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Genealogical Research in Michigan

Genealogy Research Michigan

Tracing your family history in Michigan can be a fascinating trip through time. As one of the earliest areas in America settled by Europeans, there are a wealth of genealogical records and resources for tracing your family history in Michigan. Tracking these records down can be an ominous task, but don’t worry, we know just where they are, and we’ll show you which records you’ll need, and help you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Michigan. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “The Wolverine State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Michigan ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Michigan

It is believed that Native Americans first settled Michigan as early as 11,000 B.C. The first European explorer to venture into the area was the French explorer Étienne Brûlé in the early 17th century. The area was claimed by France and was part of French Louisiana from 1682 to 1762. During this period the fist settlement was established in 1701 at Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, now known as the city of Detroit.

After France’s defeat in the French and Indian Wars, the area was ceded to Great Britain. Great Britain subsequently ceded the region to America after it was defeated in the Revolutionary War. Michigan became part of the Northwest Territory in 1787, and remained so until 1800. Michigan became a separate territory in 1806, and when the Erie Canal opened in 1825 connecting the Great lakes with the Hudson River, large numbers of settlers flocked to the area. A state Constitution was approved in 1835, but Michigan’s admittance to the Union was delayed by a border dispute with Ohio known as the Toledo War.

Michigan finally became a state on January 26, 1337, and when iron and copper deposits were discovered, the construction of the Soo Locks began and was completed in 1855. In addition to mining, logging and agriculture became important industries, and Michigan’s economy began to grow. The growing economy and population allowed Michigan to make a substantial contribution to the Union cause during the American Civil War. Ninety thousand troops from Michigan, including General George Custer fought on the Union side, and played major roles in several major battles, especially at Gettysburg.

  • Important Dates in Michigan History
    • 1701– First permanent settlement established at Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit
    • 1763 – Ceded from France to Great Britain
    • 1774 – Part of Quebec
    • 1783 – Ceded from Great Britain to United States
    • 1787 – Part of Northwest Territory
    • 1800 – Part of Indiana Territory
    • 1805 – Created as separate territory
    • 1812 – Detroit captured by British during War of 1812
    • 1835 – State constitution written
    • 1837 - Statehood

Famous Battles Fought in Michigan

There is only one battle of note that has ever been fought on Michigan soil, but it was a deadly and bloody conflict. The Battle of Frenchtown, also known as the River Raisin Massacre or Battle of the River Raisin, was a series of conflicts that took place from January 18–23, 1813 during the War of 1812.

These battle accounts that do exist can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common Michigan Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Michigan ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Michigan.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Michigan Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Michigan Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.

Michigan Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

Michigan Genealogical Society – census, vital records, religious records, city directories, military records, family histories
6000 Douglas Ave.
P.O. Box 7735
Des Moines, IA 50322
Telephone: 515-276-0287

Old Fort Genealogical Society – cemetery records, township maps, old settlers list
Ft Madison Public Library
1920 Ave E
Ft Madison, IA  52627

Michigan Family History Centers

Additional Michigan Genealogical Resources

Michigan Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Michigan genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Michigan Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Michigan Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Michigan Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Michigan Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

Historical Michigan Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Michigan City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Michigan is the Michigan Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to Michigan.

Michigan Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Michigan vital records

Some county clerks kept vital records as early as 1838. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of these documents for many counties which can be accessed at Michigan Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the Michigan Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

Original copies of Michigan Vital Records for death, birth, marriage, and divorce may be ordered from:

Michigan Department of Public Health
Division of Vital Records
605 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, IL 62702-5097
Telephone: (217) 782-6553
Fax: 217-785-3209

The Michigan Archives has an Michiganwide Marriage Index, 1763–1900 which contains one million marriages, or two million names.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Federal census records for Michigan exist from 1800 to 1990. Unfortunately the 1800 census was lost, and the 1810 census contains only a few names from Randolph County. The 1890 census was destroyed, though a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County remain.

Michigan Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

The Michigan Archives collected some early Michigan church records that are now held by the Michigan Library.

St. Clair County Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has compiled the Index to Bethel Baptist Church Minutes and Membership Lists, 1809 - 1909 for St. Clair County, Michigan

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Michigan Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Michigan Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Michigan Cemetery records
    • Michigan Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Michigan cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Michigan Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Michigan Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Michigan newspapers online for free.

Michigan Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors. Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Since 1964, the circuit court in each county has custody of the earlier court records including those of the former Cook County Superior Court and a few other Chicago area courts. They can be found at:

Clerk of Circuit CourtArchives Room 1113
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 603-6601
Fax: 312-603-4974

The Michigan Regional Archives has a huge database of court and county records for the entire state of Michigan

Family Search – has an online collection of probate records, which includes will, indexes, dating from 1819-1970

Michigan Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

US National Archives – Immigration and Naturalization records for the entire United States

Family Search has two searchable online indexes, the Michigan, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the Michigan, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

Michigan Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Michigan Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Michigan where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • In Detroit…Courage Was the Fashion: The Contributing Women to the Development of Detroit from 1701 to 1951, Alice T. Coratheru (Wayne State University Press, 1953)
  • Black Women in the Middle West: The Michigan Experience, Darlene Clark Hine (Indiana Historical Bureau, 1986)
  • Birchbark Belles: Women on the Michigan Frontier, Larry B. Massie (Priscilla Press, 1993)
  • True Sisterhood: Michigan Women and Their Kin, 1820-1920, Marilyn Ferris, Motz (State University of New York Press, 1983)

Selected Resources for Michigan Women’s History

Michigan Historical Center
702 West Kalamazoo St.
Lansing Michigan 48913

Eli Sharp Museum
3225 Fourth St.
Jackson, MI 49203

Michigan Women’s History Center
213 Main St.
Lansing, MI 48933

Common Michigan Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Michigan and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Alcona, Alger, Allegan, Alpena, Antrim, Arenac, Baraga, Barry, Bay, Benzie, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Clare, Clinton, Crawford, Delta, Dickinson, Eaton, Emmet, Genesee, Gladwin, Gogebic, Grand, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Houghton, Huron, Ingham, Ionia, Iosco, Iron, Isabella, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kalkaska, Kent, Keweenaw, Lake, Lapeer, Leelanau, Lenawee, Livingston, Luce, Mackinac, Macomb, Manistee, Marquette, Mason, Mecosta, Menominee, Midland, Missaukee, Monroe, Montcalm, Montmorency, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oakland, Oceana, Ogemaw, Ontonagon, Osceola, Oscoda, Otsego, Ottawa, Presque, Roscommon, Saginaw, Sanilac, ,Schoolcraft, Shiawassee, St. Clair, St. Joseph, Tuscola, VanBuren, Washtenaw, Wayne, Wexford

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