For about as long as Battle Creek has been a city, newcomers have wondered how it got its name. But even if you know about the historical skirmish between surveying settlers and Native Americans, you might still be surprised by what you find on the stairs in Battle Creek’s city hall.
It's a stained glass depiction of the old city seal, dedicated in the early 1900s.
“What the seal shows is a surveyor clubbing a Native American,” says Battle Creek City Communications Specialist Jessica Vanderkolk. “So just that act of violence alone I think was probably the root of a lot of the controversy over using that as our official seal.”
In 1981, the city adopted a new seal to place on promotional things like city vehicles, business cards, and press releases. It shows the faces of a Native American and a surveyor, but that’s it.
But according to Vanderkolk, that’s not the real city seal—the official seal hasn’t changed and it’s still used today.
“We use them on our certificates of election inspectors and any other documents that request the official city seal or require an official city seal. It’s still used," she says.
"We still have the stamps that press it into the paper. It is hard to tell how exactly the depiction looks when you see the stamp—especially if it’s on white paper, it’s just kind of hard to see the detail. But it is still the original seal.”
Vanderkolk says the way the 1981 resolution was worded, the new emblem was never intended to replace the seal.
Joe Schwarz is an ear, nose, and throat doctor in Battle Creek. He’s also a former city mayor, state senator, and U.S. Congressman. Schwarz was serving on the Battle Creek city commission when it adopted the new logo.
“I don’t think we even thought about cultural tensions at that point," he says. "I mean, the seal was superannuated, it was outdated. Even though the piece of stained glass that’s in the city hall is quite colorful. And we thought, ‘Well you know this is an outdated city seal and we can do something with a little more pizazz.’ And we did.”
Schwarz says though the old seal certainly is historic—being more than a hundred years old—the scene it depicts might not be accurate.
According to an article by Battle Creek historian Jane Ratner, the accounts of that skirmish are so different from one another that it’s hard to say what happened. Schwarz says it’s possible there may not have been a skirmish at all. He says one thing’s for sure, to say it was a “battle” is an exaggeration.
“There may have been words exchanged and a fist-fight and a few things thrown, but that’s it. Nobody was shot, nobody was stabbed, nobody was killed, nobody was injured. But I think they were trying to find a name for the area,” says Schwarz.
Despite this, Schwarz says the seal does represent the relationship between Native Americans and settlers at that time.
“I think you just take the old seal and say, ‘That was our old seal. It’s a more than 100-year-old stained glass depiction of something that took place in the late 1820s. That’s history,” says Schwarz.
Albeit a dubious depiction of a troubling part of American history embossed on the city’s official documents. But Jessica Vanderkolk says unless you work for the city, you would likely never know that the 1981 logo wasn’t the official seal.
“Most of the time that’s what our residents see because that’s how we represent the city in a lot of ways now. They would only see the original seal if they see it in our stained glass or on official documents,” she says.
We attempted to contact officials from the Nottwaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi for this story, but they declined to comment at this time.