In either case, an important point to remember is: not everything is digitized or on the internet. Microfilm, books and paper files do and must have their place in our research. That said, the many resources that have been indexed and digitized give us easier access and quicker results – hopefully positive results.
So here are the internet resources with Michigan-related records that I recommend. Many have the type of records that are necessary for a proven (record-based not myth-based) family history. I’ll start by highlighting specifics from some websites and then cover other websites more generally – places (websites) to check for the particular area you are researching. Are you researching another state? Some of these sites will have something to offer you too. But for the Michigan-specific sites, use them as a guide to see if similar sites exist for your state of interest.
So let’s start with the website where the early State of Michigan vital records can be accessed along with many other things.
FamilySearch – a free website of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ (LDS)/Mormons
Several years ago the LDS began to digitize the microfilm collections and other records (with permission of the record owners) and placing them on their website, FamilySearch. While there is quite a lot for all over the world, not everything is digitized. So visit often to check what has been added. The FamilySearch catalog will help you find record collections. (I suggest search by place – try looking just under the county first, then try the town/township, then the city/village.) If it isn’t digitized you can likely order (rent) it to view at a local FamilySearch Center (formerly Family History Center) near you.
For the digitized collections you can find them by clicking on search, on the records page scroll down to browse locations and click on the region you want to search. The camera icon to the left of the database title indicates record images are available, browse means at present there is no index but you can look at the record images (kind of like viewing microfilm but with a mouse click not a hand crank).
Tip: Want to see what has been added lately or since your last visit? Once you are at a region's database collections page, click on the "Last Updated" column header and the database list sorts by date added/updated. That's one way I keep my eye on new things.You will find the United States Federal Census listed under United States not under each state. (From the home page, click on search, on the records page scroll down to browse locations and then click on United States.) So scroll down the list of database collections to the U area. Or in the left column scroll down and click on Census and Lists and then scroll down to the U area. Note: there are indexes for all census years but some years do not have the actual census images, only links to the images at other websites (some are free, some are pay sites.)
By selecting Michigan in that left hand column (after going to United States), you’ll see the Michigan specific database collections. Want a vital record – birth, marriage, death? Then start here – Michigan, Births, 1867-1902; Michigan, Marriages, 1867-1925; and Michigan, Deaths, 1867-1897. They are indexed with record images and free! Note: These are the records kept on the state level at the Department of Health not the county level. Michigan vital records began in 1867 but like everywhere else it took time for people to comply with the law. So for earlier events there is a chance they were not reported/recorded.
Other Michigan databases include: Michigan, Death Certificates, 1921-1952 (index only at present time but enough info to get started); Michigan, Probate Records, 1797-1973 (a newer collection still in progress, with no index, organized by county with records available varying); Michigan, State Census, 1894 (index only); and Detroit Manifests. There are also several databases that have information extracted from various sources -- some are parts of the former International Genealogical Index (IGI).
There is one other website with important vital records for Michigan. And by that I mean a site with images of the actual vital records.
SeekingMichigan – a free website of the Archives of Michigan
The shining star on the Archives of Michigan's SeekingMichigan website is the Death Certificates Collection 1897-1920. Its search engine is not so fabulous (no soundex capability) but you will see and be able to download the actual death certificate once you find it.
Tip: click on advanced search. This will get you tailored filters for each specific collection if you only search one collection at a time.A newer addition to this site is the 1884 and 1894 State Census for the counties that the Library of Michigan/Archives of Michigan has in its possession. Again, a better search engine would be greatly appreciated along with another wish -- the ability to search page by page (those neighbors were often relatives back then.) There are other collections to investigate: civil war focused databases, oral histories, earlier state census, etc.
It was mentioned at a seminar in Fort Wayne, Indiana, last month that the releasable Death Certificate images from the 1921-1952 FamilySearch indexing project will be located on the SeekingMichigan site at some point in the future. Some of the online databases that were at the Library of Michigan’s website are now in the "Seek area" or "About area" of the SeekingMichigan website. The Naturalization Indexes that were created for many counties whose records are at the archives can be found on the Seek area. The County Clerks Directory can be found on the About area.
Library of Michigan
Related to the Archives of Michigan is the Library of Michigan. Michigan’s state library and archives situation has been rocky the past 10 years. Much of the Library of Michigan’s genealogical collection has been transferred to the Archives of Michigan. At least most of the collection has not been broken up and sent to other places – that surely would have been a great loss for the state. Most of the residents in Michigan came from someplace else so naturally the collection should have items from other states. A lot of the online resources that were on the library’s website seem to have been shifted to the archive's website.
One database listing still on the Library of Michigan’s website is the Library of Michigan Newspaper Microfilm Holdings Lists. Use it to find out what newspapers are in its microfilm holdings before you head to the library in Lansing. The newspapers are listed by county.
So if you are researching another state, don’t forget to check out the resources of its state library and state archives. Note: in some states some counties have a county archive in addition to a county library.
Ancestry.com/Ancestry Library-Edition – a $ pay-service via home or library subscription
Ancestry is one of the big commercial sites. If you don’t have a home subscription, then check your local libraries to see if one of them subscribes to the library edition of the website. Usually at the library you can bring in a USB flash/thumb drive and download images from the library computer. Or some libraries with wireless internet allow you to connect your laptop/tablet and use the website on your device while you are in their library. In that case, you can download the image straight to your device's drive.
The easiest way to see what Ancestry has for Michigan is to click on the main search tab (not the pull-downs). On the main search tab page, scroll down to the map and select Michigan. Now you will see all the databases that apply to Michigan sorted by categories. Here are some highlights.
You will find all the Federal census years 1820-1940. (That is correct, there are no 1790, 1800, or 1810 census years for Michigan.) Don’t forget to check out special census years/forms collections: Veterans, Mortality, Indian, Non-Population (like agricultural), Defective/Dependent/Delinquent – you never know what you will learn. The IRS Tax Assessment Lists may provide another view of your ancestor. There is an index to the 1894 Michigan census but no census page images.
Find early French Catholic records for Michigan in the Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1695-1954 database. The Michigan Death Records 1897-1920 is an index to the death certificates found at SeekingMichigan. This index has the soundex search option, a few more search options, and links to take you to the images on SeekingMichigan. There are a couple other death indexes that cover more recent times also. And don’t forget to check the social security death index. (Yes, they’ve taken some information out but it is better than nothing.)
Remember with any database (where ever it is), read the “about this database” to find out what is included and not included in the database. And to learn where more information might be located.Under Immigration & Travel, there are Detroit Border Crossings and Great Lakes Crossings of various years. (You may be surprised how mobile your ancestors were back then.) There are Michigan Eastern District Naturalizations if your ancestor was in the Detroit-area. There are a few naturalization and passport databases that cover the whole United States so you may find your Michigan person included.
Though not solely Michigan-focused, some databases to check out for your immigrant ancestors are the Passenger Arrival Lists (like New York) and the Passenger Departure lists (like Hamburg). They are indexed and most have page images.
The databases in the Military collection often cover the whole country. Some to remember to check are the WWI and WWII draft cards, the various Civil War databases and various pension lists.
There are a variety of Michigan city directories in the Schools, Directories and Church Histories category. Some are listed individually and some are in the US City Directories 1821-1989 database. The Tax, Criminal, Land and Wills category has a database on Pre-1908 Michigan Homestead and Cash Entry Patents and a database for the US General Land Office Records (those that bought land from the government). Got an inventor in the family? There is a database for the US Patent and Trademark Office Patents 1790-1909.
Under the Reference, Dictionaries and Almanacs category, there is the Michigan Pioneer Society Collections Report Vol. 12, the PERiodical Source Index (PERSI) along with many other broader-focused databases.
There are over 8,000 listings under Michigan in the Stories, Memories and Histories Category. Who knows what you may find. The entries range from family genealogies to abstracts of records. The Newspapers and Periodicals Category under Michigan does not have a lot of entries but there are a few. The newspapers are mostly smaller towns, several of them more up north or on the west side of the Lower Peninsula (the mitten portion of the state).
Don’t forget to check out the message boards and member-submitted family trees. For the last couple years when using Ancestry Library Edition, you cannot see either of these areas. But from home, you can create a registered user id on Ancestry.com (without subscribing/paying/giving a credit card) to be able to post messages and see the public trees. (Doing this allows you to communicate without revealing your email to spammers.)
RootsWeb – a free website but hosted by Ancestry.com
RootsWeb is one of the older genealogy websites. RootsWeb's message boards are the same as the message boards on Ancestry. (Did you know that your user id works on both websites?) Some message boards are linked to mailing lists which you can subscribe to when at the RootsWeb site. (The message board messages appear on the mail list but the mail list messages do not appear on the message boards. If you subscribe, I suggest digest-mode so all messages come from the mail list together not from individuals whose emails you don’t recognize – it keeps your mailbox cleaner.) There are various databases hosted on this site too. User-submitted family trees, WorldConnect Family Trees, are here too. Also, the site hosts many personal and society websites. Use the website's index/search engine to locate sites for specific states/counties.
USGenWeb Project – a free website network
Though it has been around for a long time, not everyone has heard of the USGenWeb Project. For every state and just about every county of each state there is a volunteer run website. What is on each varies but it is still worthwhile to check out the website for the county you are searching. Some just have where to go to search while others have transcribed records and cemetery readings among other things. Note: there is also the WorldGenWeb Project that covers other countries in a similar manner.
HeritageQuest – $ a pay-service via library subscription
If you are a Michigan resident use your library card or Michigan driver's license to access Mel.org (Michigan Electronic Library) for access to HeritageQuest and its Federal Census, digitized and searchable Family and Local History Books, PERSI (PERiodical Source Index) and other databases. Live in another state? Your state might have a similar agreement with ProQuest (owner of HeritageQuest) but the name of the access site will be different.
County Government Websites like the County Clerk
Some Michigan counties actually have databases on their websites so check out the county government website (especially the county clerk) for the county you are researching. The database/index may be free or there may be a charge for seeing/accessing a specific record. Think birth, death, marriage, land, and probate.
Macomb County’s County Clerk page has a searchable death index for deaths from about 1960 forward though there are some earlier ones included but not all earlier ones. More recently a land records search (some fee involved to see the actual document) was added. Oakland County’s County Clerk has a genealogy research service page that allows you to search marriage and death records back to 1941 and then order/pay for a record you desire. (Remember the earlier records are free at FamilySearch or SeekingMichigan.)
University and College Libraries
University and college libraries may not immediately come to mind when thinking genealogy resources but they can have some useful stuff. Two that come to mind for Michigan are the HathiTrust Digital Library and MLibrary Digital Collections. MLibrary has in its featured digital collections Michigan County Histories and Atlases containing over 400 digitized titles.
County and Local Libraries
Investigate the websites of the county and local (city or township) libraries. Does a library have a genealogy collection? Does it have indexes or database resources on its website allowing you to find answers or prepare a research plan (what to look at) for when you are able to visit? Does it have a research/look-up service? Take a look. Your answers may be a click away, or a visit away.
Genealogical and Historical Societies/Groups
There are two ways to use genealogical and historical societies/groups. The first is to join or attend one where you live. Don’t worry if you don’t have ancestors where you live. Many societies/groups have meetings with topics/speakers to help you learn your hobby. They are also great for meeting others with a like mind, cause, habit, or disease called genealogy (whichever stage you are in.)
The second is to join or check the website resources of a society/group in the area you are researching. Some societies/groups may have member publications with historical information/data. Or they may publish databases, books, etc. on the area’s history or records. In either case, look for these societies/groups and see if they have a website. Genealogical and historical societies/groups may be stand-alone groups or united with a historical commission or local library.
In this day and age, even a cemetery may have a website. Use a search engine and take a look. The cemetery’s website may have something as simple as a request form (or instructions on how to request information) or have a searchable database of who is buried there (and hopefully where.)
Related Cemetery Resources
There are several websites out there that use volunteers to record and preserve tombstones/gravestone information from cemeteries across the United States and even the world. Try searching these websites; you never know what someone has posted. FindAGrave, BillionGraves, Internment.net are just a few.
It seems like not a lot of Michigan newspapers have been digitized. So odds are you will have to visit a library and view some microfilm. But there are some out there.
ProQuest has some Michigan newspapers (along with other states) that libraries can purchase subscriptions but these subscriptions are very expensive so not many libraries are able to do so. One example: The Detroit Free Press is available from the beginning to 1920. So check the websites of local libraries to see if they offer such databases. Usually these will be for in-library use only.
Two other websites, GenealogyBank.com and Archives.com, have some Michigan newspapers (usually smaller papers.) Before you go out and buy a subscription though, make sure a website has newspapers for the area(s) you are researching and the time period you are researching. At the time I wrote this post, on GenealogyBank it is fairly simple to find the newspaper titles for both the Historical Newspapers and Recent Newspapers. Each has a link to the newspaper titles on the home page below each database. You can also do a search without a membership to see what kind of results you will get. On Archives.com, it is a bit harder to locate its newspaper titles. To see a list of the newspapers on Archives, I’ve actually gone to the main browse page of NewspaperArchive.com (who licenses the papers to Archives) to find a list of newspaper titles by States in the United States.
A few libraries in Michigan do have digitized local newspapers but there is not one place to go to find them. The International Coalition on Newspapers (ICON) keeps track of many digitized newspapers not only for Michigan but worldwide. And a few other Michigan newspapers can be found in the Google News Archive. Google may have cancelled its Newspaper Project but what was done is still there if the copyright owner has not removed it.
Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
Did your ancestor buy land from the federal government or earn bounty land from the government? Check out the BLM GLO website. You can search by last and first name or simply last name and search all states or a single state. Even if your ancestor sold his bounty land to someone else, you will likely find his name now. Two points to remember: 1) not every state was a federal land state and 2) these are the first sales from the federal government to a person (non-government entity) and subsequent sales are not included in this database.
Fold3 – $ a pay-service via home or library subscription
The Fold3 site is digitizing military records and pensions. Some collections are done but many are in progress. So keep an eye on this site and any collections of interest to your research. For Michigan, the website also has Detroit city directories digitized and indexed (1861-1923) back from its former days when it was called Footnote. Directories are located under the Non-Military Records. Some libraries have subscriptions to Fold3 that you can access while in the library.
Other Websites that will be of help
And lastly, use a web search engine (such as Google) to search for your ancestors. You never know where they will turn up. See the Google help area for tips on how to search and on how to use search operators more effectively.
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