At first, Sophie Garcia didn’t believe what her father was saying. After all, Johnnie Lee Wyman is, in her words, “known for telling a lot of crazy stories.”
Garcia, a teenager at the time, didn’t exactly buy into the idea that her great-great-grandmother was, in Wyman’s words, a “princess.” At the very least, she figured her father was exaggerating.
But as Garcia got older, she learned more about her family’s heritage and soon discovered her father was correct: Betsey “White Wing” Ough, Garcia’s great-great-grandmother on her father’s side, was a princess of a prominent Native American Indian tribe as well as one of Washougal’s founders in the 1800s. As Garcia learned, Ough was known as “the mother of Washougal.”
That legacy is important to Garcia, who lives in Graham, Washington, and to members of her extended family, who live on or near the Yakama Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. That’s why they were happy to come to Washougal Community Library on Wednesday, Oct. 4, to attend the unveiling of a mural that honors Ough.
The 9-by-25-foot mural, called “White Wing,” was created by Toma Villa, an internationally renowned Native American artist.
“To stand there and watch everyone’s emotions unfold, to see how we’re all connected, and to be grateful that my grandparents’ story is still being honored, it was like restored life,” Garcia said. “It brought our grandparents, our ancestors, back to life. This is their dream. They are local celebrities. We feel the love for them and the gratitude from the community.”
‘Midwife of the community’
Born in 1812 as Betsey Schleyhoos, Ough was the daughter of the chief of the Cascade Indians, a Chinook tribe “that lived on the river a half-mile from where we are today,” Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance (WACA) President Jim Cooper said at the unveiling ceremony.
When she was 20, Ough married an Englishman named Richard Ough, an officer with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1852, the Oughs were awarded a land claim that covered most of the present-day Washougal and extended for more than one mile along the Columbia River. The Oughs settled on that land and lived there for the rest of their lives.
The couple’s reputation as generous people grew and Betsey Ough, who died in 1911 at the age of 99, became known for extending her hospitality to travelers who passed up and down the Columbia River.
“What stands out to me (about her) is the love, the generosity, being a huge part of the community and giving back to the people,” Garcia said of her ancestor. “She basically was the midwife of the community. She gave so much. She was part of so many people’s lives and so many people’s stories. I think that’s a great reminder that we need to still carry that out today. It keeps people connected.”
Betsey gained tremendous influence as a female Native American landowner in early Clark County, according to Washougal mayor Molly Coston.
“They were very generous with their time and energy, and they helped many other people on their way,” Coston said. “It’s only natural to have a family like that as the bedrock of our Washougal community. We still carry all those traits with us.”
Wyman, along with four of his six children and several of his grandchildren, nieces and nephews, attended the Oct. 4 ceremony honoring the “White Wing” mural.
“It’s like a family reunion for us. I’m meeting family that I never knew I had,” Garcia said. “Events like this just remind you how important it really is to keep (the family heritage) going. It’s up to us to teach the younger generations — my children and their children — that our family was part of something was great, and it still stands today, and their (descendants) are honored.”
Brad Richardson, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum, said the strong turnout for the Oct. 4 event shows that “this story is still important.”
“The connection between (Betsey and Richard Ough) and what they built — and both of their cultures and legacies — are honored through this really beautiful piece of art,” said Richardson, who grew up in Camas and Washougal. “To still see this story and connection celebrated is great because that means the city is continuing to understand its past but also embrace its future.”
Villa, a resident of Suquamish, Washington, is a sculptor, carver, painter and muralist. He attended Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, and Portland State University, where he majored in art, learned iron casting and painting and became involved in the Confluence Project, a series of outdoor installations and interpretive artwork located in public parks along the Columbia River and its tributaries in Washington and Oregon.
As a member of the Yakama Nation, Villa was excited to receive the opportunity to honor Ough through his artwork.
“Through my extensive research on Betsey Ough of the Washougal people, I found her story inspiring on a personal level,” Villa said. “What it shows is how love can change one’s life and what can be created from it.”
Villa said his mural was inspired by a quote from Richard Ough that described his feelings for Betsey: “Come, pretty bird, and fly with me, for I am lonely, and my nest is empty.” He used flying egret birds to represent Betsey Ough in the mural, which also features a collection of handwoven baskets.
“I used seven (egrets), for that is a significant number in Columbia River longhouses,” Villa explained. “They are facing east, the way the wind blows on the river. The baskets are from the Two Rivers Heritage Museum and are part of a greater collection in Washougal, accenting the mural representative of White Wing as a weaver.”
WACA worked for more than a year to procure the mural, gathering donations and securing a grant from the Washington State Arts Commission.
“Ultimately, the more ‘showy’ pieces that we have in Washougal, the more people will drive out from Portland to see them and spend money in restaurants or something like that,” Cooper said. “The value to the people that live there is one thing, but the value to the businesses is something else. (Villa) is a well-known artist, and people will come to see (his work).”
The mural, Cooper said, “represents the genesis of our city.”
“I think most people who grow up here aren’t aware of the history, and I think (the mural) brings that to light on a very public place,” Cooper said. “Everybody deserves to know something about that history. As I learn more about it, it’s a pretty neat history, recognizing the origins of Washougal as a marriage between a Native American woman and a British man. It’s there for people to care about and know about, and it resonates.”