Michigan Ethnic Group Research
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.
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.
- 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