24 January 2022

Pure Michigan Genealogy-Migration and Immigration

Pure Michigan Genealogy

"If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you" is the Michigan state motto and I imagine my ancestors who immigrated from foreign lands coming to Michigan and seeing the beauty that I see when I look at my home state.  Clear blue lakes and rivers, rock structures and mountains, sandy beaches and dunes are what Michigan had to offer the first immigrants.

Before 1837, when Michigan became a state, Native Americans were the very first inhabitants.  Next, came the French, who were the earliest missionaries in the area. Then, the British arrived as a result of the expansion of the British Empire. Eventually, others realized what great opportunities Michigan offered.

Three rivers were important to the early settlement of Michigan.  The Clinton River Valley saw the settlement at Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, and Rochester.  Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti were formed along the Huron River.  Monroe, Tecumseh, and Adrian were settled along the Raisin River.  All three of these areas form a circle around Detroit.

The early Michigan pioneers migrated from New York and the New England area, settling in the Michigan Territory from 1830-1837.  Michigan became attractive to the early settlers because traveling to the territory became easier.  Originally, the only mode of transportation was by horseback or wagon train, which was a long and treacherous trip.  Steamship travel on Lake Erie became available, too.  The completion of the Erie Canal, in 1825, made migrating easier for New Englanders. Road construction from Ohio to Detroit and Chicago allowed settlers to arrive that way. Plus, land offices were opened in Monroe and Detroit.  These factors helped draw settlers to the territory.  140,000 pioneers came to the Michigan Territory from 1830-1837.  New York, Ohio, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts were the top five states early settlers migrated from.

Fertile land, forests, and mines were all available for early immigrants to develop.  Agriculture was the main economy.  Michigan's early history was rich in industrial development, much as it is today. Iron mining helped the manufacturing of stoves, steam engines and farm implements.  The Soo Locks and Railroads helped to grow Michigan's economy.  Copper mining was a draw as well as the lumber industry.  Later, automobile, chemical, and cereal manufacturing made Michigan a place to migrate to.

Foreign immigrants came from many countries to make Michigan a true melting pot. Michigan was made the state it is today from the many immigrants who traveled from their homeland during the years 1837-1924.

I will discuss the push (reasons for leaving their homeland) and the pull (reasons to immigrate to Michigan) factors by country.  The below countries are where the greatest number of immigrants came to Michigan.

1.  Canada
  • Political refugees from a 1837-1838 revolt.
  • Depression of the timber and shipbuilding industries
  • Military, agricultural, economic, and industrial opportunities after the civil war
  • Michigan's close proximity to Canada provided a fresh start for some

Advertisement for M. H. Allardt, Michigan Commissioner of Emigration who was sent to Germany and set up an office in Hamburg.  Allardt published an eight-page magazine promoting Michigan to the Germans.

2.  Germany
  • Economic hardships, unemployment and crop failure
  • To avoid war and military service
  • German government encouraged the poor to emigrate

  • Fertile farmland
  • State of Michigan recruited immigrants
  • Established German settlements (see note)
Note:  The first German immigrants came to Washtenaw County, in 1830, setting up missions.  Two early missions were in Ann Arbor, 1833, and Frankenmuth, 1845. These missionaries wrote back to Germany and encouraged others to immigrate.

The Cornish brought pasties (pass-tees) to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  
They were eaten by the miners and heated with a Cornish stove-
a candle under a shovel.

3.  England/Cornish
  • the dying copper mining industry in Cornwall, which is in southwest England.  Once a great copper mining area.
  • copper and iron mines in the Keeweenaw Peninsula, in the Upper Peninsula, which today is known as "Copper Country"
4.  Ireland
  • Famine
  • a place to start new
  • improvement of existence
The Irish in Michigan worked in mining and construction of railroads and canals.  They helped build the canal in Grand Rapids in 1835.  Some Irish were known as pack-peddlers.  Merchants from Northern Ireland traveled rural areas selling fine table and bed linens.  

5.  Netherlands
  • Religious upheaval in Netherlands
  • King William I tight control over the Reformed Church
  • Economic depression 
  • Religious freedom
  • Improvement of existence
  • Economic opportunities in furniture industry, utilities and finance
6.  Finland, Sweden, Norway
  • Lack of suitable farmland
  • End of the guild system led to more urban centers
  • Change from rural to industrial system
  • Left to escape parental control, military service, political or religious persecution
  • Availability of land
  • Economic opportunities with many Scandinavians working in the railroads, mining and furniture making.
7.  Poland
  • Failure of political revolts
  • Small land holdings
  • Low wages
  • High taxes
  • Labor, including railroad workers, sewer and water main workers, and street pavers.  Later, for automobile and foundry.
8.  Hungary
  • Liberal revolts in 1848-1849
  • Peasants lack of economic success
  • Antisemitism led to immigration of Jews.
  • Labor opportunities in mining; lumbering; and sugar beet producing in the Thumb area of Michigan.
9.  Italy
  • Few economic opportunities
  • Manual labor and mining jobs 
During the Post World War II era, Michigan saw an influx from the African American population. They came from the Southern United States and were looking to improve their economic circumstances.  Many worked in the automobile and foundry factories.

Mexican immigration occurred around the same time.  Many Hispanic Americans worked in the farm industry.  Some were migrant workers and left for warmer climates in the winter months after all harvesting was done.

Michigan was hit hard during the manufacturing and economic crisis of a few years ago.  For awhile Michigan was losing population.  The past year or so, it has been more balanced, but not growing at this time.  Michigan is still reliant on manufacturing, but strides have been made in recent years to diversify the economy.  Recent efforts to diversify have led to jobs in the retail, government, medical and bio-tech sectors.

There were some common bonds among the immigrants no matter what country they emigrated from. Many immigrants wrote home encouraging others to join them in Michigan.  They came to Michigan looking for what we would now call the American Dream.  They wanted a job, a home and something better for their children.  

DeBoer, Shirley, M, NGS Research in the States Series:  Michigan, Arlington, Virginia:  National Genealogical Society, 2008.

Eichholz, Alice, Editor, Red Book, Provo, Utah:  Ancestry, 2004.

Family Search Wiki, Michigan, [online resource],  Wiki https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Michigan,_United_States_Genealogy
Accessed 24 January 2022.

Holick, Jennifer, Legacy QuickGuide Michigan Genealogy, Surprise, Arizona:  Millenia Corportation, 2013.

"Scandinavian  Immigration", Harvard University Library, Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.  http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/scandinavian.html:  Accessed 26 April 2013.

VanderHill,  Warren C.  Settling the Great Lakes Frontier:  Immigration To Michigan, 1837-1924.  Lansing, Michigan:  Michigan Historical Commission, 1970.

This post is the second post in a series of Pure Michigan Genealogy posts on researching your ancestors in Michigan.  To see the other posts, click on the post title below.



  1. This is a fantastic summary of all the resources available for us to research our Michigan relatives. I especially was delighted to see the summary for the reasons for the push-pulls. It's nice to see it all summed up.

    I grew up in MI and am looking forward to being with my family again and do some genealogy stuff too.

    Thanks again for writing this.


  2. Thank you, Dorothy. I hope it helps you in your research. One of the reasons I wrote this was to organize the information in one place. I hope it helps others as it helped me when I wrote it. Good luck with your Michigan research.

  3. Beautifully written. Enjoyed reading it. Was born and raised in the UP.
    My Grandparents lived in Houghton for 32 years. Have never been able to find info on them and their lives. No help from parents.

  4. Dear Barbara, If you are on Facebook, you could try posting questions on the Houghton Michigan Genealogy Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/264910143628749/. Someone local might be able to help you. Thank you for your kind words.

  5. I find this article to be slanted. You failed to mention the majority of British who migrated to S Michigan. In fact, several cities between Detroit and Lansing have several English names. CHELSEA, BRIGHTON, STOCKBRIDGE, PINCKNEY, Howell, Gegory....

  6. I guess because the English were here very early, Pre-War of 1812, I didn't see the need to mention them other than in the second paragraph. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.