Lafayette Balch - Captain, Founder of Steilacoom

Lafayette Balch (February 3, 1825-November 25, 1862) was born in Trescott, Maine to John and Hannah (Stone) Balch. He began his life on the east coast but would end his life on the west coast.

In adulthood Lafayette would sail his father's ship, the Sacramento, around the southernmost tip of South America and up to the west coast of the United States. During the 1848-55 Gold Rush, in California, he had a headquarters in a shanty of San Francisco. During this time he mostly carried timber cargoes in another ship known as the George Emery.

The date is uncertain but it is believed that Lafayette sailed to the Olympia, Washington area on April 4, 1850. Lafayette sought to buy land in Olympia and open a store. Edmund Sylvester, the founder of Olympia, didn't want another store to compete with one already in town. As a way to get rid of Lafayette the owner of the Olympia sight offered him the land at a highly inflated price. This only caused Lafayette to seek out a new sight, to build his own town, with its own store.

In approximately February of 1850 Lafayette had made his first voyage to the Puget Sound area of modern Washington. After that initial voyage he returned to the Puget Sound area three more times. On his second trip he brought supplies to build a store at Steilacoom. The new store is believed to have been built by July of 1850 at which time he appointed Henry C. Wilson to the role of running it.

Lafayette continued to sail loads of timber between Steilacoom and San Francisco. On one trip he brought back with him three men who settled in the area surrounding Steilacoom. One man, William B. Wilton, contracted with Lafayette to sell timber. The other two men worked with Wilton in producing timber for eight cents a running foot. Settlers were attracted to the settlement through the donation of lands to various businesses and public organizations. Land for a Masonic lodge, courthouse, school, and various businesses was donated and by May of 1855 approximately seventy buildings had been built in the town. The best years, for the town, started in 1858 and at one point the town was the biggest in the state.

Lafayette got elected to the first territorial legislature and was very active in local affairs. Eventually he would own another trade vessel, known as the Damariscove, and would continue to run timber along with fish and hides to California (where he owned a lumber yard).

On November 25, 1862 Lafayette, on business in San Francisco, collapsed and died on a city street. He had no will and his family was unable, for whatever reason, to take ownership of his estate. Squatters took over his property and when the government attempted to return it to his heirs it was already effectively in the ownership of others.

Primary Sources/Links:

Genealogy of the Balch Families in America - By: Galusha B. Balch

Captain Lafayette Balch

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