That one time in Michigan: When we got our state flag

Michigan's current state flag, adopted in 1911. (Source: Public Domain)

By Karel Vega

February 7, 2024

Ever wondered what everything on Michigan’s flag means?

If you’ve spent a decent amount of time growing up or living in the Mitten, you’re likely somewhat familiar with our state flag’s design.

At least for me, living in Lansing, I see the Michigan flag everywhere. But it wasn’t until recently that I really took some time to take a good look at it and realized that it’s full of stuff: Latin phrases, animals, a tiny man in the center. It got me wondering what it all means. So, today, we’re gonna do a quick dive into the history of Michigan’s flag and the meaning behind what’s on it.

Michigan’s Great Seal

The Great Seal of Michigan, designed by Lewis Cass. (Source: Public Domain)

The design for the state flag traces back to the creation of what is known as Michigan’s Great Seal. What is a great seal? In the simplest terms, it’s a seal used by governments to authenticate important documents. As Michigan was just a few years from ascending from territory to state, it was in need of one.

The seal was designed by Michigan’s second territorial governor, Lewis Cass, in 1835.

According to the State of Michigan, the seal was patterned after the seal of the Hudson Bay Fur Company—a giant of the fur trading industry at the time (click here to see how similar the design is to our flag’s coat of arms).

You can think of the seal as two elements: the words and border that make the seal and the internal coat of arms. If you remove “The Great Seal of the State of Michigan” from the top of the seal and “A.D. MDCCCXXXV” (signifying the year 1835 in Roman numerals) from the bottom—along with the border, you’re left with Michigan’s coat of arms. That’s what we’ll focus on since it’s what makes up most of the design of our state flag.

Third time’s a charm

Here is a quick primer on the history of Michigan’s flag:

The current flag is the third to be used by the state. Michigan’s first flag—designed in 1837—featured a soldier, a woman, and the state’s coat of arms on one side and a portrait of Michigan’s first governor, Stevens T. Mason, on the other. There are no existing pictures of this flag, but here’s a portrait of Mason to get a sense of what one side might’ve looked like.

An 1837 portrait of Stevens Thomson Mason. (Source: Detroit Institute of Arts / Public Domain)

Nearly three decades later, in 1865, Michigan would get its second flag. It still featured the state’s coat of arms on one side (now without the soldier and woman), but this time, Mason’s portrait was replaced by the United States coat of arms on the other side.

Finally, in 1911, Michigan adopted the flag it still uses today, featuring the state’s coat of arms on both sides in front of a blue background.

The flag’s design

Michigan’s current state flag, adopted in 1911. (Source: Public Domain)

If you were asked to draw Michigan’s flag by memory, how do you think you’d do? It’s got a lot of details that are easy to miss even if you’ve seen it many times before.

The first thing you’ll probably notice when looking at the flag is that it’s very blue. It’s commonly believed that the blue symbolizes water, but according to Whitney Smith, former director of the Flag Research Center, the blue tint mirrors state military colors adopted in 1865.

After all that blue, the next thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s quite a bit of Latin. The three Latin mottos on the flag are:

E Pluribus Unum – this is written on the red ribbon at the top of the flag and translates to “Out of many, one”—you might also recognize it as the motto of the US, appearing on its great seal.

TUEBOR – this phrase is featured in the blue shield in the flag’s center and translates to “I will defend.”

Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice – this is the longest of the phrases and is featured in a white ribbon at the bottom of the flag. This translates to “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you,” which is Michigan’s official state motto. It’s believed this phrase references the Lower Peninsula since the UP was still a few years away from being part of Michigan when the motto was adopted.

Surrounding the central shield are three animals: An eagle above it and an elk and a moose holding up the shield.

The eagle represents the United States and its superior authority. It’s shown holding an olive branch with 13 olives—representing the first 13 states—along with three arrows. According to the State of Michigan, the olive branch and arrows symbolize the nation’s desire for peace while showing its willingness to defend itself.

The elk and moose that act as supporters of the shield are meant to symbolize the great animals of Michigan. Although it’s worth noting, as this Mlive article points out, both of these animals were nearly eradicated from the state and are now quite hard to find in the wild.

Finally, front and center is that blue shield with TUEBOR written on it. The central image features a man standing at the edge of a peninsula as the sun rises over a lake. The man’s right hand is raised while his left holds a rifle. According to the state, this represents Michigan’s love for peace while being ready to defend the nation and state.

A new flag for Michigan?

You might be surprised to know that Michigan’s flag is looked upon quite unfavorably in the flag community (yes, that’s a thing).

A 2001 study of US state, US territorial, and Canadian provincial flags conducted by the North American Vexillological Association—an organization devoted to the study of flags—rated Michigan’s flag 59th out of 72 flags evaluated.

It might be for that reason that lawmakers have made multiple attempts to start the process of adopting a new flag. In 2016, state Sen. Steven Bieda introduced a bill that would’ve set up a commission to find a new state flag design through a contest, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Another unsuccessful go at establishing a flag commission was made in 2021 by state Rep. Andrea Schroeder. Most recently, in April of 2023, state Rep. Phil Skaggs once again suggested the creation of a commission to begin the process of selecting a new flag design—although new legislation has yet to be introduced.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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