George Waunch files a claim near future Centralia on land that will become known as Waunch Prairie on October 26, 1853.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 5/08/2008
  • Essay 8505

On October 26, 1853 George Waunch (1812-1882) files a claim on what will be known as Waunch Prairie, just north of present-day Centralia. He has lived on the prairie intermittently for eight years, but only files now because the Donation Land Act of 1850 requires continuous residence and cultivation for four years. The Donation Land Act provides the first legal framework for claiming land in Oregon Territory, which includes land that will become Washington Territory.      

Going West

Waunch, a native of Wurtenburg, Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1837. He settled first in Missouri but soon moved west. At the end of the Oregon Trail, a party led by Colonel Michael Simmons (1814-1867), the founder of New Market (later Tumwater), overwintered in 1844 at Washougal on the Columbia River. The next spring Colonel Simmons led a group of men from the party north via the Cowlitz Trail, an Indian trail that followed rivers through the Cowlitz Corridor, to find land on Puget Sound.           

Instead of settling at Puget Sound, Waunch returned to a prairie on the north bank of the Skookumchuck River just northeast of its confluence with the Chehalis River. In the company of the Upper Chehalis Indians who also used the prairie, George built a shack and set up his blacksmithing tools. He then made his own plow and tilled the soil for his first crop of wheat.           

Settling Down

Waunch welcomed the next American settlers to the area, Joseph Borst and Sidney and Nancy Ford. He soon married the Ford's oldest daughter, Harriet. One biographer of Waunch speculates that although Harriet had intended to marry Joseph Borst, "it is suggested she might, however, have been more attracted by the prospect of the newly-built log cabin and the plowed ground sown with grain" (Berberich, 62) of George Waunch's claim and married Waunch instead. They had a son and then George left for the California gold fields in 1849. Harriet returned to her parents' home and divorced him.

In October 1853, Waunch filed a legal claim to 320 acres on the prairie north of the Skookumchuck River. The United States had not yet signed a treaty with the Upper Chehalis who owned the lands, so the territory was not technically open to settlement. This did not prevent settlers from filing claims. Nearly 15 years would pass before the federal government created a reservation for the Chehalis.

Gunsmith to the Indians

Waunch farmed the land and worked at other jobs. He repaired so many firearms for Indians that he gained the nickname "gunsmith to the Indians." In 1852 and 1853 he worked at Fort Vancouver as the blacksmith for Lieutenant U.S. Grant's company. Once back at Waunch Prairie, he occasionally tended livestock at the Hudson's Bay Company farm on Cowlitz Prairie and drove pack trains between there and Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. These other jobs may be why it took him until September 1867 to prove up the claim.            

In 1855 Waunch married Mary Hagar (1840-1916), also a German immigrant, whom he had met in Portland. They had 11 children and lived together on the farm, well-known for their hospitality, until George died in July 1882.

Sources: Lucile Berberich, "The George L. Waunch Family," in Centralia: The First Fifty Years, 1845-1900 compiled by Herndon Smith (Centralia: The Daily Chronicle and F. H. Cole Printing Co., 1942), 62-75; Citizens of Centralia, Centralia's First Century, 1845-1955, Bicentennial Edition (Tumwater: H. J. Quality Printing, n.d.), 8-14; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Donation Land Law, also known as the Oregon Land Law," (by Junius Rochester), (accessed January 24, 2008); "Donation Certificate, No. 400, George L. Wunch," File 400, Roll 98, Washington, Files 394-459, Oregon and Washington Donation Land Files: 1851-1903, National Archives and Records Administration, Seattle, Washington.

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