The Documentation "Vacuum"

While there are scattered records of family events available before 1870, the majority of these come from ancillary sources, particularly the records of churches and clergy.

To understand the availability of clergy, you need to put yourself in the moccasins of your ancestor. The trip from "Lower Saginaw" (today’s Bay City) to the county seat at Saginaw in 1855 took three days…one way. It was treacherous and often deadly, particularly as river waters swelled in early spring and blizzards hit without warning in the fall and early winter.

Our pioneer ancestors were not picky about who baptized their babies, as long as God would recognize their child if death hit before they found "their own kind of minister".

Catholic priests baptized Lutheran children. Methodist ministers married Catholic couples.

They were the only representatives of God or government that our pioneer ancestors might encounter for years. So to that end, these men were the only keepers of records in the rugged Michigan countryside.

Cemeteries were often impromptu affairs, with graves being clumped together in a nice meadow or on the side of a hill where their loved ones could keep an eye on them. Now illegal to move, most of these cemeteries still exist and someone has documented whatever headstones remain today. The trick is finding those lists.

In the case of Bay County cemeteries, there are three sources of information for a diligent researcher to tap before moving on, in addition to information on the headstones themselves.

  1. Check internment records at the cemetery office. Old St. Patrick’s Catholic cemetery in Hampton township did not keep these lists faithfully before 1900. The ability to find your relative in their records is (at best) a shot of the dice. But there is a second set of records, dating back to the cemetery’s founding in 1867, and it is the financial record which showed who bought the plots. While it may not list everyone buried there, you do have the ability to at least figure out if someone in the family may have purchased plots…and where the grave sites are.
  2. Check the records of each church and parish in town and in the countryside. Clergymen were the most meticulous record keepers we have in the mid-19th century. Many were kind enough to note where the body of the deceased was buried.
  3. Finally, look at newspapers of the day to see if, by chance of chances, there was an obituary. Do not be surprised to find a funeral mass was said in Bay City, but the body was buried in Williams township. Often the body was buried the same day, particularly in the summer. But the funeral may have been held several days later. Conversely, we have also encountered several instances where a person died in the middle of a brutal winter and was either not found for months or was kept until spring when the ground could be dug. Funeral services may have been held twice, once at the time of death and the other when the body was permanently laid to rest. These were newsworthy stories and offer researchers a final chance to find the details of their ancestors’ deaths.

 A sad (indeed tragic) reality, though, is that before laws changed in the last 40 years, cemeteries were not sacred and could be overtaken for property development. Not only are small family plots no longer in existence, but even larger cemeteries made way for parking lots and building sites.

This was the fate of the first Catholic cemetery in Bay County, St. Joseph’s. Now the parking lot of Visitation church, a decision was made in the wake of WWII to "move" the graves of those interred at St. Joseph’s to Calvary cemetery in Kawkawlin. Contrary to official reports of the Diocese of Saginaw, not all bodies could be moved. Ground water had destroyed the simple wooden boxes, so reports of those involved in the move indicate than less than a dozen bodies were actually relocated. Also, there was no comprehensive list made through the years of who was buried there. So the only records we have today are the list of names gathered from headstones.

What if your ancestor lived…and died…before there were towns or churches?

Between 1780 and 1850, few clergy lived north of Detroit at all. Even the north side of Lake St. Clair was a month’s journey by canoe at certain times of the year. To meet the spiritual needs of pioneers, priests and ministers would travel most of the year from settlement to settlement. Over time, missionaries would start limiting the amount of travel to Indian villages and port towns in a given area. They would perform the marriages of parents and christen babies in the same day. They would often bless the graves of those who died since the last visit.

Records of these missionaries are usually kept in major archives, such as the Archdiocese of Detroit (some of their 19th century parish records are on film in the Burton Collection at the Detroit Public Library), Library of Michigan/Michigan Archives, and the Bentley Collection at the University of Michigan.

Many records have been transcribed into reference books or online resources, such as:

The Catholic Church in the Grand River Valley 1833 – 1950, Rev. John W. McGee. Records of the Catholic Indiane Mission of Grand-River for the year 1833, and a Record of Marriages at St. Andrew's Church 1850-1855.

First Protestant Mission in the Grand Traverse Region, Ruth Craker, 1979.

The Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Region, 1701-1936, Christian Denissen, Detroit Society for Genealogical Research; 1987.

Guide to Catholic Indian Mission and School Records in Midwest Repositories, Philip C. Bantin with Mark G. Thiel, Marquette University, Milwaukee, 1984.

History of the Taymouth Methodist Indian Mission, Ronald A. Brunger, 1974.

Life of Peter Marksman, An Ojibwa Missionary, John H. Pitezel, Cincinnati, 1893.

Methodist Indian Ministries in Michigan 1830-1990, Dorothy Reuter, assisted by Ronald A. Brunger, Michigan Area United Methodist Historical Society, 1993.

Records of Holy Cross Church 6624 North Lake Shore Dr., Cross Village, MI, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. 2 rolls of microfilm which cover 1847-1930.

Rev. Bingham's Indian Mission Records of Sault Ste. Marie.

Sacramental records for Holy Childhood/St. Peter's Mission 1831-1856; one volume of the "Baraga Papers", Sacramental Records of St. Anne's Church 1704-1848; the "Poitier Papers", "Jacker Papers", and "Richard Papers". Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. The various "Papers" are copies of correspondence regarding the missions the priests were serving.

The earliest records of Ste. Anne at Michilimackinac, Wisconsin Historical Collections volumes 18 and 19.


Note: Being listed in the records of an Indian mission doesn't mean the person named is Indian, nor that s/he was Protestant or Catholic. In the earliest days of each mission the minister or priest was the only white person in the area. As whites came into the area as traders, teachers, and settlers, they also attended the area's only church and which is where all records exist of births, marriages, and deaths.


Additional records are available through:

Albion College Library, Albion MI, West Michigan Methodist Historical Collection papers.

Burton Historic Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, MI the papers of Baptist missionary Abel Bingham.

The Missionary Research Library in New York City missionary literature collections, primarily Protestant, catalogued partly by tribe.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL

Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archeology at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA papers of 19th century Congregationalist missionaries.

Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA the records and diaries of Rev. Peter Dougherty who built the first mission in the Grand Traverse Region. 

© 2006, Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, MI. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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