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The Battle Of The Creek

by Jane Faux Ratner

 

            Perhaps the most often asked question about Battle Creek history is “What kind of battle gave the creek its name?”  The simple answer is that we may never really know, but two accounts have surfaced over the 165 years since the name was first recorded on surveyors’ maps of the area.

            The first story is romantic, but not well authenticated.  It was reported in the June 16, 1878, Detroit Post and Tribune.  The anonymous author wrote:

            …many generations ago, two strong tribes of Indians fought here all day long, until the limpid waters of the stream ran red, like frothing wine, and the Indians named it Waupokisco, ‘River of Battle,’ or ‘River of Blood.’  This is said to be confirmed by traditions of Candian Indians.[i]

            Various writers have repeated this story with some variations since it was first reported, but to date no contemporary or archaeological evidence has been found which would elevate this account above the level of legend. 

            A more probable story of a smaller fight has been described by many sources since the first government surveying party traveled through this area in 1825.  We are fortunate that a description of that skirmish exists, written by Colonel John Mullett, leader of the party which surveyed and mapped the exterior township lines which divided much of southern Michigan, including Calhoun and Eaton counties.

            John Mullett was a private surveyor employed by the federal government.  National policy in the 1820s dictated that land had to be surveyed, described, and divided into counties, sections, and townships so that it could be sold at government land offices before settlement of the territories would be officially allowed.  Mullett and his surveying party had been working in this section of the Michigan territory for some time before the “battle” at the creek and had experienced growing frustration with what they regarded as the harassing techniques being employed by Native Americans in the area who objected to their presence.  Mullett was required by contract to “mark” or chop gashes in trees to establish his lines as he worked.  A group of Native Americans had been following his surveying party, pulling its stakes and defacing its marks on trees because they regarded Mullett’s actions as harming their spring harvest of sap from the sugar maples.  Finally, on March 14, 1825, tensions between the surveyors and the Native Americans culminated in a skirmish described by Mullett in a letter written on March 21 to Territorial Governor Lewis Cass.

SIR, in consequence of depredations committed on my party by the Indians, and their determined hostility to my surveying.  I have thought it most prudent to leave my district to inform you of the circumstances and to solicit your interference to prevent similar occurrences in future as well for the safety of the frontier settlements as those who may be engaged in surveying the publick lands…

                        About 1 Oclock P.M two Indians came to our camp armed with their rifles             hatchet & knives as usual and with the same hostility that they had uniformly evinced towards us ordered Taylor & Baldwin to leave the Country telling them that they [the Indians] would not permit us to mark the trees &C Taylor as I had done befor told them that our chiefs sent us that they must get an order from them &C they then demanded something to eat Mr. Taylor gave them what they wanted to eat gave them some tobacco and endeavoured to appease their apparrent anger and convince them that we were their friends the Indians smoked their pipes and appeared less angry than at first entered our tent examined our stores of provision and our rifle which lay at the mouth of the tent loaded.  They asked how many belonged to our party where they were gone at what time they would return &C Taylor answered that four more belonged to the party that they were gone North and would return about sun set. The Indians seemed to hang about in doubt whether to be our friends or enemys they had a short conversation together after which one stepped up to Taylor renewed his orders for him to leave the country at the same time drawing his hatchet and demanding our provision Taylor made him understand that he could not part with the provision that his men would return hungry and be offended &C the other Indian then presented his cocked rifle telling Taylor to be quick.  Baldwin then attempted to step behind the latter Indian, who             perceiving his design turned and discharged the rifle at Baldwins breast just as he knocked it aside the Indian then seized the rifle belonging to our camp and discharged that which Baldwin had the good fortune to knock aside as before he then made for the rifle belonging to the other Indian who was all this time engaged with Taylor with his hatchet which Taylor had caught hold of as the Indian made a pass at him, Baldwin followed his antagonist so close as to prevent             him form discharging The Third rifle which Baldwin succeeded in wresting from him but not until they had broken the stock in the scuffle – which left Baldwin in possession of the naked barrel with which he knocked down his antagonist and flew to The assistance of Taylor who with his antagonist lay on the ground struggling for possession of the hatchet, with one blow from the rifle Barrel he releived Taylor from his disagreeable situation.  They then bound the Indians and kept them until my return to camp which was after sun set.  After learning the             particulars of the affray from Taylor & Baldwin I went to them asked their names &C The one who discharged the rifles said his name was Mogaw and he was a             Chief of the Pottawahamy tribe the other said his name was Samo that he was of the ottowa tribe…I extorted from them a promise that we should be no more disturbed, took Mogaws rifle as a pledge which he seemed willing give up, then unbound them gave each a piece of bread, and left them…[ii]

            Mullett’s letter, written less than two weeks after the incident, conveys the frustration felt both by the Native Americans who only wanted to be left alone to harvest their sap and the surveyors who just wanted to finish their job.  The actual confrontation Mullett described was certainly unpleasant and probably inevitable but was by no means a major battle.

            Years later, however, as the incident was selectively recalled by other sources the “battle” seemed to grow in dimension.  Writing for the Oakland County Pioneer Society in 1876, another surveyor, Captain Hervey Parke, remembered:

                        In the year 1825 or 1826, while subdividing some twenty miles east of Battle Creek, I was surprised when returning one night from my work to find Mullett and his party, who had left their camp on the creek, before light, the same morning, in consequence of an encounter with Indians the day previous.  The red men in the vicinity, thinking the survey of the land would be likely to interfere with their sugar-making, had for some time manifested displeasure by hindering and obstructing the work, and at one time a sub-chief, while standing near Mr. M. suddenly sprang in front and brought him to a halt.  “Had I best hit him?” he asked of John Monroe, his rear chain man, who replied, “I guess not.”

 

                        The day previous Edwin Baldwin, the packer, and Taylor, the cook, were             together in camp.  It was the first day of March, the bees were flying and the former were trying to get their line.  Two Indians appeared and demanded provisions, which the cook refused, and called Baldwin.  One Indian seized a camp kettle, when the cook sprang upon him.  The second Indian attempted to assist his comrade, when the packer aimed a blow at him with the fire poker, a big handspike, which failed in effect by striking the tent-pole; then there was a clinch. Baldwin soon quieted his antagonist, and sprang to help Taylor who was a small-            sized man with a crippled hand, and was on the ground with his Indian, holding fast to the handle of his adversary’s tomahawk with one hand, while with the other he clinched firmly the fellow’s long hair.  A few blows made him as quiet as the other.  The Indian had fired his rifle during the encounter; Baldwin showed me where his clothes were scorched by the powder.  Some anxious hours followed, for the party came in later than usual that night.  One Indian rallied and desired to leave, but as his comrade was so severely injured they feared he would             die, they prudently bound him until morning when they gave him his liberty, and             leaving the still insensible Indian the party broke camp and started for home, stopping with me as I have described, the first night out.  I finished my work unmolested in three weeks and Mullett returned to his a few weeks later.  This originated the name of Battle Creek.[iii]

 

            Parke, at least, had the distinction of having spoken with Mullett and his party the day after the incident occurred so one can presume that there are some elements of truth in his account.  He did, however confuse Mullett’s equipment packer, Edward Baldwin, with Sylvester Sibley’s packer, Edwin Baldwin, Edward’s twin brother.  This leaves one to question how much of his memory of the event had faded in the 51 years since he first spoke with Mullet about the skirmish.

 

            Direct contact with Mullett, however, seemed to be no guarantee that the same story would be remembered by those who spoke with him.  In 1907 John Hinman related that:

 

                        The name [Battle Creek} originated in the following manner, and I had the story from Col. Mullett’s own lips.  It was in the spring of 1839 that I met Col. John Mullett at Bellevue, Eaton County, where he related to me the following narrative in relation to the name of the stream now called Battle creek:

 

                        ‘In the year 1825 I was employed by the United States government to make a survey in Calhoun county, and while making a survey in the western portion, our camp was located near a small lake on or near, section fourteen, and near the river in the town of Pennfield, and while there we were considerably annoyed by the Indians.  There seemed to be a few lazy vagabonds among them who would rather hang around our camp and beg something to eat than to obtain it elsewhere.  We had given them occasionally, but our stock had got so reduced that we were in danger of running out ourselves.  I instructed the two men left in camp to give those lazy Indians no more.  One day, during the absence of myself and two of our men, who were engaged in our duties in the survey, two Indians came to our camp and made a demand for some flour and other provisions.  The two men left in camp informed them that we had no more to spare, and that they must seek a boarding place elsewhere.  The Indians insisted on helping themselves, which soon brought things to a focus by way of a fight.  There was nobody killed or very much hurt.  One of the Indians was knocked own, but soon got up and both went away, causing us not more trouble.  When we surveyors came into camp that night, we had quite a laugh over the battle, and when I cam to make up my field notes, I said;  “Boys, what shall we call this stream?”  Taylor says, “Call it Battle Creek,” and almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, I put it down Battle Creek, which name it bears to the present day’[iv]

 

            Later in the same narrative Hinman went on further to comment that:

 

                        A former historian of Calhoun county, has inserted in his history a huge             story about guns being used in this terrible fight, which gave the bloody name to Battle Creek, - but somebody in writing up an account of that terrible battle was somewhat mistaken, as there was not a gun fired or used at all during the battle.[v]

 

            Both Parke and Hinman claimed to have heard the story directly from Col. Mullett, but each remembered hearing very different accounts, leaving modern historians puzzled about the veracity of either.

            As time passed fascination with the incident increased even among those persons whose connections with the original event were tenuous a best.  In 1883 O. Poppleton, a Birmingham dry goods merchant and amateur historian, related his account of the naming of the stream, basing his story on the 56-year-old memories of his aged boarder, Edwin Baldwin, brother of Mullett’s equipment packer.  Poppleton wrote:

 

                        …a brother of Edward Baldwin…resided in my place of residence and still lives there, from whom I have gleaned many facts relative to this event…Mr. Edwin Baldwin says the camp was near a stream on the base line, afterwards called Battle Creek…

                        Those two Indians came to the tent in the afternoon of March 14, 1825.             Taylor being alone in the tent, called Baldwin, who was within hailing distance, who hastened to camp, and upon entering it, found the two Indians helping themselves to flour, meat, and tobacco, filling their camp kettles, and making hostile demonstrations, being armed with tomahawk, knife, and each a loaded rifle.  Baldwin and Taylor arrested them in their proceedings of plunder, and attempted to forcibly eject them, which the Indians resisted.  Then the controversy             commenced in earnest; white man against red-skin, the Indian firing his rifle, and             then caught Mullett’s from the tent, and aimed it at Baldwin who struck the barrel aside with his arm just as the Indian fired, cutting a heavy woolen vest in two in front with the ball and powder.  The Indian then caught the other Indian’s rifle.              Baldwin, being a powerful, muscular man, clinched the rifle barrel near the muzzle, wrenched it from the hands of the Indian, and dealt him a blow, felling             him to the ground, breaking the gun stock off at the breech.

Taylor, who had grappled with the other Indian, had thrown him, and had become nearly exhausted in holding him down, and appealed to Baldwin for help.              In the first struggle, Taylor had caught the Indian’s arm at the wrist, as he raised             it, tomahawk in hand with the evident purpose of braining him, and continued holding his arm with one hand, the other clinched in his hair.  Baldwin directed Taylor to let go the red-skin’s hair, which he did, when he struck the Indian with the rifle barrel with which he had already felled one red-skin, crushing his skull…[vi]

 

            The incident Poppleton related in 1883 bore little resemblance to the “scuffle” described by Mullett in 1825.  Poppleton enriched his account with colorful phrases such as “plundering,” “wrench[ing] the rifle barrel,” “crushing [the Indian’s] skull,” “white man against red-skin.”  And yet, he was not to have the final word on the subject.  That distinction was left to an anonymous reporter from the Birmingham Eccentric who wrote the obituary for the much quoted Edwin Baldwin in 1889:

 

                        …[Edwin Baldwin] frequently passed through the surveyors camp of his             old employer Mullett, who, with his party, had a conflict with two Indians in March, 1825, and at which time his brother Edward and Mr. Taylor had a desperate struggle, escaping with their lives only through the courage and superior physical power of his brother.  It was from this occurrence that Battle Creek received its name.[vii]

 

            Over the years the stories of “battles” on the creek have been a constant source of romantic retelling and controversy.  Certainly the weight of evidence would suggest that the river was named by frustrated surveyors rather than from a massive battle between warring tribes as in the Waupokisco legend.  In 1859, however, the year that community leaders decided to incorporate the village of battle Creek as a city, some factions expressed strong sentiment that the name “Battle Creek” should be abandoned and the city called “Wapokosco” after that legend.

            Walter Woolnough and William Neale, editors of the Republican newspaper, the Battle Creek Journal, described the debate on January 7, 1859, in an article entitled “Battle Creek Not Dead Yet.”  They wrote:

 

                        After a prodigious display of eloquence and argument on both sides the great body of the meeting was divided so evenly, that the Chairman could not decide whether the ayes or noes were the stronger.  The various arguments for and against a change of name , were evidently very satisfactory to those already in favor of the sides successively advocated, but was resisted with much stiff-necked perseverance by the oppositions.  Poetry was called to the aid of Wapokosko.  The injured and fading Indians were to be kept in everlasting remembrance, as a sort of recompense to them for hunting grounds we had taken             away, by the adoption of this name.  County precedence was the prize held up to draw us towards Calhoun [City].  Local pride, and business convenience were             urged in favor of Battle Creek.  We were known and respected as Battle Creek.  The place gives importance to the name and not the name to the place…[viii]

 

            Despite the debate, the voters later expressed their will at the ballot box.  The name “Battle Creek” won the election with 315 votes, “Calhoun City” was a surprising second with 93, and “Wapokisko” received 50 votes much to the disappointment of Messrs. Woolnough and Neale.[ix]

Controversy over the name “Battle Creek” has persisted into the twentieth century.  As late as 1981 city leaders were still grappling with the symbolism inherent in the surveyors’ incident that gave the river and city its name.  The battle was first depicted in graphic form on the Battle Creek city seal, which was printed on the cover of the 1859 city charter and still may be seen in the form of a stained glass window on a stairway in Battle Creek’s City Hall.  A new city emblem was adopted in 1981 when local leaders decided with some embarrassment that the old depiction of the battle of the creek was overly violent, ethnocentric, and not representative of the “new” and more modern direction the city was assuming. 

            Much can be learned by close examination of the sources describing the battles of Battle Creek.  First, all of the evidence we have about what really happened is what the courts would call “hearsay.”  We have no evidence at all to sustain the story of the bloody Indian battle at Waupokisco and, although we possess many secondary and tertiary accounts, we may never know exactly what occurred in the surveyor’s camp on March 14, 1825.  None of the four principals in that scuffle left a primary written account.  Even Mullett’s handwritten field notes never use the words “Battle Creek.”  They only refer to the river as stream 136 or stream 139.[x]  Mullett’s letter to Governor Lewis Cass is probably our best source of information, but that account may have been colored by his evident frustration, fatigue, and/or political sensibilities. 

            Later renditions certainly made the events seem more exciting, but those accounts become more suspect the further away in time and from the principals that they were generated.

            Last, we should be careful not to allow ourselves to romanticize the incidents.  Perhaps an inter-tribal battle did occur at the river, but such events were sadly common and, as such, perhaps not worthy of poetry or romance.  In Mullett’s account, probably Mogaw and Samo did not visualize the downfall of their culture in the visit of the surveyors, although Mullett’s work did allow subsequent farming settlement of Native American lands, leading to the “removal” from Michigan of native Potawatomie under President Andrew Jackson’s policy in the 1830s and 1840s.  Certainly, as unhappy as he was, Mullett himself gave no indication that he viewed this incident as symbolic of the clash of two cultures which would eventually lead to the end of the way of life for one of them.  Those are values we are tempted to assign to the event as modern historians who have the virtue of hindsight.  Just as we would admonish later romanticists, however, we must also be careful to separate truth from romance; fact from interpretation.

            We may never be completely certain which incident gave our unassuming little stream the name “Battle Creek.”  All that we do know is that the event caused our city to be officially named “Battle Creek” – a fact which will influence our community’s identity forever.

 

 



[i]  “Calhoun County:  The City of Battle Creek, its Early History, Growth, and Present Condition,” [reprinted from Detroit Post and Tribune, June 16, 1878].  In Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, Together with Reports of County, Town, and District Pioneer Societies, Vol. III  (Lansing:  Robert Smith Printing Co., 1903), p. 348.

[ii]  Mullett, John,  “Letter to Governor Cass, March 21, 1825,” in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. XI, The Territory of Michigan, 1820-1829 (Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 667-669.

[iii]  Parke, Hervey, “Reminiscences,” In Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, together with Reports of County, Town, and District Pioneer Societies, Vol. III  (Lansing:  W.S. George & Co., 1881), p. 581.

[iv]  Hinman, John.  In Collections of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan Together with Reports of County Pioneer Societies, Vol. VIII, 2nd edition (Lansing:  Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford, 1907), pp. 213-214.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]  Poppleton, O., “How Battle Creek Received its Name,” in Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, together with Reports of County, Town, and District Pioneer Societies, Vol. VI  (Lansing:  W.S. George & Co., 1884), pp. 248-251.

[vii]  “Edwin Baldwin,” (Obituary reprinted from Birmingham Eccentric).  In Collections and Researches made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society including Reports of Officers and Papers Read at the Annual Meeting of 1889 (Lansing:  Darius D. Thorp, 1890), p. 157.

[viii]  “Battle Creek Not Dead Yet,”  Battle Creek Journal, Jan. 7, 1859, p.3.

[ix]  Ibid.

[x] John Mullett, Field Notes, Vol. 24, DNR Real Estate Collection, Surveyor’s Field Notes, State Archives of Michigan, Lansing, Mich.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

More information about government land policy in Michigan, surveying procedures and life in the camps can be found in:

Woodard, C.S., “The Public Domain, Its Surveys and Surveyors,” in The Historical Collections.  Collections and Researches made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society including Reports of Officers and Papers Read at the Annual Meeting of 1896, Vol. XXVII, 1897. pp. 306-323.

Jamison, Knox, “The Survey of Public Lands in Michigan,” in Michigan History, Michigan Historical Commission, Vol. XLII, 1958, pp. 197-215.

Cumming, John, “Michigan for Sale,”  in Michigan History,  Michigan Historical Commission, Vol. LXX, Nov./Dec. 1986, pp. 12-16.

Biographical information about Col. John Mullett can be found in “John Mullett and the Rectangular Land Survey in Michigan” by Daniel Jacobson of Michigan State University, published in The East Lakes Geographer, Vol. XXIV, 1989, pp. 115-127.