If Battle Ground, WA is your hometown you’ve almost certainly had the experience of being asked about how your town got such an interesting name. And it seems like the assumption usually is that some important battle must have taken place.
But as many from Battle Ground know, there was no battle. When it comes to what actually did take place there are a number of different versions of events. Many of us have had some oral version of the story passed down to us about the history of our town.
At the time of the fateful events which would lead to the naming of Battle Ground, Ft. Vancouver had only been a U.S. military post for seven years, although it had previously been an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Battle Ground area was still a wilderness which had not been settled. Many new settlers were flocking to the Northwest though which led to conflicts between Native Americans and the new settlers. 1855 and 1856 were especially tumultuous years with the beginning of the Yakima War in eastern Washington and the “Cascades Massacre” of fourteen settlers and three soldiers in the Columbia River Gorge.
Chief Umtuch Flees Fort Vancouver
In 1855 or 56, different sources give different dates, a band of local Titon-napam Indians, led by Chief Umtuch was ordered to the Ft. Vancouver barracks to prevent them from joining those tribes hostile to the settlers. After some time at the Fort, Chief Umtuch’s band left and headed northeast into Clark County without the permission of the officers at the Fort.
One version of the events would have Umtuch’s men fleeing after being warned by a dishonest official that they were to be slaughtered in an attempt at intimidation. In another version it is written that the Indians wanted to engage in a religious ceremony but had not been granted permission by the fort officials to leave. Whatever the case may be it seems that Captain William Strong led a group of men of the Washington Territory Volunteers in pursuit of Umtuch to bring them back to the fort.
Captain Strong Catches Chief Umtuch
Strong’s men caught up with Umtuch and his band at the valley east of Battle Ground Lake and southwest of Bell Mountain. This area was known as the “Old Burn” and would later become the small community of Crawford. What exactly took place after Strong caught up with Umtuch and his men is the part of the story where the most conjecture takes place.
Chief Umtuch would end up being killed in the course of events and Captain Strong would allow Umtuch’s men time to mourn and bury their chief while he returned, empty-handed, to Ft. Vancouver.
Version 1: Umtuch Accidentally Shot By His Own Men
Perhaps the most colorful version of events, and the one I had learned growing up, was that after an agreement to return to the Fort had been reached between Strong and Umtuch, several celebratory rifle shots were fired. Chief Umtuch was presented a set of “white-man’s clothes” as a gift which he donned and then rode back to his band of men. Having heard the shots and now seeing what seemed to be an escaping soldier, Umtuch’s men mistakenly fired upon and killed their leader.
Version 2: Umtuch Killed by His Men after a Disagreement
In a more detailed account by Clark County historian, Grace H. Jemison, we find a slightly different story. According to Jemison, the two parties did reach an agreement to return to Ft. Vancouver but Chief Umtuch returned to his camp without incident. The parties had agreed to fire off their rifles as a token of friendship between them, and perhaps also to use up some ammunition. According to Jemison’s account, Strong’s men fired off about fifty shots while Umtuch’s men fired off about seventy.
A few minutes after this cacophony of shots had been fired, three shots were heard in another direction. Strong sent some men to investigate and it was discovered that Chief Umtuch had been shot and killed. According to historians Alley and Munro-Fraser, writing in 1885, 30 years after the events had taken place, Umtuch was killed by some of his men who disagreed with the decision to return to the fort and desired instead to fight the settlers.
Both Stories Agree That…
All accounts agree that after the death of Umtuch, the remaining Indians agreed to return to the fort and Captain Strong allowed them time to mourn and bury their dead chief. Captain Strong returned empty-handed to Ft. Vancouver where his actions were met with disapproval. The captain was presented a petticoat of many colors, a “feminine apparel as a proper costume for ‘squaw warriors,’” according to Jemison, by some of the women of Vancouver as an expression of their disapproval. Even the name “Battle Ground,” originated in derision according to Jemison, in poking fun at a battle that had never happened. Chief Umtuch’s men returned to the fort in three or four days as they had promised.
First White Settlers in Battle Ground
A few years after the “battle” the first white settlers would come to the Battle Ground area. Among these first settlers were former soldiers who after being discharged came to establish homesteads. One of the first of these homesteaders was John Tuke who took up a land claim just south of what is now called Tuke’s Mountain. In 1871 a post-office was established, in 1876 the first store and in 1877, a Roman Catholic church. The rest, as they say, is history.
1. Alley, B. F. Clarke County, Washington Territory: 1885. Washougal, Wa: Mark E. Parsons, 1983. Print.
2. Jemison, Grace H. History of Battle Ground. Battle Ground, Wash., 1953. Print.
3. Allworth, Louise McKay, and Bonnie J. Walden. Battle Ground … in and around . Dallas: Taylor Pub. Co., 1976. Print.