BATTLE GROUND — Given Battle Ground’s recent population boom, it is perhaps not surprising that many newcomers — and probably some old-timers, too — don’t exactly know how the city got its name.
Local historian and researcher Don Higgins hopes his new book, “Peace Wins at the Battle Ground 1855,” not only answers that question but will educate readers about the region’s Native history.
“I’ve been interested in the subject of the Battle Ground name since we moved here about 23 years ago,” Higgins said. “I was very curious when I got here and what this battle was about and no one seemed to have a good explanation.”
The book is part of an exhibit titled “Chief Umtuch and How Battle Ground Got Its Name,” currently on display at the Battle Ground Community Library. Although originally set to run from Oct. 10 through November, the popular exhibit was extended through the end of the year and then again through January.
After doing quite a bit of research and “occasionally (taking) out an ancient book,” Higgins unearthed the details behind the battle that never happened. “With the help of my computer, I was able to do research that my predecessors hadn’t been able to do,” Higgins said.
There may not have been a battle but there was an unsolved mystery in the death of Chief Umtuch. Looking through archives from the Library of Congress, Washington State University, the Clark County Historical Museum and others, Higgins tracked down old maps, documents, narratives from later Klickitat chiefs recounting Chief Umtuch’s death, and other records.
“In there was some pretty interesting stuff,” Higgins said. “I feel like I was able to complete the story and tell the Indians’ side as well as the settlers’ side.”
For Higgins, the real story was why there wasn’t a battle. In November 1855, tensions were on the rise between white settlers and members of the Klickitat tribe living in the area. The Yakima Indian War of the late 1850s had just begun and whites were reading Portland and Oregon City, Ore., newspapers that further fanned the flames of hatred for all Native Americans.
William Strong, an Oregon Territorial Supreme Court judge and captain of the Washington Volunteers stationed at Fort Vancouver, wrote to The Oregonian urging calm. In his missive, Strong wrote that settlers need not fear the small band gathered at the mouth of the Lewis River. Not only were they peaceful and frightened, Strong said they had been disarmed, then moved near Fort Vancouver where they could be kept under the watchful eye of whites.
However, many from the tribe — including Chief Umtuch — slipped away at night over fears of endless internment by whites. The Oregonian called it an “Indian stampede” and predicted severe punishment by Strong and his men. Strong and his mixed company of soldiers and citizen volunteers pursued, eventually finding the fleeing tribal members in area that’s now called Allworth, near Battle Ground Lake.
But Strong proved to be a man of peace. Rather than attacking or capturing them, he instead got the two sides to negotiate an agreement. Chief Umtuch agreed to return with his band to the fort the next day.
Chief Umtuch never made it to the fort; his body was discovered in a nearby field. More than 167 years later, his murder remains unsolved. There are various theories about who was responsible for the chief’s death. Higgins said he believes the accounts given by Chief Umtuch’s successors that the chief, who was known to dress in western European clothing, had been accidentally shot by members of his own tribe.
Whatever the cause, their chief was dead. The tribe wanted additional time to mourn before returning to the fort; Strong agreed and withdrew his troops.
While peace prevailed and the tribe members kept their word and returned to the fort, Strong was criticized and mocked for his actions. The area where he had met up with the tribe became referred to as “Strong’s Battle Ground,” which was later shortened to Battle Ground.
“Battle Ground was the name for an incident of peace at a time of war,” Higgins said.
Copies of Higgins’ book can be found at the Battle Ground library but are not currently for sale. For more information about the book or exhibit, as well as library hours and location, go to https://www.fvrl.org/loc/battle-ground or call 360-906-5000.