Henry Yesler's Native American daughter Julia is born on June 12, 1855.

  • By Kathie M. Zetterberg with David Wilma
  • Posted 7/30/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3396
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On June 12, 1855, the Native American daughter of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892) is born. Julia (Benson) Intermela (1855-1907) is the child of Susan, the daughter of Curly (Su-quardle) and Henry Yesler. Curly or Curly Jim was a hereditary chief of the Duwamish tribe. The evidence that the mixed race infant Julia was the offspring of Curly's daughter Susan and Henry Yesler is here laid out by Kathie M. Zetterberg, of Renton, Washington, aided by HistoryLink.org Staff Historian David Wilma. Zetterberg traces her ancestry to Julia (Benson) Intermela (1855-1907).

Kathie Zetterberg states, "Over the years my dad's family has passed on the story of being descended from Henry L. Yesler and the daughter of Chief Curly (Su-quardle), hereditary chief of the Duwamish tribe. Their daughter was Julia, my great grandmother."

Julia "Yesler's" Obituaries

Julia (Benson) Intermela died on February 11, 1907. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times described her as "Henry Yesler's eldest daughter." The P-I ran a photograph captioned "Julia Yesler Intermela." The official record of Julia's death has room for the name and birthplace of her father. The name is left blank, but the father's birthplace is Ohio. (Yesler moved to Seattle from Ohio, though his actual birthplace was Maryland.)

Henry had left his wife Sarah Yesler (1822-1887) in Ohio with their son Henry George Yesler. She came to Seattle in mid-July 1858, having left their son with relatives (he died there the next year). Kathie Zetterberg states, "According to our family tradition, when Sarah came, the Indian wife had to go. Yesler asked a person named Benson to foster Julia for him."

Chief Curly and Yesler's Mill

At the age of 41, Henry L. Yesler arrived in Seattle from Massillon, Ohio, by way of California and Oregon. He had been looking around the West Coast for a site for the steam sawmill he wanted to build. He selected the tiny settlement of Seattle on October 20, 1852. Claim sites were adjusted between Dr. David "Doc" Maynard and Carson Boren to make room for his mill on the water. As his business grew, his sawmill became the heart of the business district. Yesler's cookhouse was the community meeting hall. The mill cut lumber from the great stands of fir nearby and his main market was California.

Yesler hired Indians as well as whites for the operation, and they all worked 12-hour days. This is where Henry first got to know Chief Curly, who worked for him at the mill.

Mixed-Race Context of Pioneer Seattle

There are references in many accounts to Native American women who did much of the laundry, cooking and household chores in residence with white men. In her Indians in the Making, historian Alexandra Harmon writes:

"Many a Boston [i.e., American] bachelor took a native wife. Because they were ignorant or careless of the social and economic obligations that came with sexual privileges in the women's society, or because they were intent on claiming the privileges that patriarchs enjoyed in their own society, some non-Indian men disappointed their native in-laws. But those who observed natives' norms often gained access to resources and a variety of services as well as companionship. In addition, men who married Indians by American law -- an option available until the territorial legislature proscribed it in 1855 -- were entitled to double the size of their Donation Land Act claims."

Indiana native Nicholas Sheffer recalled in 1909 for The Lynden Tribune: “Most of the white men on Puget Sound then, whose wives were not with them, had Indian women for housekeepers, clam diggers, etc.”

Some white settlers viewed the associations of whites and Indians with disapproval tinged with racism. On June 21, 1854, the Rev. David Blaine (1824-1900) complained in a letter to relatives in the East:

"We have in our community many of the most intelligent and better class of persons, many of whom have moved in refined society at home, who have been moral and upright until they came to the Pacific Coast, but now they show no respect for religion nor regard for the Sabbath. They live with savages and live as savages. When they left the states their only aim was to get rich, and to secure the wealth they seek. They violate every moral principle with the utmost recklessness and profess all kinds of infidelity to quiet their consciences and pollute and excuse their wickedness."

On January 1, 1854, Reverend Blaine's wife Catharine Blaine (1829-1908) wrote:

"Quite a number of our neighbors were in the states members of churches, but are now Universalists or infidels in theory and in practice no better. The intercourse the whites have with the Indians is such as to debase both. The Indians at best are but a poor degraded race, far inferior to even the lowest among you." [Note: In the nineteenth century the word "intercourse" was commonly used in non-sexual ways to mean "interactions" or "associations."]

Chief Curly During the Indian War

There are many different versions of what happened during the Battle of Seattle in the Indian War of 1855-1856. Settlers around Puget Sound were attacked by warring tribes not satified with treaty promises not met. Yakamas came from Eastern Washington and the Nisquallys led by Chief Leschi came from the south. The attack on Seattle took place on January 26, 1856 (Julia would have been 7 months old). Most of the local Indians were on their reservations at this time. Chief Seattle was across the sound at Port Madison (Suquamish).

Many people have been credited with saving the white settlers of Seattle. Some said Catherine Maynard, Doc Maynard's wife, hid in a canoe and was transported by Indians from Port Madison to warn the settlers. Princess Angeline, Chief Seattle's daughter, also has been credited with the feat. But in an article in The Puget Sound Gazetteer titled "The Daughter of Old Chief Seattle" (September 1888) Yesler recounted how old Curly was fishing in his canoe when he met an old woman on her way to Old Man House, on Chief Seattle's reservation. She told Curly that the Duwamish Indians under Chief Claycum had gone with Chief Leschi and the Puyallup Indians to fight the people of Seattle to wipe them out of existence. Curly brought this information to Yesler's office and Yesler took the report to Captain Guert Gansevoort aboard the sloop-of-war Decatur.

Nicholas Sheffer confirms the story that Curly warned the settlers in Seattle. Sheffer also provides information on Yesler's baby girl:

"During the war and at about this time the U.S. man-of-war Decatur cast anchor in the bay off Seattle and spread her protecting wings over Seattle. I think she had eight guns, if I remember aright, three on each side and one aft and one in the bow -- all cast iron cannons. They looked awfully good in those days though I suppose they were laughing at us now.

"The Indians were pressing us pretty close and it was considered the part of wisdom to put the women and children aboard the war ship. I was in Seattle that day [January 26, 1856]. Mr. Yesler's woman did not take kindly to the idea of going on the ship to live, but was at last prevailed upon to do it on account of the baby girl of which the father was very fond. Yesler was a good man, never making himself conspicuous, never crowding himself forward, but his opinion or advice when given was generally about right. He was not married to the Indian woman but when his wife came he did not do like many others, drive the girl back to her tribe. He provided for the Indian woman and looked out for her welfare and for that of his daughter by her. He gave the daughter as good an education as circumstances would permit. I had the pleasure of meeting the daughter about two years ago. She is married to a very nice gentleman who is one of the foremost citizens in the city and county where they live. She is a perfect lady and is respected by all who know her. Mrs. Yesler, when she came and found Mr. Yesler the father of the little daughter, took the little one to her home and treated her as her own child" ("A Story of Pioneering,")

Gansevoort sent his marines ashore and guarded the city for four nights. After going back on their ship on the morning of the fifth day, Curly again told Yesler of the invading Indians' movements. The marines used a small howitzer to drive the Indians through the woods. The attack ended at 9 o'clock that night.

Census and Related Documentation

There was no registration of births in the 1850s.

Julia had a half sister Hannah (Benson) Behrens (1866-1917) who was born to Jeremiah S. Benson and to Susan Curlay [sic] (Hannah Behrens death certificate) in 1866.

The first mention of Julia appears in the 1870 Washington Territorial Census. Jeremiah S. Benson, age 34, lumberman and cook, born in Michigan, is listed with Julia age 15 and Hannah age 5 in the household.

The 1870 Census also lists a group of 40 "Flatheads" (Indian Tribe) including Curly (chief) age 60. There also is a Mrs. Curly, age 50.

The 1871 Territorial Census shows H.L. Yesler age 60, male, white, millman, born Maryland and S.B. Yesler age 47, female, white, housewife, born Ohio. Enumerated in the Yesler household is Julia Benson age 15, female, race - HB (half breed), house servant, born in Wash. Terr. In 1872, Jeremiah Benson sold $236 worth of household furnishings and kitchen equipment to Yesler, which shows that the two men knew each other.

Julia's 1907 obituary states that her mother died when she was 17 (1872) and that she went to California with Charles B. Pierce, a business associate of Yesler's. Yesler's papers at the University of Washington document a land transaction with Pierce.

The Yeslers' Beliefs and Lifestyle

The Yeslers were spiritualists who refused to join any church. They hosted spiritualist-astrologer W. E. Cheney's sessions at their house. The spiritualists believed in free love and Henry's wife Sarah Yesler formed a passionate attachment to at least one other woman, while remaining a loyal wife to Henry.

In the 1880s, the Yeslers resisted the anti-Chinese agitation. Sarah Yesler's Chinese cook sought refuge in her house. She refused to turn him over to a mob of men. The Rev. Daniel Bagley allegedly described the Yeslers as "god-forsaken people." Bagley once took issue with Yesler's friendship with a woman. He asked his congregation, "Let us all pray for Henry L. Yesler and the widow McNatt." Yesler found the incident amusing and he mentioned it often (Finger).

The Yeslers seem to have been the kind of people who would take into their home his daughter from another union, and arrange for her care upon the death of her mother.

Sarah Yesler died in 1887. Henry married his 24-year-old cousin Minnie Gagle in 1890. Yesler died on December 16, 1892, and he was mourned throughout the city. He left an estate of over $1 million and no will, a source of extensive litigation between his young widow and his brothers and sisters. Yesler's obituaries do not mention Julia among his survivors. Legally, an illegitimate child had no claim to an inheritance.

Julia's Marriage and Family

Not much is known of Julia's life after 1872. Julia married Charles L. Intermela in 1880 (or perhaps 1890, the records are not consistent). Her daughter (Kathie Zetterberg's grandmother) Elsie was born on January 14, 1892, in Mount Vernon. In the 1900 census, Julia (44 years old) is enumerated in the household of Charles (51 years) along with Elsie (8 years) and Charles Jr. (6 years), in Port Townsend, Washington.

In 1900, the census began to collect information on migration patterns and residents were asked where their parents were born. Julia's father's place of birth is Ohio. Henry Yesler was born in Maryland, but Ohio was his home before Seattle. Her mother's place of birth is listed as Washington. This tends to show that her mother was an Indian because a woman giving birth in 1855 would have to have been born prior to 1840, when, as far as we know, no non-Indian women lived in Washington.


Julia (Yesler, Benson) Intermela died on February 11, 1907. As we have seen, the obituaries in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times describe her as "Henry Yesler's eldest daughter."

The obituary in the Port Townsend newspaper (The Leader?) states that she was president of the local branch of the Women's Relief Corp and that "The geniality of the life brought to a close, her prominence with all matters that portended toward bettering the community in which she resided and many endearing traits of womanliness will be remembered long of the dead woman."


U.S. Census (1900) of Washington, Jefferson County, Charles Intermela household, E.D. 50, sheet 11, line 1, National Archives microfilm; "Eldest Daughter of Henry Yesler is Dead," The Seattle Daily Times, February 12, 1907, p. 5; "Death Of Yesler's Daughter, Julia," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 17, 1907, p. 8; "Daughter of Seattle Pioneer Passes Away," Ibid., February 12, 1907, p. 3; "Henry L. Yesler is Dead," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 1892, p. 8; Death Certificate for Hannah Behrens, June 17, 1917, Washington State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Record 2333, Registered No. 1333, copy in possession of Kathie Zetterberg; John Robert Finger, "Henry L. Yesler's Seattle Years," (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1968), 25-26, 33; 1871 Washington Territorial Census, King County, Seattle (Seattle Public Library Microfilm, Roll 3); "Henry Yesler Papers," University of Washington Special Collections; Edward Linn Blaine, Letters and Papers of Rev. David E. Blaine and his wife Catharine, bound typescript, (Historical Society of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the Methodist Church, 1963), 46, 87-88; Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian around Puget Sound (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 63; Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, "Sarah Burgert Yesler" in Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 132-178; N.V. Sheffer, “A Story of Pioneering,” The Lynden Tribune, August 5, 12, 19, 1909, p. 1.
Note: This essay was significantly expanded on October 10, 2006.

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