Battle Ground -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/25/2010
  • Essay 9321
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The city of Battle Ground lies near the geographical center of Clark County,  16 miles northeast of Vancouver. The city is sheltered by the Cascades to the east and the Coast Range to the west, and the climate is generally mild. At the time of first contact by Euro-Americans the area was occupied mainly by Chinook and Western Klickitat Indians. The name Battle Ground, which commemorates an 1855 "battle" that never actually happened, originally referred to a site northeast of the current city, near what is today called Battle Ground Lake. The first permanent non-Indian settler put down roots on the eastern edge of today's Battle Ground in 1862, and the earliest homesteaders tended to congregate to the north and east of today's city. It wasn't until the railroad came through in 1902 that the name Battle Ground became associated exclusively with the town, and the first town plat was recorded the following year. Formal incorporation did not come until 1951, making Battle Ground the most recent city in Clark County to take that step. The town's economy was dominated by timber, agriculture, and dairy, but population growth was extremely slow until the last decades of the twentieth century. In recent years, as its legacy industries have declined in importance, Battle Ground's proximity to both Portland and Vancouver has drawn a flood of new residents. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen it become one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, and it remains the commercial, cultural, and educational hub of central Clark County.

Chinook and Klickitat

The first European and American visitors to present-day Clark County tended to travel along the region's rivers, and the first Native Americans they encountered were Chinookan-speaking groups that ranged up and down the lower reaches of the Columbia and its tributaries. Inland, in the central and eastern parts of the county, there were scattered bands of Klickitat (Chinookan for "beyond the mountains") who mixed with members of the Cowlitz tribe to the north and became known as the Western Klickitat. Originally from the Rocky Mountain area, the Klickitat had been driven west by Cayuse Indians before Euro-American settlers arrived. Many settled in Eastern Washington, but some crossed the Cascade Mountains and took up a life of hunting, fishing, and gathering in the west.

Chinook society was heavily dependent on rivers for both sustenance and trade, and it was on the banks of the Columbia and the lowers reaches of its major tributaries that permanent Chinook settlements were found. Although they may have had seasonal encampments inland in the Battle Ground vicinity, accounts of early explorers and settlers do not record permanent habitations there.

For their part, the Western Klickitat moved seasonably between the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and as far west and north as Puget Sound. By the time non-Indian settlers arrived in the Battle Ground area in the 1860s and 1870s, there were relatively few Native Americans left in the vicinity-- epidemics carried to them by traders decades earlier had devastated all the tribes.

A Battle Ground Without a Battle

Battle Ground owes its name to an unfortunate encounter between Indians and U.S. volunteer soldiers in 1855 (at least one source puts it a year later, but appears to be incorrect). Tension had been building between the growing number of white settlers and the Native American population throughout the Northwest, particularly to the east of the Cascade Mountains. The Yakama Indian War started in October 1855, and there also was violence in the Columbia River Gorge, the Puget Sound region, and at scattered other locations.

As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Army at Fort Vancouver ordered a band of Indians (probably of mixed Cowlitz/Klickitat lineage) to move to encampments next to the fort, a form of "protective custody" that the Indians accepted without much protest. That changed in November 1855, when rumors spread that a group of Indians planned to rise up and slaughter the settlers. Although these rumors were false, the Indians feared that they would be subject to preemptive attack by jittery whites. A group of them, led by Chief Umtuch (sometimes spelled "Umtux" and other variations), stole away from their encampment near the fort and headed for the Cascade Mountains to the east. A cavalry company of the Territorial Militia, under the command of Captain William Strong, was sent in pursuit, and it was widely expected that there would be violence when the two groups met.

Precise dates are hard to come by, but it appears that Captain Strong and his troops caught up with the Indians on or about November 7, 1855, near what is today called Battle Ground Lake, to the north and east of the present city of Battle Ground. Despite the strong anti-Indian sentiment then prevailing, Strong was not set on violence. After lengthy and sometimes tense negotiations, and assurances that they would come to no harm at Fort Vancouver, the Indians  agreed to return.

What happened next is shrouded in a confusion. Some accounts say that more aggressive Indians in Umtuch's group killed the chief, believing that he had betrayed them. Others insist that Umtuch was shot accidentally when both cavalry and Cowlitz fired their guns in the air to celebrate the peaceful end to the confrontation. Yet a third version, and one that seems least likely, is that Chief Umtuch was given an ornate military uniform to wear in commemoration of the agreement to peaceably return to the fort, and while returning to the Indians' camp was shot by one of his own men who mistook him for an armed and aggressive soldier. The version told by Captain Strong's son, Thomas, in a book written 50 years later, may be the closest to the truth:

"the Indians finally promised to return the next morning, and for the first time for many nights the young Captain had rest. In that night some lawless idiot did his deadly work, and the next morning it was learned that Umtux, the chief of the Indians, lay dead between the lines. Who killed him no one knows or suspects to this day. None of the sentrys fired upon him and none of his Indians appeared to have had murder against him in their hearts. Nevertheless there lay Chief Umtux half way between the lines of his people and the lines of the volunteers, indubitably very dead. Lying in the trail by the side of a log with the hole made by a rifle bullet through him, Chief Umtux was more dangerous dead than living, and instantly the battle lines were formed in earnest and for a few hours Chief Umtux lay upon the crimsoned soil of what it seemed would at last be a genuine battle-ground of Northwestern Oregon [Territory]" Cathlamet on the Columbia, 120.

After a tense standoff, Strong was able to convince the Indians that no one from his ranks had intentionally shot Chief Umtuch. The band eventually agreed to return to the fort, asking only that they be given time to bury their slain leader according to their traditions and in private. After some hesitation, Captain Strong agreed. He returned to Fort Vancouver with his troops, and no Indians, and that was when the only real fight started.

The frightened settlers at the fort were expecting either news of a massacre of the "renegades" or the sight of them being marched back, bowed and bound. When told that the Indians had been left unguarded to mourn and bury their chief, the settlers were incensed. Strong reportedly was attacked by an enraged settler wielding a knife and suffered a cut to his face before subduing the man. Adding insult to this injury, the women of the fort presented Strong with a red petticoat, which they said should henceforth be used as his unit's banner. Despite the insult, Strong accepted the undergarment with great grace and dignity, saying that although it had been given in ignorance and spite, the militia would fly it proudly.

Within a few days, the Indians returned to Fort Vancouver, as they had promised they would. In Thomas Strong's accounts, upon their return

"the women with one of those swift revulsions of feeling that follow so fast after heedless action, were profuse in their apologies and wanted to take back their flag; besides the woman who had lent the petticoat wanted it back for personal reasons, for petticoats were short in more ways than one in those days, but no, the members of the company were obdurate. The petticoat had been given to them and their flag it would remain" Cathlamet on the Columbia, 126.

The area in which Chief Umtuch met his end was known at that time as Old Burn. It was briefly and mockingly renamed Strong's Battle Ground, which was quickly shortened to simply Battle Ground after the Indians had peacefully returned. While there is some uncertainty about where exactly the meeting with Umtuch's band took place, one thing is certain -- it did not take place in present-day Battle Ground. Umtuch's grave has never been found, but most authorities believe that the meeting, and Chief Umtuch's death and burial, occurred in a valley to the east of what is now Battle Ground Lake State Park. It was not until the coming of the railroad nearly 50 years later that a small community to the west was to lay exclusive claim to the Battle Ground name.

The First Settlers

The earliest new settlers in what is now Clark County tended to emulate the Indians by locating along the region's main rivers, and it was not until 1862 that John Tuke (1826-1922) moved to the center of the county and became Battle Ground's first homesteader. The Irish-born Tuke staked a claim to land near a high hill (now called Tukes Mountain) just to the east of today's city, and he started to farm the land. He must have been fairly intrepid -- early accounts described the area as "bushy flat land with some dead timber … rich bottomland soil interspersed with swamps … either knee-deep in mud or dust, depending on the time of year" (Battle Ground ... In and Around, 89).

Tuke had the area pretty much to himself for two or three years. A small group of Irish immigrants, with names like Farrell, O'Brien, and O'Donnell, arrived in the mid-1860s and started a community they called Dublin, just beyond the northern edge of present-day Battle Ground. Today's Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery was originally called Dublin Cemetery, and that is where John Tuke is buried.

To the south of Dublin, another gathering of settlers moved in, and they named their community Maple Grove. Among the earliest homesteaders there were George Gasaway (1838-1903), who filed his claim in 1865, and William Goodnight (1834-1909) and family, who arrived in 1868. Today's Main Street in Battle Ground marked an informal boundary line between the communities of Dublin and Maple Grove.

To the northeast of today's Battle Ground, near Battle Ground Lake, the earliest settlers included George Miller, Robert Cresap, Jack Beam, William Palmer, and Joseph Woodin. This area shared the Battle Ground name for years, then briefly was known as Old Battle Ground, and is now called Crawford.

The area's first post office to carry the name Battle Ground opened in 1871 in the home of Sylvester Pease, near Battle Ground Lake. In 1873, Benjamin N. Leverich and Anna Howard Leverich (1844–1930) came to what is today's Battle Ground and opened the area's second post office in their home, where Benjamin also manufactured chairs. The Leveriches went on to prosper, and in 1924 Anna Leverich deeded 42 acres to the city of Vancouver for what became known as Leverich Park.

A Slow Start to a New Century

Benjamin Leverich's chair business was the first manufacturing enterprise in the settlement, and credit for the first store goes to James Nagle, who in 1876 started selling goods from a rough log cabin in the southwest part of the town. In 1892 a German immigrant, August Richter (1849-1928), took over a store opened earlier by a Mrs. Jane Burke. Richter, who was to play a large role in the development of the community, opened a local branch of the Cape Horn Telegraph Company in 1893, thus establishing the first telegraph link between the settlement and the commercial centers of Vancouver and Portland. Richter was also rumored to have run a speakeasy near his store, but no records of this enterprise exist today.

Population growth in Battle Ground was very slow in coming. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the population hovered at around 50 or fewer residents. It was not until 1901 that any real progress could be seen. In that year, Peter Onsdorff (1858-1936) came to town, and he seems to have been the first to fully recognize the town's potential as a regional center of commerce and transportation. Plans were underway to bring the Portland, Vancouver and Yakima Railroad through on the way to the logging center of Yacolt to the northeast, and by 1901 it had reached Brush Prairie just to the south of Battle Ground.

The railroad made it to Battle Ground in July 1902, and Onsdorff was ready for it. He opened the area's first truly "general" store under the name Onsdorff and Company, and he used the railroad to bring in everything that had previously been available only with an arduous wagon trip to Vancouver, Ridgefield, or Portland.

With the coming of the railroad, the confusion over just where and what Battle Ground actually was finally came to an end. A train depot was built in the town, and the depot sign said "Battle Ground." The area to the northeast where Chief Umtuch had been killed became, briefly, "Old Battle Ground," but when the railroad reached there the next year, it was renamed Crawford, by which it is still known today. Forty-eight years after the battle that wasn't, the town of Battle Ground finally was.

With a name and a railroad, it was time for Battle Ground to get serious. In early 1903, Peter Onsdorff and another settler, D. B. Mickey, formally platted about six blocks near the town's northeastern edge. In October of the same year, August Ricther, the man who brought the telegraph in, recorded plats for his first and second "Richter's Additions" to the southeast, adding several more blocks to the town. Battle Ground was now official, and it sat right in the middle of a rail line that linked the rich logging country of eastern Clark County to the mills and factories to the west. The little town seemed poised for rapid growth and an expanding role as the commercial center for Amboy, Yacolt, and other smaller communities.

But despite all its advantages, Battle Ground was to remain sparsely populated for several decades. A census taken in 1904 by Peter Onsdorff, which included both the town and the surrounding area, counted only 101 persons, and that included temporary boarders who happened to be passing through. Nearly 60 years later, and nine years after Battle Ground was incorporated, the 1960 national census (the first to include Battle Ground as a distinct unit) showed a population of only 888.

A Town Rises

By all accounts, the men and women of Battle Ground were a hard-working and industrious lot, and the town's slow population growth did not mean that things were standing still. In 1903 another store was built to compete with Onsdorff's, and that year the town's first hotel was opened by Winfield Ward (1874-1935). A cheese factory was started in 1903 by L. G. Allen, and other small businesses appeared. Some succeeded, and others, like Allen's cheese factory, did not. An article in the April 1909 edition of The Coast magazine, written by Peter Onsdorff, described Battle Ground's commercial activity as:

"two general merchandise stores, two confectionery and ice cream stores, a hotel, a barber shop, a meat market, a livery stable, two blacksmith shops, a lodge hall accommodating 500, and three churches -- the Christian, Methodist Episcopal and Roman Catholic ... and seven saw mills and numerous logging camps operating within five miles of the town, which obtain their supplies from here, and furnish employment to hundreds of men" (The Coast, p. 275).

But  the same article counted only 200 residents of Battle Ground proper 1909, so it seems that many of the area's "hundreds of men" employed in the logging camps and saw mills lived outside town limits.

Because Battle Ground did not incorporate until 1951, it had no municipal government for the first half of the twentieth century and was administered by Clark County. Since there is no record of local governmental actions by which to measure progress, it is necessary to look at how the citizens themselves went about building their community.

Feed the People

As more and more land was cleared, Battle Ground's farmers found that they could produce much more than the needs of the area's population, human and animal. Individually, they did not have the wherewithal to seek out new markets or to transport their goods beyond the immediate area. Farmers were already allied through membership in local Grange chapters, and their mutual interests gave rise to a vigorous cooperative movement in Battle Ground and surrounding communities.|

The cooperative movement began with the dairy farmers, who banded together in the early years of the twentieth century. By combining their efforts, they were able to build common delivery stations, and to locate and supply markets outside of the immediate area that could use their combined output. The cooperative dairy system proved so successful that it was later followed by others. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, cooperatives sprang up among egg producers, stores, hatcheries, and canneries, and even for such things as a rural telephone system.  Some prospered, some failed, but collectively they helped keep the economy going.

The single largest cooperative, a dairy plant, was started in 1923. Originally called the Battle Ground Dairymen's Co-Operative Association, it started production in 1924, and by 1928 it was running day and night. In January and February of 1928 alone, it handled more than 557,000 gallons of milk. It was also known over the years as the Washington Dairyman's Cooperative, the Clark County Dairymen's Cooperative, and AgCo. In 2002 the cooperative was purchased by Wilco Farm Stores and is still in operation today.

Teach the Children

Many of Battle Ground's early settlers were immigrants with little or no formal schooling, and they wanted to make sure that their children had access to the education that had been denied to them. As early as 1871, residents of Maple Grove, the community that lay south of today's Main Street, signed a petition to the county to establish the boundaries of a school district to serve their area. The largely Irish community of Dublin, which lay at the northern edge of Battle Ground, also established a school, and it saw to the education of the children who lived north of the Maple Grove boundary at Main Street.

The Dublin and the Maple Grove schools stayed separate even after the town's original plats were recorded in 1902 and 1903. There was considerable anti-immigrant and, particularly, anti-Irish sentiment at large in the land, and it appears that many of the parents of Maple Grove were not eager to have their children educated with the Irish children from north of Main Street. But consolidation had a logic that couldn't be denied, and in December 1908 the school superintendent for Clark County approved an application to merge the two districts.

Not everyone was pleased. A petition protesting the decision, carrying the signatures of 58 residents (significant opposition in a town that had a population of barely 200) was submitted to the Board of Clark County Commissioners in January 1909. A contentious public hearing was held the following March, but the decision of the superintendent was upheld. The districts were consolidated, and Clark County School District No. 64 came into being. The following month, the town's first school board, which included Peter Onsdorff, voted to build a new school on Main Street, the old dividing line between the Dublin and Maple Grove districts. Called, with strict neutrality, the Central School, it opened in 1910, and by the 1914-1915 school year it was a fully accredited high school. In a further indication of Battle Ground's slow population growth, the school's first graduating class had only four students.

Over the following years, several autonomous small school districts were consolidated into the larger Battle Ground district by the state's superintendent of schools. This caused considerable dissent, as the smaller towns feared that their identities would be threatened by the loss of local schools, which also served as community centers. But consolidations went forward, and Battle Ground's District 64 became District 119 in 1955, when the Barberton and Glenwood districts joined. More small districts were to follow. Today, District 119 serves more than 13,000 students from about 35 smaller districts that it has absorbed. One of the district's administrative subdivisions is named the Chief Umtuch/Captain Strong Service Area. There also is a middle school named after the chief and an elementary school named for the captain, honoring the two men whose tragic meeting more than 150 years ago gave Battle Ground its name.

Praise the Lord

The history of religion in Battle Ground started in the earliest humble homes, where some of the new settlers hosted Sunday schools before the first churches were built. It was not until the late 1870s that organized religions first appeared in what is now Battle Ground -- the Sacred Heart Catholic mission and the Maple Grove Methodist Church.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Mission was established in 1877 as a branch of Vancouver's St. James parish when Bishop Aegidius Junger of the Nisqually Diocese dedicated the mission in Battle Ground. It later became part of the Lewis River Parish, and in 1928 a second church was built by volunteers from the congregation. In 1940, Sacred Heart was elevated to parish status, and in 1970 its third, and present, church was built.

In 1879, Methodists built a church just east of the Maple Grove School. It was the first Protestant church in what is now Battle Ground and was served by a circuit-riding minister. In 1910 fire destroyed the  original one-room church building, and the congregation made do in temporary quarters until a new church was built on the same site a year or two later. In 1918 the church was moved to the corner of Main Street and Parkway in Battle Ground, but its congregation shrank and in 1920 the church building had to be sold. The remaining congregation merged with that of the Christian Church, but doctrinal differences between the two faiths were a problem from the beginning. The church struggled along for years, and it was not until 1969 that the Methodists returned to their roots and established the Battle Ground Community United Methodist Church.

Organized religion has prospered in Battle Ground since those early days and continues to play an important part in the life of the community. The city now is home to at least 19 churches, ranging from Seventh Day Adventists and Latter Day Saints to evangelical congregations of more recent vintage.

The Quiet Years

For the first half of the twentieth century, Battle Ground seemed in no particular hurry to develop. There was some progress, of course, but not the steady upward arc of growth found in the towns clustered on the shores of the Columbia River to the west. The area's second hotel opened in 1910, but burned down a few years later. Phone service also began in 1910, but electricity was slower in coming. Much of Clark County was electrified by the early 1920s, but no line came to Battle Ground, largely because the small population of potential users did not justify the expense of putting up the poles and running the wires. Finding this unacceptable, a group of the town's leading citizens (including the ubiquitous Peter Onsdorff) strung their own line to Minnehaha, a wired town about 13 miles to the southeast. They hooked up there with the main lines of the Northwestern Electric Company, which eventually took over Battle Ground's service.

The town's first bank opened in 1912, advertised as the "Private Bank of A. C. Smith." When the state Legislature banned sole ownership of banks two years later, Smith's enterprise was taken over by a corporation formed by H. Clyde Cornell (1887-1972) and became the State Bank of Battle Ground. Cornell later was elected mayor of nearby Ridgefield. In one sure sign of progress, the bank he started was deemed worthy of being robbed by armed men in 1920.

There were several attempts to start a newspaper in the first three decades after Battle Ground's original plats were recorded, most of them unsuccessful. Among the papers that came and quickly went were the Battle Ground News and the Battle Ground Spirit. In the 1940s, Marion Sexton opened the Mid-County Record in Battle Ground, and in 1946 it was merged with the Ridgefield Reflector to become the Mid-County Reflector, covering both towns and the surrounding area. In 1959, the paper moved permanently to Battle Ground, where it is still published today as The Reflector. Tracing back through its various mergers and names, the paper can rightfully claim to have been a primary outlet for news in central Clark County since 1909.

Governance and Growth

In 1942, the voters of Battle Ground rejected a measure to formally incorporate their town, but a vote in 1951 was positive, and the city was officially incorporated on May 28, 1951. The voters chose a mayor/council form of government, and P. L. "Louie" Rasmussen (1895-1981) served as the city's first mayor. In 1997, Battle Ground switched its governing structure to the council/city manager form.

The first national census to include Battle Ground was in 1960, and it showed a population of 888. Over the next 30 years, the city added about that many new people every decade, and by 1990 the population count stood at 3,758. That marked the end of Battle Ground's slow population growth. By the 2000 census, the city had grown to 9,322, an addition of more than 5,500 new residents and a rate of growth nearly six times greater than had been seen in the previous three decades. The trend continued for much of the first decade of the twenty-first century and in 2009 Battle Ground's estimated population of 17,150 was second only to Vancouver among Clark County cities. However, the city's growth rate slowed in the final year of the decade, with the 2010 census showing only a slight further increase to 17,571, leaving Battle Ground third in population among county cities, below Camas (19,355) as well as Vancouver.

In recent decades, Battle Ground expanded in size as well as population. Between 1995 and 2005, it grew through annexation from 1,879 acres to 2,896 acres, a 54 percent increase. Its location within a 15-minute drive of both Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 means a convenient commute to the Vancouver/Portland metropolitan area, and its proximity to such recreational sites as Battle Ground Lake State Park, the north and east forks of the Lewis River, and Lewisville Park makes it an attractive choice for family living. Although Battle Ground in 2010 suffered from the same slow-growth woes facing most communities, signs for the future remained rosy, and its leaders and residents saw a future of greater progress ahead. 

Sources: Louise M. Allworth Tucker, Battle Ground ... In and Around (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1976); Rev. H. K. Hines, D.D., An Illustrated History of the State of Washington, (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1893), 920-921; Thomas Nelson Strong, Cathlamet on the Columbia (Portland, Oregon: Binsford & Mort, 1906), 120, 124-127; B. F. Alley and  J. P. Munro-Fraser, History of Clarke County, Washington Territory (Portland, Oregon: Washington Publishing Company, 1885), 335-336; "The City of Battle Ground," City of Battle Ground website accessed February 15, 2010 (; George C. Turk and Thomas L. Webber, Washington State Council Knights of Columbus Centennial History (Washington State Council Knights of Columbus, 2007), 68; "Celebrating a decade of progress. Beginning a future of prosperity," City of Battle Ground website accessed February 15, 2010 (; "City Council: Manager/Council Form of Government," City of Battle Ground website accessed February 18, 2010 (; "City of Battle Ground Resolution No. 97-313," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC) website accessed February 18, 2010 (; "About Us," United Methodist Church (Battle Ground) website accessed February 17, 2010 (; "The History of The CPRR," Chelatchie Prairie Railroad website accessed February 16, 2010 (; "Sacred Heart Cemetery," United States Genweb Archives website accessed February 15, 2010 (; "John Tuke -- 1870 Clark Federal Census," Washington State Secretary of State Digital Archives website accessed February 15, 2010 (; "Comprehensive Parks, Recreation & Open Space Plan: Battle Ground, Washington May 2004," City of Battle Ground website accessed February 15, 2010 (;  "A Town That's in The Heart of Everything," Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce website accessed February 15, 2010 (; Howard Buck, "Be True to Battle Ground Schools," The Columbian, October 16, 2009, p. C-1;  "Battle Ground: City without a battle (1855)," Clark County website accessed February 17, 2010 (; Peter Onsdorff, "Battle Ground, Washington," The Coast magazine, Vol. 17, No. 4 (April, 1909), pp. 275-277; "Battle Ground," Clark County website accessed February 16, 2010 (; Christine Pienkowski, " Did you know the establishment of Battle Ground School District goes all the back to the 1800s?," KATU website accessed February 16, 2010 (;  "Battle Ground,"  Northwest College of the Bible website accessed February 19, 2010 (; "Battle Ground," The Columbian website accessed February 18, 2010 (; "Battle Ground (city), Washington," U.S. Census Bureau State & County Quickfacts website accessed June 14, 2015 (
Note: This essay was revised and updated on June 14, 2015.

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