City Guide: Detroit

City Guide: Detroit

Today, we know it as Motor City and Motown, but Detroit was around long before Henry Ford and Diana Ross made waves. For more than 300 years, this inland city and major port has attracted immigrants from all over the world. Follow our guide to the historical high notes and top records -- genealogical, not musical -- for discovering your Detroit roots.

From French to Ford

In 1701, Frenchman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit on the Detroit River’s north shore. The outpost kept would-be British occupiers at bay until the French and Indian War, when the British captured Detroit. The settlement remained a British territory until well after the American Revolution and even reverted back to Britain briefly during the War of 1812.

Detroit’s shipping industry exploded in the early 1800s as canal and steamship routes opened the city to new markets. Laborers began arriving from around the world: Germans, Irish and Italians in the mid-1800s, Poles in the late 1800s, and Greeks in the early 1900s.

In the early 1900s, Ford Motor Co. and other auto builders attracted another wave of workers to Detroit. A close-knit Arab community developed in the 1920s. Immigration laws tightened in 1927, but Southerners still poured in. By World War II, 200,000 African-Americans lived in Detroit. The Black Bottom area on the near east side became a thriving African-American enclave that gave rise to Motown music.

After World War II, Detroit attracted new workers, including Japanese-Americans and more Middle Easterners. But housing shortages, racial tensions and a new freeway system prompted migration to the suburbs. Eastsiders settled Macomb County, and westsiders went to Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Hit Records

Detroit has always been part of Wayne County, itself originally a huge territory that gradually downsized. Within the county lie the cities of Hamtramck and Highland Park. Plenty of suburbs sprawl outside the city and county, including “downriver” communities to the south. Be sure to check city and surrounding city, county and state sources when looking for Detroit ancestors. Records before the 1800s are sparse, but from that time forward you’ll have plenty of documents to search.

Vital records: Wayne County recorded births and deaths beginning in 1867. Detroit began keeping death records in 1898 and birth records in 1906. If you have a name and approximate date, you can order records from the city or state, which has the old county records; a request to the state will capture events outside city limits.

Other places to look: FamilySearch has indexes (and many images) for 1.5 million Michigan births (1867 to 1902), 2 million marriages (1822 to 1995), and 1.3 million deaths (1800 to 1995). You can search nearly a million data-rich death records (1897 to 1920) at Seeking Michigan. The Detroit Death Index (1920 to 2009) includes unique records from the Detroit Health Department. Find it in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library (DPL).

Marriage records exist as far back as 1803, but you can only request those dating to 1868 from the state. For 1803 to 1867, check Wayne County Marriage Returns at DPL.

Still can’t find vital stats? If you’re local, try state indexes for marriages (1867 to 1921 and 1950 to 1969) and deaths (1867 to 1914) at the Library of Michigan or the Archives of Michigan (see toolkit). Or sift through a directory of online indexes.

Censuses: Scattered regional and state censuses from 1799 to 1894 have been published; some are searchable on subscription site Ancestry.com . Surviving federal censuses date from 1820 (transcript on Rootsweb).

Church records: Parish registers remain an important source of vital statistics until 1900. Microfilmed records from 78 Catholic parishes are at DPL; readable entries date 1704 to 1930. St. Anne’s parish records to 1701 — including Protestant marriages — are at the Family History Library (FHL). Find Protestant records from the 1820s at DPL, the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Kalamazoo College (Baptist), Olivet College (Congregationalist), or Albion and Adrian colleges (Methodist), with microfilmed copies of many at the FHL. Check out records from Detroit’s oldest synagogue at the Jewish Beth-El Archives.

City directories: Detroit’s first directory was published in 1837. Others followed intermittently; regular editions began in 1872. Find full collections at the Library of Michigan and DPL. The 1837 edition and others are available on FHL microfilm, and Ancestry.com has several from the 1880s and 1890s. Detroit telephone directories began around 1877; find these at DPL. You may also come across Dau’s Blue Book of Detroit, a social directory; see a 1911 edition in our Google Library.

Immigration records: Detroit attracted more than a million immigrants in the first half of the 1900s alone. Find 1906-to-1957 arrival records in National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) record group 85, on Ancestry.com and on FHL microfilm. Pre-1906 arrival records are sparse. Check Passage to America: 1851-1869: The Records of Richard Elliott, Passenger Agent, Detroit Michigan by Mary Lou Streith Duncan (Detroit Society for Genealogical Research) for an indexed list of passages booked to, through and from Detroit.

Naturalizations: Detroiters applied for citizenship through the Wayne County circuit court or the federal district court. Find county records for 1837 to 1935 and 1942 at the Archives of Michigan or order microfilm from the FHL. Federally filed naturalization papers for 1837 to 1991 are at NARA’s Great Lakes Region.

Probate files: The state archives holds Wayne County’s probate records (1797 to 1901). You’ll find them on FHL microfilm, too.

Deeds: Wayne County has deeds dating to 1703 — more than 50 million pages — with a reel index from 1701 to 1950, and an online transaction index dating back to 1986. For $15, you can request a copy of any deed by mail.

Cemeteries: Find headstone transcriptions from the Library of Michigan collection. Most Detroit churches and cemeteries have their own burial records. If you don’t know where an ancestor was buried, check historic cemeteries such as Elmwood (Protestant), Mount Elliot (Catholic) and Woodmere, which has three Jewish sections.

Newspapers: Looking for obituaries? The Detroit Free Press is the oldest city paper still printing. The Detroit Tribune, Detroit Times, Detroit News, Detroit Journal and several ethnic newspapers are historical options. DPL has hundreds of thousands of news clippings and obituaries on file, and will do lookups for $15 to $25. Or search the Free Press from 1831 to 1922 via ProQuest Historical Newspapers (available at libraries). Subscription site GenealogyBank has several Detroit titles online. With so many records to search, it won’t be hard to catch your Motown ancestors’ beat.

Toolkit

Websites

Publications 

  • City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Volume I edited by Clarence M. Burton (S.J. Clarke)
  • The Detroit Almanac by Peter Gavrilovich and Bill McGraw (Detroit Free Press)
  • Detroit Society for Genealogical Research Magazine
  • Sourcebook of Michigan Census, County Histories, and Vital Records by Carole Callard (Library of Michigan)
  • This Is Detroit: 1701-2001 by Arthur M. Woodford (Great Lakes Books)

Archives & Organizations

Population

1780: 2,207
1850: 21,019
1900: 285,704
Current: 910,921

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1701
  • Incorporated: 1815
  • Nicknames: Motor City, Motown
  • State: Michigan
  • County: Wayne County
  • Area: 138 square miles
  • Motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (Latin for “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes”
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, Arab, Asian, Canadian, German, Greek, Latino, Italian, Irish, Polish
  • Primary historical industries: flour milling, shipping, metalwork industry, music, automobile manufacturing
  • Famous residents: Jerry Bruckheimer, Alice Cooper, Francis Ford Coppola, Henry Ford, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Hoffa, Charles Lindbergh, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Ted Nugent

Tip: Many works by local historian Clarence Monroe Burton, the namesake of DPL’s genealogy department, are digitized at http://www.archive.org.

In Time

1701: French found Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit
1760: British take possession of Detroit
1796: Detroit becomes part of the United States
1805: Fire destroys most of city
1818: Steamship service from Buffalo, NY, begins
1832: Chicago Road links Detroit and Chicago
1899: Henry Ford builds auto plant in Highland Park
1942: Auto factories start constructing tanks, Jeeps and bombers
1943: Detroit Race Riot claims 34 lives
1967: 12th Street Riot leaves 43 dead and 1,400 buildings burned
1987: Pope John Paul II visits Detroit

Related Resources

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: state records in 1867, city records in 1894
  • Privacy restrictions: For births from the past 100 years, you must provide proof that you’re a direct descendant of the person named in the record.
  • Research tips: Request city records by mail from for $20. Download the state records application from http://www.michigan.gov/vitalrecords and pay $26 to order by mail or $44 to order and process your request online.

City directories

  • Begin: 1837
  • Research tips: Find these at the Library of Michigan, DPL’s Burton Historical Collection and Ancestry.com.

Church records 

  • Begin: 1701
  • Research tips: DPL’s Burton Historical Collection has Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish records — these are a key source of vital statistics before 1900.

Death records

  • Begin: state records in 1867, city records in 1894
  • Research tips: Request city records by mail from for $20. Download the state records application from http://www.michigan.gov/vitalrecords and pay $26 to order by mail or $44 to order and process your request online.

Deeds

  • Begin: 1703
  • Research tips: Request by mail from Wayne County Recorder of Deeds for $15 (provide at least a full name and range of dates).

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1803
  • Research tips: Search Wayne County Marriage Returns (1803 to 1893) on microfiche at DPL’s Burton Historical Collection. For marriages after 1867, download the state records application from http://www.michigan.gov/vitalrecords and pay $26 to order by mail or $44 to order and process your request online.

Top Five Historic Sites

1. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, MI 48201, (313) 494-5800
The museum celebrates African-American culture through exhibits, multimedia presentations, a research library and special performances by African-American artists.

2. Detroit Historical Museum
5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202, (313) 833-1805
Permanent exhibits, programs and special events honor the history of Detroit, from its pre-1700 American Indian roots to the present.

3. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village
20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124, (800) 835-5237
The Henry Ford showcases American ingenuity, including automotive history. Experience hands-on history at Greenfield Village: Tour historic structures, ride in a Model T or steam train, watch old-time baseball and more.

4. Historic Fort Wayne
6325 W. Jefferson Ave., Detroit, MI 48209, (313) 297-9360
The campus of the only remaining fort in Detroit features the original star-shaped fort, barracks and guardhouse. Enjoy re-enactments and events such as Civil War Days.

5. The Motown Historical Museum
2648 W. Grand Boulevard, Detroit, MI 48208, (313) 875-2264
The original headquarters of the Motown record label houses a collection of memorabilia. Tour the sound control room and the restored Studio A where the Jackson Five, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and others recorded hits.


From the July 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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