Michigan is located in the North Central part of the United States. It is one of the most geographically interesting U.S. states because it consists of two different land masses (peninsulas) with water completely separating them from each other. Also, of the five Great Lakes, four run along the borders of Michigan. In fact, the two peninsulas of Michigan are the Straits of Mackinac, which split Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Lakes Erie, Huron, and Saint Clair border the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the east. It is also bordered by the Saint Clair River and the Detroit River. Ontario, Canada is on the other side of those bodies of water. The southern part of the Lower Peninsula is bordered by the states of Indiana and Ohio, while Lake Michigan borders the peninsula to the West. The Straits of Mackinac, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan border the peninsula to the north. The Straits of Mackinac and those two great lakes also border the Upper Peninsula to the south. The Saint Mary’s River is on the east side of the Upper Peninsula. Lake Superior marks the Upper Peninsula’s northern border, while the state of Wisconsin borders it to the west.

On January 26, 1837, Michigan became the 26th state in the Union. At that time, it was known mainly for its fur traders. Later in the 1800s it became known for its agriculture as well. Then, when automobiles were developed in the early 1900s, Michigan became known for its automobile companies and industrial factories.

The Lower Peninsula of Michigan is particularly well-known as an industrial hub. However, the Upper Peninsula of the state is known more for its wilderness and natural surroundings, as well as its mineral deposits.

The state of Michigan gets its name from Lake Michigan. However, nobody is quite sure where Lake Michigan got its name. Some people theorize that it comes from the Algonquian word for “big water,” which is “michigama.” Other people theorize that it is a derivative of the Chippewa word for “clearing,” which is “majigan.” In the early days of the state, trading posts were well-known for wolverine pelts, which is why Michigan is often called the “Wolverine State.”

Much of the state’s early history revolved around its various waterways. Those included inland lakes, the Great Lakes, and multiple rivers. In fact, Michigan’s waterways more or less controlled the food supply and the transportation in the area. They even played major roles in battles and conflicts. Settlements were also constructed based on the layout of Michigan’s waterways. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, which caused many people to immigrate to the area. Soon, the area began to develop, thanks in large part to the state’s mineral deposits drawing people to the region. The fact that Canada was so close to Michigan also increased early exploration of the area.

From 1518 to 1622, when the first explorers from France came to Michigan, around 15,000 Native Americans were living in the area. Those tribes included the Huron (Wyandot), Miami, Ottawa, Ojibway, Chippewa, and Potawatomi tribes.

Étienne Brulé is believed to be the very first European explorer to come to what is now Michigan. However, he wasn’t sent from Europe. He was actually sent by Samuel de Champlain of Canada in 1618 or 1619. In 1634, Jean Nicolet, a French Canadian explorer, came to the area. Explorers were drawn to the area for industry, wealth, adventure, and to set up missionaries. In fact, in 1668 and 1671 missions were established at Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace. Late that century several French forts were constructed in what is now Michigan as well. Several French Canadian families lived around the forts, grew crops, and participated in the fur trade in the region.

In 1701, the territory that is now Michigan was owned by France. A French explorer came to the area that year to protect the area from British invasion and to establish trade. His name was Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, and he established the first permanent settlement in Michigan, Detroit.

Throughout the 1700s the United States, France, and Great Britain all kept warring over ownership of what is now Michigan. Several Native American tribes in the area also took sides during those battles. From 1760 to 1796 Michigan was under British rule, despite the fact that the area was ceded to the United States in 1783. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 defined the area that is now Michigan, but it didn’t call the land by that name. Michigan was governed by the Northwest Territory auspices between 1796 and 1800. Most of the settlers at that time were French. They mainly lived either on Mackinac Island or in Detroit. Although, many members of the merchant class were either Scottish or English. Several French farmers were living near the Raisin River to the south of Detroit around that time. However, that area was part of Indiana Territory from 1803 to 1805. Michigan Territory was founded on January 11, 1805, and Michigan fell under British control again soon after that, during the War of 1812. However, the United States gained control of the region again as of 1813.

After the United States regained control of Michigan, it became known for its mining and lumber industries. The expansion of those industries led to new settlements popping up. That, in turn, led to the establishment of the first land office in Michigan, which began operating in 1818. Nevertheless, the difficult terrain kept major migrations from occurring in Michigan for quite a while, since Lake Erie was considered to be more difficult to travel on than the Atlantic Ocean at that time.

The federal government of the United States funded several improvements that lead to the Great Lakes being more widely traveled. Those improvements included work on Michigan’s harbors and lighthouses. They also funded construction of the Erie Canal. After the Erie Canal was opened, many immigrants began traveling to Michigan from New England and New York. The construction of more roadways in the state also led to more people coming to the area from other states, such as Indiana and Ohio. Many of those immigrants were young, middle class, married farmers wanting to start new lives with their spouses.

Prior to Michigan becoming a state, not many foreign people settled in the area. However, there were some areas with Irish, German, and Quaker settlers. Many settlers also came from New England and other parts of the United States.

The state government of Michigan was established in 1835. However, statehood itself was stalled by the Toledo War, which was really an Ohio and Michigan border dispute. No fatalities occurred during the dispute, despite armed men being prepared for a physical conflict. The result of the dispute is that Ohio received certain southern Michigan land and Michigan received the Upper Peninsula as it is today. The state government was in place throughout that conflict, but statehood wasn’t actually gained until January 26, 1837.

From the 1840s through the 1880s many immigrants were attracted to Michigan by the iron and copper industries, as well as the lumber industry. That led to many people coming to the area from Poland, Sweden, Italy, Norway, Finland, and Ireland. Also, a group of refugees from Holland seeking religious freedoms came to the area. They were skilled farmers and craftsmen. So, they helped to increase farming and other industries in Michigan.

As the 1900s began, the forests had been mostly cut down in Michigan and most of the iron ore had been mined. However, the automobile industry was booming. Many African Americans came from the south to work in the automobile factories, along with eastern European immigrants. To this day, Detroit remains a major automobile manufacturing hub and a heavily populated part of the state.

Michigan Ethnic Group Research

Michigan African American
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In 1796, 500 people were living in the Detroit area. Those people included both African Americans and Native Americans. Some of the African Americans were free, while others were enslaved. Many religious groups started speaking out against slavery in the area from the 1840s to the 1850s. So, it should come as no surprise to researchers that the Underground Railroad was highly prevalent in the state. Many African Americans traveled along it up into Canada. However, some chose to stay and live in Michigan. The “personal liberty law” was passed in 1855 as a way to keep slave owners from going after escaped slaves who settled in the state. It was still possible to recover slaves around that time, but the process was greatly delayed, and often caused violent outbursts.

Many African Americans came to the Detroit area from the southern states in the 1900s looking for work in the newly growing automotive field.

In the 1600s, when the French first explored Michigan, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Native Americans were living in the area. President Monroe proposed the removal of those tribes in 1825. A treaty was signed between the United States government and three of those tribes later that year. Those tribes were the Chippewa, Sioux, and Winnebago.

The Miami tribe moved outside of what is now Michigan in the early 19th century. The Huron tribe was given land in the southeastern part of Michigan. However, they were later moved to 4,996 acres of land along the river by the same name. In 1842, all of their property rights were surrendered in a treaty, and they soon left Michigan.

The Treaty of Chicago, which was signed in 1833, ceded the last of the Potawatomi reservation land to the United States. They moved to designated lands on the western side of the Mississippi River. Some members of the tribe began migrating to Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas in 1838, but many tribe members stayed behind or escaped from the government agents and came back to the state.

Michigan native american research
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Many Native American documents can e found in Circular No. 30 at the State Archives of Michigan. Their Reading Room has a finding aid that can assist researchers in locating the records of interest.

The 1908 Chippewa Indians Census, also called the Durant Roll, can be found in the Burton Historical Collection. Every person listed on the 1870 Ottawa and Chippewa Tribe Roll and their descendants who were still living as of March 4, 1907 is listed in that census. The census also includes ages, genders, bands, and residents of each person listed.

Many of the records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs can be found at the National Archives—Great Lakes Region. Those records include annuity rolls and census records dating back to the 1880s. Correspondence from Mount Pleasant Indian School and individual financial records for people that were part of the Mackinac Agency are also included in that collection.

Letter books, treaty negotiations, correspondence, and other files can be found in National Archives Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The record known as M1, which is part of Record Group 75. It features 71 rolls of microfilm with Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Michigan records from 1814 to 1851. Ratified Indian treaties from 1722 to 1869 are listed in Record Group 11, U.S. Government, General Records, M668.

The first Europeans to settle in what is now Michigan were French. French Notarial Records for Montreal from the years of 1682 to 1822 can be found in 22 volumes as part of the Burton Historical Collection. A 4-volume collection of Detroit Notarial Records from 1737 to 1795 is also part of that collection. Those files include fur trade transactions, indentures, servant and apprentice contracts, business contracts, and other important documents. Those researchers looking for French Canadian connections in Michigan should also investigate religious and provincial records in Canada.

The Mount Clemens Public Library holds records of the French-Canadian Heritage Society, including membership lists, newsletters, meeting minutes, and quarterly journals. The Mount Clemens Public Library website lists more information about that collection.

Researchers interested in information about or records from the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan should consult the Burton Collection, which can be found at the Detroit Public Library.

Many immigrants came to Michigan during its early days. All of the repositories and collections across the state have some immigrant information on file. For example, letters from Swedish immigrants can be found in Ann Arbor as part of the Michigan Historical Collections. Newspapers published in Swedish can also be found there. When Detroit celebrated its 250th anniversary, Ethnic Groups in Detroit (Wayne State University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology: Detroit, 1951) was published. It is a valuable tool for researchers, since 43 different ethnic groups are mentioned within its pages.


Further Reading

  • The Black Pioneer in Michigan. Midland, Mich.: Pendall Publishing Co., 1973.
  • Black Experiences in Michigan History. Lansing, Mich.: Michigan History Division,Michigan Department of State, 1975.
  • State Archives of Michigan. Circular No. 29, African-Americans. Lansing, Mich., 2002.
  • “The Indians of Michigan and the Cession of Their Lands to the United States by Treaties,” Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, 16 (1894– 95): 274-97

Michigan History Databases and other Helpful Links

The websites below will provide state-specific details to those in search of information for Michigan genealogy work.

State Genealogy Guides

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