Michigan: Commentary

Michigan Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor and Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Digital Project Editor; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

Prior to the creation of the state of Michigan on 26 January 1837, several states claimed authority over the land within the present state. Following independence from Great Britain, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York raised claims they based on colonial grants and charters; they ceded these claims to the national government in the 1780s. Virginia attempted to establish a presence in the area, based on its 1609 colonial charter, and created its Illinois County in 1778 to encompass the entire area north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. Virginia dropped its claim and eliminated Illinois County in 1784.

Michigan was included in the Northwest Territory when it was created in 1787. Beginning in 1800, the western part of present Michigan came under the control of Indiana Territory, while the eastern part remained under the Northwest Territory until 1803 when Ohio achieved statehood. Between 1803 and 1805, Indiana Territory controlled all of present Michigan. In 1805 Michigan Territory was created to include all of the Lower Peninsula, but most of the Upper Peninsula remained part of Indiana Territory until 1809 when jurisdiction of the westernmost portion was transferred to the newly created Illinois Territory. A wedge in the Upper Peninsula between Illinois Territory on the west and Michigan Territory on the east remained a remnant of Indiana Territory until 1816 when Indiana achieved statehood; the area in the Upper Peninsula then became unorganized federal territory. Finally in 1818, with the creation of the state of Illinois, Michigan Territory expanded to include all of present Michigan, all of present Wisconsin, and part of present Minnesota. However, Michigan Territory's expansion was not complete. In 1834 a large area west of the Mississippi River was added to the territory, extending Michigan's jurisdiction into present Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Thus, Wisconsin's first four counties and Iowa's first two counties were all created by Michigan Territory and remained under its control until 3 July 1836, when Wisconsin Territory was created, and Michigan Territory was reduced to the area of the present state.

Michigan's interstate boundary disputes with Ohio and Wisconsin affected several counties. Many historians and geographers have studied the disagreement over the location of the Michigan-Ohio line, which eventually led to the so-called Toledo War, and several of these sources are cited in the bibliography. For its southern boundary, Michigan wanted the line described in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and in the act creating Michigan Territory—a line running due east-west from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan. That description did not agree with the description of Ohio's northern boundary found in its original state constitution. Nearly all contemporary maps incorrectly placed the southern tip of Lake Michigan north of its actual location, and Ohioans, worried that available maps were incorrect, feared losing to Michigan the Lake Erie harbor that became the city of Toledo. Various surveys were undertaken, neither side was willing to compromise, and between 1815 and 1829 Michigan Territory created four counties (Wayne, Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale) in the disputed area.

While Michigan Territory exercised jurisdiction in the area around Toledo, Ohio, as a full-fledged state, marshaled more political influence in Congress and kept Michigan from attaining statehood while the boundary controversy remained unresolved in the early 1830s. Finally, the combination of congressional pressure and the desire of many Michigan residents to attain statehood resulted in an extra-legal convention of Michigan citizens who accepted the Ohio line. Congress immediately admitted Michigan to the Union (26 January 1837), ending the dispute with Ohio. In contrast to the situation with Ohio, Michigan’s boundary with Indiana was settled in 1816 when Indiana achieved statehood, and, although it ran north of the line desired by Michigan, its establishment elicited little reaction from Detroit.

The boundary line chosen to separate Michigan from Wisconsin was supposed to be safe from the kind of problems that plagued the border with Ohio. With only minor disagreements this was the case until the twentieth century when the new 1909 Michigan constitution defined the boundary with Wisconsin in terms that differed from the previous 1850 constitution. The new definition would have given Michigan jurisdiction over a wedge of territory controlled by Wisconsin since 1837 and implicitly expanded the jurisdiction of Michigan's Gogebic County. Nothing happened for several years and Wisconsin continued to control the area. In 1923 Michigan acted to solidify its claim by filing suit in the U.S. Supreme Court and expanding the scope of its claim to cover more territory on the Upper Peninsula and more of the waters and islands of Green Bay. The Supreme Court in 1926 ruled entirely in Wisconsin's favor, but it created a new problem by erroneously defining the boundary through Lake Michigan and Green Bay differently from the intended course. The new line ran far to the north and gave Wisconsin nearly all of Green Bay and its islands, most of the Rock Island Passage, plus the tip of the Garden Peninsula of Michigan. Finally in 1936 this mistake was corrected and the present boundary was re-established.

Following the creation of Michigan Territory in 1805, Territorial Governor William Hull quickly authorized the creation of an unnamed county centered on Detroit; it would be ten years before Michigan Territory created another county. No records of this unnamed county have been found, and it appears no efforts were made to effect its organization. At the same time, Gov. Hull introduced a new level of civil jurisdiction when he divided the entire territory into four Districts:  Detroit, Erie, Huron, and Michilimackinac. These county precursors carried out many of the administrative and judicial functions of the territorial government. The district system lasted until October 1818, when the judicial districts were eliminated and their functions taken over by counties.

The Federal Public Land Survey began in Michigan in 1815, and by 1840 surveyors had completed work in the Lower Peninsula. With only a few early exceptions, lawmakers defined county boundaries in terms of the survey's townships and ranges, making the mapping of Michigan counties very straightforward and resulting in few problems of interpretation.

While the counties themselves were relatively stable, Michigan’s practice of creating unorganized counties presents many challenges. Unlike many states that created large counties in lightly settled areas and then divided them into smaller units as the population grew, Michigan created blocks of counties (e.g., twelve at a time in both 1829 and 1831, and twenty-nine in an omnibus 1840 law) to cover the entire Lower Peninsula ahead of settlement. Many of these counties had few or no permanent inhabitants and could not function independently. Until the population grew to the point where the unorganized county could begin to carry out its official functions, it was attached to a fully organized county. Inhabitants in the unorganized county had to travel to the host county to probate wills, enter land transactions, and conduct any other legal business. For some counties unorganized status lasted only a few months, for others it lasted thirty or forty years. The attachments often changed, so it is possible for records on an individual living in an unorganized county to be found in the archives of several different host counties, even though that person never moved. A further complication is the variety of relationships existing between organized and unorganized counties that might be specified in the laws. Counties could be attached "for judicial purposes," "for township purposes," "for purposes of taxation," etc. The attachment information, taken from the laws and quoted in the individual county chronologies and consolidated chronology of this digital atlas, speaks to the complexity of this problem.

The unorganized counties also affected the way in which census data was collected and reported. Unlike many states that gave some status to unorganized counties and counted them separately in the state and federal censuses, most Michigan state and federal census enumerations do not break out information from unorganized counties. As late as the 1870s, some unorganized counties were reported to have no population, while inhabitants of other unorganized counties were enumerated with their host county.

Some unorganized counties remained completely unorganized until their official organization, while in other cases, all or part of the unorganized county became part of a civil township under the jurisdiction of the host county. This township system, borrowed from New England and not to be confused with the survey townships of the Federal Public Land Survey, was very important in Michigan, and an understanding of this system is often necessary to understanding the changing jurisdictions. Civil townships were also subject to change, and one must sometimes piece together the civil township system in order to effectively search the census for individuals in unorganized counties. An essential guide for this undertaking is Evolution of Michigan Townships by the Mid-Michigan Genealogical Society (1972).

Michigan has experienced an exceptionally large number of county name changes. In 1840, for example, when twenty-nine new counties were created, all but one were given Indian names of local or regional significance. Evidently, these names did not meet with popular approval, no doubt in part because of the unusual spelling and difficult pronunciation; in 1843 sixteen of them were renamed. According to William Jenks, many of the new names, such as Alpena, Alcona, and Tuscola, were invented according to a plan based on Indian root words that was promulgated by Henry Schoolcraft, a prominent figure in early Michigan known for his extensive dealings with the Indians of the Great Lakes. In Jenks's view this was an unfortunate example of replacing meaningful names with ones of dubious derivation, often lacking in local significance. Readers who wish more information should consult William L. Jenks's, "History and Meaning of the County Names of Michigan" (1912) cited in the bibliography.

An early boundary in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, involving Michilimackinac (now Mackinac) and other counties in what became Wisconsin, was very imprecisely defined, and geographical knowledge of the area was spotty. A great help in plotting this boundary was John Farmer's 1831 Map of the Territories of Michigan and Ouisconsin, which was well known by contemporaries and depicted the county boundaries as they were recognized at that time. Historical maps do not frequently play a large role in this sort of work, as they are seldom useful for interpreting boundary descriptions, but this map is an exception.