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History of County Creation

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.

Legal Creation

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 consequential ways.

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 sources.