Ethnic Groups of Michigan

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This entry was originally written by Arleigh P. Helfer, Jr. and Carol L. Maki for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Michigan Family History Research series.
History of Michigan
Michigan Vital Records
Census Records for Michigan
Background Sources for Michigan
Michigan Maps
Michigan Land Records
Michigan Probate Records
Michigan Court Records
Michigan Tax Records
Michigan Cemetery Records
Michigan Church Records
Michigan Military Records
Michigan Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Michigan Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Michigan Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Michigan
Michigan County Resources
Map of Michigan

African American

Among the 500 residents in Detroit in 1796, both Native American and African American slaves are listed along with some free African Americans. During the 1840s and 1850s, several religious denominations in Michigan crusaded against slavery; the 'Underground Railroad' assistance to fleeing slaves included a well-established course through the state to Canada. Some African Americans chose to settle in Michigan. In February of 1855 the state legislature passed a 'personal liberty law' to block the recovery of escaped slaves who were in Michigan. Southerners who attempted to retrieve their slaves in Michigan were met with delay and violence.

In the twentieth century, large numbers of African Americans, displaced by agri-business in the south, gravitated to Detroit for employment opportunities in the automotive industry. For additional information and background, see African-American family manuscripts at the Burton Historical Collection: Malcolm Dade (1831'1976), Northcross Family (1899'1973), and the Pelham Family (1851'1948).

Also see:

  • Banner, Melvin E. The Black Pioneer in Michigan. Midland, Mich.: Pendall Publishing Co., 1973.
  • Larrie, Reginald. 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.

Native American

Michigan had a Native American population of 15,000 to 20,000 when the first French explorers entered the state in the 1600s. Early in 1825 President Monroe proposed the removal of the indigenous population from Michigan. In August of that year the first treaty was signed with the Sioux, Winnebago, and Chippewa tribes.

In the early 1800s the Miami nation moved outside the present boundaries of Michigan. The Huron were first given a southeastern Michigan tract of land and then moved to 4,996 acres along the Huron River. The tribe eventually left Michigan when an 1842 treaty surrendered all their property rights in that state.

The Potawatomi Indian nation ceded its final reservations in Michigan to the United States by the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, agreeing to move to assigned lands west of the Mississippi. Beginning in 1838 members of the tribe started westward, first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas. However, significant numbers of the tribe did not leave Michigan and eluded the government agents or escaped during the journey to the west to return to Michigan.

The State Archives of Michigan catalogs a variety of documents relating to Native Americans in the state (Circular No. 30). A finding aid in their reading room details the holdings and how to use them.

The Burton Historical Collection has the 1908 census of the Chippewa Indians of Michigan, known as the Durant Roll. It names 'all persons and their descendants who were on the roll of the Ottawa and Chippewa Tribe in 1870 and living on March 4, 1907.' The census lists each name, relationship to the head of the family, age, sex, band within the tribe, and place of residence.

The National Archives'Great Lakes Region has sizable holdings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including census and annuity rolls for Michigan beginning in the 1880s. Their collection includes financial records for individual Indians at the Mackinac Agency and correspondence from the Mount Pleasant Indian School.

National Archives Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, includes correspondence, documents relating to negotiation of treaties, letter books, and special files. Records of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Michigan (1814'51) are on seventy-one rolls of microfilm designated as M1 in Record Group 75. Record Group 11, U.S. Government, General Records, M668, includes the actual ratified Indian treaties (1722'1869).

For additional information, see A. Felch, '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.

Other Ethnic Groups

The French were the first Europeans to inhabit present-day Michigan. Christian Denissen's Genealogy of French Families of the Detroit River Region, 1701'1911, 2 vols., edited by Harold F. Powell (Detroit: Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, 1976) was revised in 1987 to include families through 1937. The Burton Historical Collection holds typed transcriptions of twenty-two volumes of French Notarial Records for Montreal (1682'1822) and four volumes of the Detroit Notarial Records (1737'95). Included are business contracts, indentures, apprentice and servant contracts, and fur trade transactions. Michigan French-Canadian descendants definitely should attempt to utilize the extensive available Canadian provincial and religious records in all repositories.

Membership in the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan includes chapter meetings, five newsletters per year and the quarterly journal, Michigan's Habitant Heritage. The organization's collection is housed at the Mount Clemens Public Library. Its mailing address has changed several times in recent years; the latest information about it is available at

The Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan can be contacted in care of the Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library. Internet-based information is available at

Michigan attracted a large number of immigrants. Entries for collections on various groups can be found in all of the repositories' holdings. One example is in the Michigan Historical Collections in Ann Arbor, which holds letters sent by Swedish immigrants to entice others to come, as well as Swedish-language newspapers published in Michigan. Ethnic Groups in Detroit (Wayne State University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology: Detroit, 1951) was published as part of the city's 250th anniversary. Included is a discussion of forty-three ethnic groups.