This street is named after Henry Leiter Yesler (1810–1892). Originally from Leitersburg, Maryland, which was founded by his great-grandfather, and living in Massillon, Ohio, before coming west, he moved to Seattle from Portland, Oregon, in 1852. As John Caldbick writes for HistoryLink.org:
…[Yesler] quickly established himself as the most important resident of the rain-swept little spot that would soon become Seattle. He had the first steam-powered sawmill on Puget Sound up and running within months, and for several years he employed almost every male settler in Seattle and a considerable number of Native Americans. His mill was early Seattle’s only industry, and without it the town’s development would have been greatly delayed.
Carson Dobbins Boren and David Swinson “Doc” Maynard had already claimed land on Elliott Bay either side of what is today Pioneer Square, but they gave him part of their claims so he could access the water from the claim he made farther up First Hill. Yesler’s mill was built at the foot of what is now Yesler Way but was originally Mill Street, also known as Skid Road — and yes, Seattle may be where the term originated, referring to a neighborhood largely inhabited by the “down and out.”
Yesler was also King County auditor in 1852, and Seattle mayor from 1874 to 1875 and 1885 to 1886.
Yesler had two children: a son, Henry George Yesler (1845–1859), by his wife, Sarah Burgert Yesler (1822–1887); and a daughter, Julia Benson Intermela (1855–1907). Her mother wasn’t Sarah, who didn’t come to Seattle until 1858, but rather a Duwamish woman named Susan, daughter of Salmon Bay Curley (Su-quardle), who had worked at Yesler’s mill. When Sarah finally joined her husband, he sent Susan and Julia to live with Jeremiah S. Benson, a cook at the mill. In the 1870 territorial census, Julia is listed as living with the Bensons, but the next year she is listed as a HB (“half-breed”) house servant for the Yeslers. Unlike Rebecca Lena Graham, who successfully sued the relatives of Franklin Matthias to be recognized as his rightful heir, Julia inherited nothing when her father died in 1892. Even so,
…The settlement of Henry Yesler’s estate was an imbroglio of epic proportions. It pitted Minnie Gagle Yesler [a younger cousin whom he married a few years before his death] and her mother against James Lowman [his nephew] and municipal authorities, who believed that Yesler had made a will that left most of his fortune, by then worth more than $1,000,000, to the city, hoping thereby to cement his reputation as the “Father of Seattle.”
Yesler is also quoted as anticipating “Strange Fruit” by 55 years… though it’s by no means a sentiment Abel Meeropol or Billie Holiday would have shared. In January 1882, a mob lynched James Sullivan, William Howard, and Benjamin Paynes between two of his maple trees. Harper’s Weekly reported Yesler’s reaction: “That was the first fruit them trees ever bore, but it was the finest.”
Yesler Way begins on the Elliott Bay waterfront at Alaskan Way and goes 2⅙ miles east to Leschi Park, just past 32nd Avenue. It also appears just west of Lake Washington Boulevard, where it goes about 200 feet west and essentially serves as a driveway for a couple of houses.
Yesler Way, which becomes E Yesler Way east of Broadway, also divides three of the city’s directional designation zones from each other. South of Yesler, east–west streets carry the S prefix and north–south avenues carry the suffix S. North of Yesler, north–south avenues carry no suffix; east–west streets carry the E prefix east of Broadway and no prefix west of Broadway.
Born and raised in Seattle, Benjamin Donguk Lukoff had his interest in local history kindled at the age of six, when his father bought him settler granddaughter Sophie Frye Bass’s Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the gift shop of the Museum of History and Industry. He studied English, Russian, and linguistics at the University of Washington, and went on to earn his master’s in English linguistics from University College London. His book of rephotography, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. An updated version came out in 2015.