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Ontario - Michigan Migration
Column published: 06 September 2006.
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

I believe there are a large number of people with Ontario roots who may be unaware that they have a strong probability of family lines that spread into Michigan and then on further west into the United States. Sometimes we know where our families ended up but we don't stop to think about the migration route that may have led them to their final destination.

There were many reasons why people migrated between Michigan and Ontario in both directions, including factors such as employment and business opportunities, new transportation routes and cheap land. We need to take a look at some of these reasons and decide if our people might have been involved in this migration.

It is always important that we keep in mind how one situation affected others in the same area. The fur traders depended on the wilderness and adapted to it. The settlers wanted to tame the wilderness so that they could farm. The changing situations in our countries caused a lot of people to change locations.

Fur-trading buildings that were situated on the beach at Michelimackinac on Lake Huron, c1780. Many of us had ancestors who were involved in the fur trading business. Mackinaw Island was the hub of the fur trading empire that stretched throughout the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The American Fur Company employed 2,000 - 3,000 French Canadian Voyageurs. They also employed about 400 people as clerks on the Island. Never assume that because a place is small that you might not find your people there. During the peak year of 1822, pelts valued at $3,000,0000 moved through that area. When the fur trade came to an end, people on the Island turned to fishing as a way to earn a living. That was before tourists and fudge! I can assure you that you will find some of the best fudge in the world there. My husband and I were recently in Jerome, Arizona and we had a good laugh when we found a gift shop that was selling Mackinaw Island fudge.

A great many of the individuals who came to Michigan moved on to the far West to help settle our great country. Because of the demand for furs in the European countries the fur traders and explorers were especially attracted to the area. Many people also moved there to obtain farms and were some of the first settlers. If you have an interest in this area please see an article by Connie Lenzen. Also the discovery of gold enticed many to move to the west. Your ancestor might not have been a miner but they may have gone west because they felt they could provide goods and services to those in the minefields.
example of the headings to a 1850 US census record
I love to turn to the census records to see what we can learn from them. We sometimes forget that we can learn a lot from the reports that were prepared after the census information was tabulated. For example, in 1850 Canadian natives formed 5.5% of Michigan's immigrants. In the 1850 Census there was a summary done of the nativity of Southern Michigan counties. Canadians in eastern Michigan typically exceeded 10% of the immigrant population. In Huron Co. 24% of the immigrants were from Canada. In St. Clair Co. 31% were from Canada; in Sanilac Co. 52% were from Canada; and in Wayne Co. 11% were Canadian. The southeastern part of Michigan has been the destination for many Canadians, including Native Americans. In 1860 4% of the Foreign Born People in Michigan were from Canada.

We need to give some thought to our ancestors who struggled with life in early Michigan and Ontario. These immigrants were brave and motivated people who used their potential for the prosperity and development of our countries. They had all kinds of backgrounds and goals for the future. Their movements expressed the hope of all people that a better life existed in the regions to which they were moving. We need to think about the similarities and differences that have marked their experiences. Their ways were transformed in a new environment and they changed the communities in which they came to live. We need to tell their stories.

Suggested Readings:
  • Bicha, Karel Denis. The American Farmer and the Canadian West 1896-194, Coronado Press, 1968.
  • Danziger, Edmund J. Jr., Professor. Canadian Indian Migration to Michigan by Bowling Green State University, Conference on Canadian Migration to Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, Wayne State University, November 16, 1991.
  • D'Innocenzo, Michael and Josef P. Siretman, editors. Immigration and Ethnicity: American Society -- "Melting Pot" or "Salad Bowl".
  • Karamanski, Theodorer J. Deep Woods Frontier: A History of Logging in Northern Michigan, State University Press, Detroit, 1989.
  • Lines, Kenneth. British and Canadian Immigration to the United States Since 1920.
  • Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records. 3rd ed. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 1996.
  • Rayburn, Alan. Place Names of Ontario.
  • Rose, Gregory S. The County Origins of Southern Michigan's Settlers: 1800-1850, The East Lakes Geographer, Vol. 22 (1987), p. 74-87.
  • Taylor, Ryan,Books you Need to Do Genealogy in Ontario - An Annotated Bibliography
  • Taylor, Ryan. Important Genealogical Collections in Ontario Libraries and Archives: A Directory.
Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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