A Brief History of Battle Creek
Battle Creek’s heritage is rich and varied, making it one of the most historically distinctive communities in the country. Known across the globe as the breakfast cereal capital of the world, Battle Creek was also the cradle of the Seventh-day Adventist religion, the chosen home of social justice activist Sojourner Truth and a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
During the past 175 years Battle Creek has evolved from a small pioneer settlement to a village of progressive social reformers and an international industrial center.
To trace the history of the city, it is important to begin at the beginning, long before men walked the land.
The Geology of Battle Creek
In a 1907 souvenir photo booklet of Battle Creek, the authors speak of a “beautiful and prosperous city” thriving in the valley of two rivers, the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. They describe charming lakes, rich agricultural fields, and other important features. The beauties they describe were formed over eons of geologic time, but especially in more recent glacial periods. As the sometimes two-mile thick glaciers advanced and receded, they carved out the many distinctive surface features of the Battle Creek landscape. The hills around Battle Creek are actually glacial formations called moraines. When you drive from the Mill Pond up to Columbia on Riverside, you are actually climbing the Battle Creek Moraine. When you follow Morgan Road, you are going parallel to the Kalamazoo Moraine. When you enjoy a view of Goguac Lake, you are looking at a glacially formed body of water.
The flat area of Battle Creek is an “outwash plain,” meaning glacial material washed out of the melt water becoming the source material for soil. Oak openings and prairies flourished in outwash plains. These features attracted Native Americans and Euro-Americans to settle here.
The First People
As the last glacier began to melt about 16,000 years ago, it left a tundra-like climate that attracted caribou. About 14,000 years ago, the first people, the Paleo-Indians, followed these animals into the area. They were nomadic peoples who lived in small bands hunting and gathering. As the climate warmed, more forest fauna appeared. Different groups of Native peoples now settled in this area, starting perhaps 11,000 years ago with a cultural group called Archaic. They were a more sedentary people, hunting white tail deer as their primary source of meat. The technology of these people continued to advance. By 500 B.C. the Woodland cultural period predominated. They developed pottery and much more elaborate horticulture, including raised bed fields and corn.
Meanwhile another group of people were beginning a migration from the Atlantic coast up the St. Lawrence River valley. These people eventually settled in what we call southern Michigan, northern Indiana, central and northern Illinois and Wisconsin. They became known as the Potawatomi, the Keepers of the Fire.
When this area became part of the United States, these Native people, including the Potawatomi, were subject to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Systematic treks forced many Indians to migrate to western areas. One small group of six Potawatomi families, led by Chief Moguago, escaped. In the 1840s they came back to Calhoun County and gained land in the Athens area. Today the descendants of these families live in the Pine Creek reservation. In 1995 they gained federal recognition as the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians.
The “battle at the creek”
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. Insert: Old City Seal.
Founding a village
In 1831, after the government survey was finally completed, land in southwestern Michigan was offered for sale at $1.25 an acre. Jonathan Guernsey (a former surveyor) was only one of several pioneers to file a claim for the land at the confluence of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers. When his wife refused to move to the wilderness, Guernsey was forced to sell his claim to Nathanial Barney and Sands McCamly. Barney eventually sold his half to Quaker pioneers, Isaac, Abraham and Joseph Merritt and their brother-in-law, Jonathan Hart.
The potential water power available from the six-foot drop between the two rivers made the site attractive. Sands McCamly, who had retained the water power rights to the entire area, immediately began to capitalize on this potential. In 1835 he built a mill race between the two rivers, providing power for the first industries in the developing village. At its height, the mill race and later tail races and mill pond powered 18 businesses, including a wagon shop, an iron foundry as well as grain, saw, knitting and flour mills.
The Michigan Central railroad arrived in town in 1845 and was welcomed as the harbinger of prosperity and commercial development. Distant markets were now open to local industries. The Peninsular (later Grand Trunk) railroad soon connected Battle Creek to Canada and Chicago. The two competing rail lines bracketed the north and south edges of the downtown business and factory district.
As the city commercial center expanded, industries grew along the railroad lines and waterways. Small shops became thriving factories which grew into large industrial plants. By the turn of the century, heavy industrial factories ringed to downtown area, from Nichols and Shepard on the east to Advance Thresher and Duplex to the west. Two large steam pump factories were located between the rivers, at the northern and southern edges of the central downtown.
A buffer zone developed just to the north of the Battle Creek River, separating the spewing smokestacks of the bustling downtown from the quiet sanctuary of the elegant northside residential district. This area along Van Buren Street is the site of several of the large mainline churches and educational buildings.
The Freedom City
In its earliest years Battle Creek was known as a welcoming haven for freedom seekers, free thinkers and rebels. The Quakers who founded the settlement created an atmosphere which was unusually tolerant of different points of view and encouraged non-traditional attitudes.
Anti-slavery sentiment flourished here and Battle Creek soon became one of the important stops on the “Quaker Route” of the Michigan Underground Railroad. Many fleeing slaves crossed into the free territory of the North across the Ohio River. Most wished to travel even further north, away from the danger of pursuing slave catchers. These freedom seekers had two choices. The first was to proceed straight north through Ohio and across Lake Erie into Canada. The other primary route to Canada led west through Ohio to Indiana and Michigan. The “Quaker Route” began in Indiana and traveled through Cass County in southern Michigan, then north through Schoolcraft to Battle Creek. The route then turned east through Marshall to Detroit, where the refugees crossed over to the safety of Canada.
Quakers Erastus and Sarah Hussey, commemorated on the Battle Creek Underground Railroad monument, were the local conductors who assisted more than 1,000 fugitives to freedom between 1840 and 1855. Many of these freedom seekers chose to stay in Battle Creek instead of continuing to Canada. They built homes, established churches and founded businesses as they integrated themselves into the fabric of the city.
A committed abolitionist and activist, Hussey also edited The Liberty Press, Michigan’s anti-slavery newspaper, and was active in local, state and national Republican politics. As a state Senator, he authored Michigan’s Personal Liberty Law, to counter the onerous provisions of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law.