and fire. It will last a century at four times the present rate of consumption; and by that time the second growth, now from ten to fifty years old, will be ready for the saw. This presupposes some care of our forests, however.

Washington Territory is indebted to Washington in Maryland for her pioneer in the timber business; for Mr. Yesler was born there in 1810. He resided in that city until he was of age, when he removed to Ohio, remaining nineteen years. In 1851 he came to Oregon with his family, and worked in Portland at his trade of a carpenter and millwright. Desiring some employment more in the nature of a business of his own, he went to California soon afterwards, operating a mine at Magnolia. Still feeling himself capable of greater things, and having a penchant for the seacoast, he sought a place for some great lumbering business, with an opening on tide water, with a world of timber to draw upon, and with the world for his market. This he found on Puget Sound, at Seattle, where he put up a steam sawmill of a capacity of fifteen thousand feet per day, – a “little mill,” but the forerunner of all the mills on the Sound. From the establishment of this enterprise we may date the prosperity of Seattle itself. In those early days, 1854, the only available labor was Indians, whom the proprietor employed in large numbers, treating them so honestly and kindly that in the difficulties of the succeeding year he was able to be of the highest service to the territory.

Governor Stevens, looking for a man to visit the hostile savages and propose terms for agreement, could find no one more fully possessing their confidence than Mr. Yesler, who therefore made the hazardous trip and carried the reply of the chiefs to the governor, and, upon his request, went the second time alone with two friendly Indians to the hostile camp, and brought back with him one hundred of the Indians lately on the warpath, delivering them at the executive mansion. This transaction involved a personal prowess and sagacity, marking Mr. Yesler as a man of very high practical ability. Upon another occasion he saved the settlement from massacre by timely word sent to the naval authorities.

When the territory was organized, he was made auditor, and held the office several terms. He has been commissioner of King county a number of times, and twice mayor of Seattle. These honors have all been in recognition of his ability and dignified discharge of public duties. During his last term as mayor, in 1885, occurred the Chinese riots. Although not a friend of foreign labor, he did not flinch from the suppression of mob violence.

While thus occupied with public duties, and also conducting a large real-estate business, Mr. Yesler still continues the operation of his mill, which now has a capacity of eighty-five thousand feet per day. His frame is but little bent by his seventy-nine years of activity. His geniality and hospitality only expand with the widening of his field of life. It is his chief enjoyment to receive his friends and old acquaintances in his opulent home, and recall with them the scenes of past times, and, like enough, to prognosticate the events of the new times that are coming.

No less mindful is he to entertain strangers, the newcomers, who, human-like, may begin their Western life with something of home-sickness or diffidence. It is also in his home, and homes like his, that distinguished visitors from abroad gain those favorable impressions of our coast and her people, which, carried back with them to the older centers of business and society, do us the most substantial good. Although thus occupying so prominent a public and social position, he has never forgotten to be a good neighbor to those in narrow circumstances, and has always lent a helping hand to those requiring aid.

Mr. Yesler has been the creator of a great business, is universally known, and will ever be remembered as one of the noted founders of the Pacific Northwest.



MLA Source Citation:

History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/washington/biography-of-hon-henry-l-yesler.htm - Last updated on May 18th, 2011


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