If a town were to be named "Battle" then one would expect that it might commemorate a great conflict that took place nearby. I believed most logical people would find that a reasonable conclusion. I examined several occurrences and discovered that it wasn’t necessarily the case. Usually the battles referenced were rather inconsequential or not even battles at all. In the United States the battles involved Native Americans invariably quarreling with settlers of European descent or amongst themselves, which said more about the mindset of those who named the towns than the original native inhabitants.
Battle Creek, Michigan, USA
Downtown Battle Creek, Michigan by Corey Seeman, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Twelve Mile Circle began this entire tangent while pondering Battle Creek, Michigan. I’d been examining historical files that referenced the city. Certainly I’d heard of Battle Creek before although it was the first time I’d actually considered the name. What battle and at what creek did early settlers want posterity to remember? Certainly it must have been immense albeit faded by time and distance because I wasn’t aware of any conflicts in that area. I made it my duty to recall those long-ago events so that new generations could understand the sacrifices of those who may have fought and died valiantly for a noble cause.
The City of Battle Creek reported its etymology as, "named for a skirmish between a government land surveyor and two Indians which took place seven miles away and almost 175 years ago." That didn’t sound very promising. Heritage Battle Creek provided additional details:
The story of white settlement of the Battle Creek area begins in 1825 when government surveyors were working near a stream about 8 miles northeast of the present city of Battle Creek. On March 14 two Potawatomi Indians appeared at the base camp, asking for food. A protracted, contentious discussion ended when the surveyors produced a rifle and settled the argument by subduing the Indians. After reporting the skirmish to the Territorial Governor, the surveyors left the field and returned to Detroit. A subsequent survey team remembered the incident and assigned the name "Battle Creek" to the stream where the altercation took place.
A brief argument underpinned the name of a town of fifty thousand residents? Call me underwhelmed.
I found more recent Battle Creek events of a century ago infinitely more fascinating. The Kellogg brothers invented cold breakfast cereal there in 1906. Battle Creek became "Cereal City" with Kellogg’s (map) founded in the city as well as Post Cereals. Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Apple Jacks and Eggo Waffles all had greater impact on popular culture than surveyors annoyed by a couple of hungry Indians.
I discovered additional Battle Creek places:
- Battle Creek, Nebraska: The Pawnee avoided a conflict with settlers. There was no actual bloodshed or battle.
- Battle Creek, Iowa: The original town name, Willow Dale, was already taken. Someone recalled that maybe there had been a battle with the Sioux nearby a long time ago and proposed the name.
More appropriate names for the three Battle Creeks would be Quarrel Creek, Acquiescence Creek and Apocryphal Creek.
Battle Ground, Washington, USA
Laurelwood Brewing – Battleground, WA by howderfamily.com, on Flickr
My Own Photo
A couldn’t find a decent photo of Battle Ground, Washington (map) so I used this photo of a brewpub I visited when I drove through there a couple of years ago. It’s a suburb of Portland, Oregon, basically.
The story of the "battle" of Battle Ground was even more ridiculous than the various Battle Creeks. The city said,
Battle Ground owes its name to an encounter between U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Vancouver and Native Americans who lived in an encampment near the Fort. In 1855, a group of the Indians, led by Chief Umtuch, left the encampment and headed for the Cascade Mountains to the east. U.S. Captain William Strong led a company in pursuit of the group and many believed that there would be a battle between them when they met. Captain Strong and his troops caught up with the Indians near present day Battle Ground. After lengthy negotiations, the Indians agreed to return to the encampment.
Chief Umtuch was killed and nobody quite knew whether U.S. soldiers did it or whether more militant elements of the Klickitat were responsible. After a tense standoff, the Native Americans asked only to be able to bury Chief Umtuch privately and in accordance with their traditions. Captain Strong granted the request and the conflict ended. Recent settlers, fully expecting the Army to punish the Indians, were livid when they learned that nothing would happen. HistoryLink.org provided the rest of the story that the City of Battle Ground decided to sidestep:
When told that the Indians had been left unguarded to mourn and bury their chief, the whites 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… 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.
Thus, not only was there no battle at Battle Ground, settlers bestowed the name sarcastically.
Some other "Battle" places in the United States included,
- Battle Ground, Indiana: At least this one involved a real battle, the Battle of Tippecanoe with the Shawnee
- Battle Lake, Minnesota: A conflict between a handful of Ojibway and Sioux
- Battle Mountain, Nevada: No known battle; local legends about conflicts involving Paiute and/or Shoshone
Battle, East Sussex, England
The attractive town of Battle gets it name from the Battle of Hastings, which was fought between Harold the Saxon king and William the Conqueror in 1066. The battle was so significant it changed the course of English history. The town grew up around the Abbey of St Martin which was built by William the Conqueror after the battle.
That was a battle truly worthy of a town named Battle.
Battle Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
battle harbour by Matt MacGillivray, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Canada had a Battle too, the appearance of Battle Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador (map). It was quite the popular settlement in nineteenth century Canada and was thought of as the unofficial Capital of Labrador. It fell on hard times as the cod fishing industry contracted. Eventually Battle Harbour was abandoned and its inhabitants resettled by the Canadian government in the 1960’s. Today it is a summertime tourist destination, a well-preserved historical remnant with a few guest cottages and small hotels.
Also, there wasn’t a battle. It is believed that the name probably derived from an Anglicization of an old Portuguese word for boat (batal), and appeared as such on maps dating back to 1560.