The word “Yelm” is said to come from the Coast Salish word shelm or chelm, meaning “heat waves from the sun”, referring to heat mirages.
The Yelm Prairie was originally inhabited by the Nisqually and provided good pasture for their horses. The first permanent non-indigenous settlers came in 1853 to join the Hudson’s Bay Company sheep farmers who were already conducting business in the area.
James Longmire, one of the first American settlers had this to say upon arriving in Yelm:
Having received due notice from the Hudson Bay company not to settle on any lands north of the Nisqually River we crossed the river and went to Yelm prairie, a beautiful spot. I thought as it lay before us covered with tall waving grass, a pretty stream bordered with shrubs and tall trees, flowing through it, and the majestic mountain standing guard over all, in its snowy coat, it was a scene fit for an artist. Herds of deer wandered at leisure through the tall grass.
With the coming of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1873, Yelm began to prosper, having found an outlet for its agricultural and forestry products. Its economic base was further enhanced when an irrigation company was formed in 1916, making Yelm a center for commercial production of beans, cucumbers, and berries.
Yelm was officially incorporated on December 8, 1924.