State Research Guide: Michigan

By Lauren Gamber Premium

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Ask any native Michigander (or Michiganian, as some call themselves) which part of the mitten-shaped peninsula she comes from, and she’ll likely point to a spot on her take-anywhere map—the back of her left hand. That is, unless she hails from the Upper Peninsula (UP for short), a leaping-rabbit- shaped outgrowth of Wisconsin that’s separated from the tip of the Lower Peninsula by the Straits of Mackinac.

American Indians settled the UP more than 2,000 years ago. During the 1600s, French missionaries and fur traders joined them and founded Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan’s first permanent settlement, in 1668. The French settled southern Michigan in 1690 at Fort St. Joseph, near Niles. Then in 1701, French army officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established Fort Pontchartrain, the modern-day Motor City, at the base of the mitten’s thumb.

The name Michigan derives from the Chippewa word Michigama, meaning “large lake.” Wherever your Michigan ancestors settled, they had direct access to four of the five Great Lakes—Huron, Michigan, Erie and Superior—plus some 11,000 inland lakes. These bodies of water have proved so important to Michigan’s settlement and economy that the Wolverine State (as it came to be known) has an alternate moniker: the Great Lakes State.


Settlement and growth

For about 100 years after Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain (which became Fort Detroit), the French, British, various Indian peoples and newly independent Americans struggled for control of Michigan’s forts. Under the Ordinance of 1787, Michigan became part of the Northwest Territory. In 1805, President Thomas Jeff erson declared Michigan a separate territory, with Detroit as its capital. By 1833, Michigan Territory had more than 60,000 inhabitants, enough to achieve statehood. But a battle with Ohio over the ownership of Toledo delayed statehood until 1837, once Michigan had surrendered Toledo in exchange for the western section of the UP.

Farming replaced fur trading as the state’s primary industry. Settlers discovered copper and iron ore in the UP during the 1840s. After the Civil War, the lumber industry fl ourished, and railroads transported Michigan’s timber, livestock and food throughout the United States. Henry Ford can take credit for Michigan’s biggest economic and population surge, though, with the founding of the Ford Motor Co.

Immigration records

The state’s population skyrocketed in the mid-1800s. New Englanders settled in the southern counties; Dutch farmers in the southwest; Germans in the Saginaw Valley; Irish in the southeast; and Finns and Italians in the UP. In the early to mid-1900s, the booming automobile industry drew hundreds of thousands of Southerners, African- Americans, Canadians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians and Greeks to Detroit and surrounding communities.


Detroit was a major arrival port for immigrants, particularly in the 1900s as they came to work in auto plants. Browse Detroit passenger manifest index cards (1906-1954) at the free FamilySearch, or search and view passenger lists at subscription site Find those who entered from the north between 1895 and 1954 in Ancestry’s collection of Canada-to-US border crossing records (FamilySearch has an index to these).

The state archives has some naturalization records, originally recorded by county clerks; you can order copies online. Search online indexes to naturalizations from several counties here. FamilySearch has searchable index cards to naturalizations in eastern Michigan.


Various colonial (1710-1796), territorial (1810, 1827, 1834) and state censuses (1837-1969) exist for Michigan. You’ll find most of them at the Michigan State Archives. WorldVitalRecords has an index to the 1884 census; FamilySearch and Ancestry have indexes to the 1894 censuses. The latter site also has indexes to other, smaller territorial and state censuses.

Federal census data are available for Michigan for 1820 to 1940. Search these online at major genealogy websites including FamilySearch, Ancestry, MyHeritage and Findmypast.

Vital records and obituaries

Statewide registration of Michigan births, marriages and deaths began in 1867. You can order copies of these certificates (as well as divorce records since 1897) from the Michigan Vital Records Office (see Fast Facts). Digitized death records for 1897-1920 are searchable at Seeking Michigan. You’ll find birth (1775-1995), marriage (1822-1995) and death (1800-1995) indexes at Family- Search, along with some record images. Ancestry has mostly smaller, overlapping indexes. About 170,000 Michigan deaths (1867-1897) are indexed on the state Department of Health and Human Services site. The state archives and/or library have indexes to marriage (1867-1921, 1950-1969), divorce (1897-1977) and death (1867-1914) records (see Toolkit for web addresses).

The counties where your ancestors lived may have registered births and deaths before 1867. Check local research guides or contact the appropriate county clerk for resources. Obituaries can stand in for official death records and add details about your ancestors’s lives and family members. The Michigan Obituary Project website offers help finding newspaper obituaries from around the state. Finally, request help with obituary research from the Detroit Public Library.

Military records

More than 90,000 Michigan men—23 percent of the state’s male population in 1860—joined Union forces during the Civil War. The state archives has a broad collection of Civil War records. Descriptive rolls provide information such as name, rank, date and place of enlistment, and a physical description of the soldier. Seeking Michigan has several Civil War-era datasets and digitized images. Service record indexes and/or images are on subscription site Fold3. An 1883 pensioner’s census is transcribed at the Michigan Family History Network. An 1888 census of Civil War veterans and the state’s 1890 list of Union Civil War veterans (from the otherwise mostly destroyed 1890 federal census) are at the state archives.

The state archives also houses documents pertaining to the Spanish-American War, the World Wars, and the Korean War. The Family History Library has an impressive selection of microfilmed military resources, many of which are being digitized at FamilySearch. Check regularly for new additions to the online collection.

Land records

Your ancestors’ land claims could provide birth, marriage, citizenship and migration details. After the United States acquired Michigan, unclaimed land was distributed through local land offices. The first one opened in Detroit in 1818. Find land office records at the National Archives and Records Administration; search for federal land patents here. The state archives has plat and tract books, land-ownership maps and tax rolls; plat maps are also available online at Seeking Michigan. Deeds showing land exchanges between private parties are recorded at county courthouses.

If you seek maps, the state archives and the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection have a lot to offer. You’ll find Sanborn fire-insurance maps for Detroit and other Michigan cities, thematic and national atlases, and topographic maps. See also a digitized map collections at Seeking Michigan and in the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection website.

Probate files

Probate records are often the final government records on an individual. In Michigan, county probate courts handle these records. But you can browse digitized probate records from across the state (dating as early as 1797) at FamilySearch.

Whether your relatives hailed from the tip of the thumb or the ear of the rabbit, you’re bound to find them in Michigan’s outstanding libraries and archives. And when you visit, be sure to take in those lovely Great Lakes.

For more state facts and a full list of resources, head over to our Michigan Fast Facts and Key Resources.

From the May/June 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine.