Appointed by President Zachary Taylor to serve as associate justice of the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court, Yale-educated Cleveland attorney William Strong traveled around Chile’s Cape Horn to reach the West Coast. Strong and his wife, Lucretia, lost one of their three sons along the way. The ship U.S. Supply also carried the new territorial governor, John Gaines, who lost two daughters during the trip.
The Strongs sailed on the Sloop Falmouth from San Francisco to Astoria, Ore. With no steamboat to meet them, Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden sent a flatboat. Even with Ogden’s help, Strong didn’t arrive at Oregon City, the territorial capital, until August 1850.
The Strongs made their home in Cathlamet, where the judge purchased an Indigenous woman as a slave to help with housework. Strong presided and rode circuit over a large area from Astoria — all of the land north of the Columbia River and west to the Rocky Mountains. When Oregon split into two territories in 1853, his Washington Territory citizenship cost him his appointment, so he turned to private practice. When clients proved few, he asked Gov. Isaac Stevens whether he needed help. Stevens requested that Strong establish the territory’s judicial code.
Answering the call for volunteers during the Native and white troubles of 1855, Strong organized a mounted militia as captain. The cavalry served 63 days while troops from Fort Vancouver were off quelling hostilities between Natives and settlers up the Columbia River.
Meanwhile, along the Lewis River, settlers fretted about an uprising after a small encampment of Natives left the fort. Strong wrote a letter to The Oregonian stating just 30 Natives were gathering, not the 300 rumored, in an attempt to reassure the settlers.
Nonetheless, Strong obeyed orders to pursue the Natives and return them to the fort’s protection to prevent possible settler violence. What happened when the Natives and Strong’s men met, or whether anyone expected a fight, is unknown.
Strong tried to persuade the Natives to return to the fort as the two parties bantered. Someone — soldiers or Natives — fired shots, perhaps in celebration. Chief Umtuch fell from his mount, dead. Who fired the fatal bullet? Two versions of the event blame Umtuch’s men, who felt somehow betrayed. Another says Umtuch wore a military costume he’d received and was mistaken for a soldier, then shot. Another faults Strong’s volunteers.
After Umtuch fell, the band requested time to bury him and pledged to return to the fort. Where they buried Umtuch’s body remains unknown. One story says he was buried in a tree somewhere near Woodland and in another, he was buried in a secret place.
While no one is sure where the Natives and volunteers held the fateful parley, it was likely east of Battle Ground Lake. Eventually, the area mockingly became known as Strong’s Battle Ground, then later Battle Ground.
Strong successfully returned Umtuch’s band to Fort Vancouver without a fight. In 1856, Wahkiakum County elected him territorial representative. He served on the Washington Territory Supreme Court from 1858-1861. He retired to Portland in 1862, where he died.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.