Michigan's county boundaries were last changed in 1897. Although
stable county boundaries have existed in Michigan during the twentieth
century, the situation in the nineteenth century was just the opposite.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, county boundaries regularly
changed. The legislature passed laws effecting the status of the state's
counties in thirty-five of the sixty-one years between 1837, when
Michigan became a state, and 1897.
In nineteenth century Michigan the creation of county
government served three purposes. First, it was a part of a process of
government creation laid out by the Congress through the Northwest
Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Ordinance outlined an extraordinary
process through which the then frontier would eventually become
incorporated into the United States as a full an equal partner with the
then existing states. The benefits of local government, as it was
understood "back East," was to also be extended to the frontier. The
creation of counties was part and parcel of an ideological commitment to
bring rational government order to the lands of the new United States.
The creation of counties, however, was more than mere
ideology. Counties, working with other units of government, helped
encourage settlement by simplifying the pioneers tasks. The land had
been surveyed, federal agencies were prepared to give clear land title
to those willing to stake a claim, the state stood ready to assure the
general welfare, while county government met more local needs. Although
this description of a government prepared to assist new settlers was
sometimes more fiction than fact, nevertheless, government was present.
As the nineteenth century progressed the pattern of creating counties
prior to settlement continued. The state legislature, however, sought
county borders likely to be retained after settlement.
Eventually pioneers would occupy the land. County government
then implemented the will of the legislature that they serve the needs
of the people. Roads were maintained. The sheriff ensured order. The
courts existed to resolve criminal proceedings as well as to settle
civil disputes. County government came to assume the responsibilities
that are today expected of it.
If the purposes for county government are clear, the process
of county creation was complicated. Usually before significant
settlement began in an area, the state legislature "set off" a large
tract of land, traditionally sixteen townships, with the intent that
this area would become a county. The set off land could not be
incorporated into some other county without the expressed permission of
the legislature. It was given a county name at the time that it was set
off and usually appeared on maps. Despite this appearance of legitimacy a
set off county was not a true legal entity.
For all legal, judicial, and taxation purposes, the set off
county was "attached" to and legally a part of an already organized
county. Counties could remain set off for long periods, often fifteen or
twenty years, during which time the legislature might repeatedly detach
the set off county from one organized county and reattach it to
another. Eventually, the residents of the set off county would petition
the legislature for "organization," that is the granting of full legal
recognition to the county. A referendum election was held and, assuming a
majority of those who voted approved, the legislature would pass the
necessary act to officially organize the county.
Contemporary Lake County offers an example of how these
changes took place. Lake County was originally set off in 1840 with the
name of Aishcum and was attached to Ottawa County. In 1843 the set off
county was renamed "Lake." In 1851 Lake County was attached to Oceana
County, only to be reassigned to Mason County in 1855, and reassigned
yet again in 1857 to Newaygo County. Just after the Civil War the
legislature decided to assign some parts of Lake County to yet other
organized counties; Mecosta becoming responsible for a part of Lake in
1867 and Osceola taking responsibility for a different section of Lake
county in 1869. In 1871 Lake County was finally organized, with
boundaries as established in the original 1840 legislation.
The implication of this sometimes complicated process is
significant for researchers interested in finding local records.
Researchers interested in Lake County, for example, need to know that
the county once had a different name and that any legal documents
relating to residents of Lake County issued between 1840 and 1871 will
identify the individual's county of residence not as Lake but rather as
any of six other counties. Similarly, published histories of other
counties may include incidental information regarding the early history
of Lake County. The Lake County example is typical. Most northern
Michigan counties have similarly complicated histories. Thus an
understanding of the general process through which counties came into
being, as well as the specific history of a particular county, is of
fundamental importance in making sense of what otherwise can quickly
become a very confusing body of information.
As already noted, county organization in Northern Michigan
predates the existence of the state. In 1787 the U.S. Congress enacted
the Northwest Ordinance, which outlined a process through which
government was to be created for the Great Lakes Region. One result of
this process was the establishment of Wayne County, Indiana Territory,
in 1796. Wayne represented the first county to fully incorporate most of
the land that would eventually become Michigan. Wayne County then
included all of the lower peninsula and the eastern portion of the upper
peninsula. In 1805, when Congress organized Michigan Territory as a
separate entity, territorial governor William Hull abolished Wayne
County and divided the new territory in districts of his own making.
Hull's districts proved short lived. Lewis Cass, who became territorial
governor in 1815, eliminated Hull's work and re-established Wayne
County. He included in its jurisdiction all lands within Michigan
Territory which had been ceded by Native Americans to the federal
government through the Treaty of Detroit, signed in 1807.
In the years 1817 and 1818 the Territorial Government created
four new counties to supplement Wayne. Monroe County, created in 1817,
was located in the southeastern corner of the territory. Macomb County,
created in 1818, controlled the lands north of Lake St. Clair ceded to
the United States in the Treaty of Detroit. More important for the
history of northern Michigan was the creation in 1818 of Michilimackinac
county. Michilimackinac, which eventually would become known as
Mackinac County, took responsibility for the northern two-thirds of the
lower peninsula as well as the eastern half of the upper peninsula.
Brown county, also created in 1818, incorporated those parts of the
upper peninsula that lay to the west of Michilimackinac.
As the federal government gained title from the Indians to
the land of Michigan, through the Treaties of Saginaw (1819), Chicago
(1821), Carey Mission (1828), and Washington (1836), the territorial
government established new counties. As suggested by the creation of
Michilimackinac and Brown counties however, the process of county
creation was rarely impeded by the legal technicality that Native
American rights to the land had not yet been surrendered. Rather the
treaties often legitimized already set off counties.
In 1819 Oakland County was set off and in 1822 the land ceded
to the United States by the Treaty of Saginaw was placed within Oakland
County. Most of Michigan's Lake Huron shoreline thus became a part of
Oakland County, while the central and western portions of the lower
peninsula remained a part of Michilimackinac County. As Michigan
approached statehood the territorial legislature began to rapidly set
off and organize new counties. In this period the territorial government
set off or organized most of the counties today found in the southern
half of the lower peninsula as well as a few upper peninsula counties.
Included among the counties first created under Michigan's territorial
government are Arenac, Chippewa, Clinton, Genesee, Gladwin, Gratiot,
Ionia, Isabella, Kent, Lapeer, Midland, Montcalm, Oceana, Ottawa,
Saginaw, St. Clair, Sanilac, and Shiawasee.
In 1840 the now Michigan state legislature enacted
legislation setting off the counties found today in the northern lower
peninsula. Twenty-nine contemporary counties were created in that year,
although not necessarily with their present name nor with the exact
borders shown on today's map. Counties set off in 1840 include Alcona,
Alpena, Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Clare, Crawford, Emmet, Grand
Traverse, Huron, Iosco, Kalkaska, Lake, Leelanau, Manistee, Mason,
Mecosta, Missaukee, Montmorency, Newaygo, Oceana, Ogemaw, Oseola,
Oscoda, Otsego, Presque Isle, Roscomon, Tuscola, and Wexford. Eleven
years later, in 1851, the legislature organized the first three of these
counties, Grand Traverse, Newaygo, and Oceana. It would take more than
forty years, however, until all of the counties set off in 1840 were
finally organized. The process was completed in 1881 when Montmorency
and Oscoda were organized.
In 1843, when the counties of the northern lower peninsula
were still little more than lines on a map, the legislature began to
modifying its earlier handiwork. In that year the legislature changed
the names of sixteen of the counties set off in 1840 and gave to Ionia
County two townships formerly under the jurisdiction of Montcalm County.
More importantly the legislature began to rationalize the county
structure of the upper peninsula as it had in the lower peninsula three
years earlier. Delta, Houghton, Marquette, Ontonagon, and Schoolcraft
counties were set off and Mackinac County was limited to the upper
peninsula, although several set off counties in the lower peninsula were
still attached to Mackinac County.
Over the next half-century the legislature continued to
adjust Michigan's counties in a variety of ways. After 1870, significant
changes in the lower peninsula became less common, with the legislature
primarily acting to organize counties that had been set off in 1840.
The map of the lower peninsula was not, however, fixed. Some townships
were reassigning among counties. Major changes did occur regarding
Arenac County, which was abolished in 1858 and made a part of Bay County
only to be reorganized in 1883, and Manitou County, which was organized
in 1855 out of land formerly a part of Emmet County but was
subsequently abolished in 1895. Although the impact of the legislature
could still be felt in lower peninsula county boundaries, with the
passage of time the legislature tended to act in ever smaller and less
In contrast to the relative stability of the lower peninsula,
between 1870 and 1897 there were many fundamental changes in the county
organization of the upper peninsula. Alger, Baraga, Gogebic, Iron, Isle
Royal, and Luce counties were all organized in this time period,
joining Menominee, Keweenaw, and Alger counties which had been created
during the Civil War. The last significant modification of county
boundaries in Michigan occurred in 1897 when Isle Royal County was
abolished. The island was returned to the jurisdiction of Keweenaw
County, from which it had been taken in 1875.
The legislative history of Michigan's counties is most clearly laid out in a small publication written by Richard W. Welch. County Evolution in Michigan 1790-1897 was
published by the Michigan Dept. Of Education, State Library Services in
1972 as Occasional Paper no. 2. This mimeographed publication includes
brief legislative histories for every county that ever existed within
the state, several useful maps, and a brief bibliography of additional