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Michigan County History & Name Origins

The names of Michigan's 83 counties reflect the state's Native American, French, British and early American heritage. Thirty-two counties have names drawn from Native American languages; 29 are named for people; 16 are named for natural features such as rivers that already had been given names; and 6 have names meant to describe the county's geography (e.g., Hillsdale).

Themes exist for the names of some counties.

  • In 1829 the legislature set off 12 new counties, naming 8 of them for President Andrew Jackson and members of his cabinet: Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Eaton, Ingham, Van Buren.
  • In 1840 the legislature changed the names of 16 counties and gave 5 counties names from Ireland: Antrim, Clare, Emmet, Roscommon and Wexford.
  • Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, author and Indian agent, mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola.

The earliest counties were organized by the territorial government as areas became settled. The first county was Wayne. Michigan had 38 counties by the end of the year in which it became a state (1837). Throughout the years some county names and many county borders have changed.

(NOTE: Not all authorities agree about the sources of Michigan's county names. You will find a list of books and articles for further research at the end of the list of counties.)

Map of Michigan with counties Monroe County Berrien County Wayne County Macomb County St. Clair County Sanilac County Chippewa County Sugar Island - Chippewa County Neebish Island - Chippewa County Tuscola County Bay County Huron County Arenac County Iosco County Alcona County Grand Traverse County Antrim County Alpena County South Fox Island - Leelanau County South Manitou Island - Leelanau County North Manitou Island - Leelanau County Leelanau County Presque Isle County Emmet County Hog Island - Charlevoix County High Island - Charlevoix County Garden Island - Charlevoix County Beaver Island - Charlevoix County Charlevoix County Menominee County Delta County Mackinac Island - Mackinac County Bois Blanc Island - Mackinac County Mackinac County Grand Island - Alger County Alger County Drummond Island - Chippewa County Marquette County Baraga County Ontonagon County Houghton County Isle Royal - Keweenaw County Keweenaw County Cass County St. Joseph County Branch County Hillsdale County Lenawee County Van Buren County Kalamazoo County Calhoun County Jackson County Washtenaw County Allegan County Barry County Eaton County Ingham County Livingston County Oakland County Ionia County Clinton County Shiawassee County Ottawa County Genesee County Kent County Lapeer County Montcalm County Muskegon County Gratiot County Saginaw County Newaygo County Mecosta County Oceana County Isabella County Midland County Lake County Osceola County Clare County Gladwin County Mason County Wexford County Missaukee County Manistee County Roscommon County Ogemaw County Benzie County Kalkaska County Crawford County Oscoda County Otsego County Montmorency County Cheboygan County Dickinson County Iron County Schoolcraft County Luce County Gogebic County

A  |  B  |  C  |  D  |  E  |  G  |  H  |  I  |  J  |  K

L  |  M  |  N  |  O  |  P  |  R  |  S  |  T   |  V  |  W

 County Name

Year of Organization

Source of Name

A

Alcona

1869

Believed to have been made up by Henry R. Schoolcraft with "al" from the Arabic for "the," "co" the root of a word for "plain" or "prairie," and "na" for excellent; thus the word is interpreted as "excellent plain."

Alger

1885

Named for Russell A. Alger, governor of Michigan at the time (1885-1886) and later U.S. senator (1902-1907).

Allegan

1835

Its derivation is obscure. Most sources say it was a Henry Schoolcraft creation with "al" for "the" and "egan" from "sa-gi-e-gan" (Chippewa for "lake"). Other meanings often given are "fine river" or "fair river."

Alpena

1857

Not a Native American name, it is believed to have been created by Henry Schoolcraft with "al" for "the" and "pinai" for partridge or "penaissee" for bird. The best interpretation is "the bird."

Antrim

1863

Named for County Antrim in Ireland.

Arenac

1883

A name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, it is a combination of the Latin "arena" (sandy) and the Native American "ac" (earth). The combined words mean "sandy place."

B

Baraga

1875

Named for missionary Bishop Frederick Baraga (1797-1868), who worked among the Native Americans in the area and wrote a Chippewa grammar and dictionary.

Barry

1839

Named for William T. Barry (1785-1835) of Kentucky, postmaster general in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson 1829-1835.

Bay

1858

It was so named because the northern border of the county encircles the head of Saginaw Bay.

Benzie

1869

The French named the river here "Riviere Aux-Bec-Scies." It was changed to "Betsey" because of the way Americans pronounced the French "Bec-Scies." Later it was changed to Benzie.

Berrien

1831

Named for John M. Berrien of Georgia, attorney general under President Jackson (1829-1831).

Branch

1833

Named for John Branch of North Carolina, secretary of the Navy under President Jackson (1829-1831).

C

Calhoun

1833

Named for John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), vice president of the United States (1824-1832).

Cass

1829

Named for Lewis Cass (1782-1866), second governor of the Michigan Territory, secretary of war under President Jackson (1831-1836).

Charlevoix

1869

Named for Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761), a French Jesuit missionary, explorer and historian who traveled through the Great Lakes region in 1721.

Cheboygan

1853

This Native American word was first applied to the river. The word may have originally been "Chabwegan," meaning "a place of ore."

Chippewa

1827

Name for the Chippewa or Ojibwa, the largest of the Algonquin tribes. The word referred to the puckered seams on their moccasins: "he who wears puckered shoes."

Clare

1871

Named for County Clare in the western part of Ireland.

Clinton

1839

Named for DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), the New York governor under whose administration the Erie Canal was built.

Crawford

1879

The name may have come from Fort Crawford (Prairie du Chien, WI), which was named for William H. Crawford, a prominent politician of the era.

D

Delta

1861

From the Greek "delta," it refers to the triangular shape of the original county which included segments of Menominee, Dickinson, Iron and Marquette counties.

Dickinson

1891

Named for Don M. Dickinson of Michigan, postmaster general during President Grover Cleveland's first term.

E

Eaton

1837

Named for John H. Eaton (1790-1856) of Tennessee, secretary of war under President Jackson (1829-1831).

Emmet

1853

Names for the Irish patriot Robert Emmet (1778-1803), who was hung as a traitor to the British government at the age of 23.

G

Genesee

1836

From a Seneca (Iroquoian) word, "je-nis-hi-yeh," meaning "beautiful valley": the county was named after the valley in western New York State from which many area settlers came.

Gladwin

1875

Named for Major Henry Gladwin, British commander of the fort at Detroit during the siege by Pontiac in 1763-64.

Gogebic

1887

This name probably comes from the Chippewa "bic" which most references interpret as "rock."

Grand Traverse

1851

The French phrase "grande travers" means "long crossing." It was given first to the bay by early French voyageurs.

Gratiot

1855

Named for Captain Charles Gratiot (1788-1855), who supervised the building of Fort Gratiot at the present site of Port Huron.

H

Hillsdale

1835

The rolling surface of the area (hills and dales) served as the basis for this name.

Houghton

Organized 1846;
Reorganized 1848

Named for Dr. Douglass Houghton (1809-1845), first state geologist of Michigan, physician and surgeon, Detroit mayor 1842-43.

Huron

1859

Named for the lake (Lac des Hurons) the French named for the Native American tribe they called "hure" (Hurons)--meaning "head"--when they saw the fantastic way they dressed their hair. The tribe referred to itself as "Wendat" (Wyandotte), meaning "dwellers on a peninsula."

I

Ingham

1838

Named for Samuel D. Ingham of Pennsylvania, secretary of the treasury under President Jackson (1829-1831).

Ionia

1837

Named for a province in ancient Greece noted for its flourishing cities, commerce and culture.

Iosco

1857

This was a favorite name used by Henry Schoolcraft for Native American boys and men in his writings. He interpreted the word to mean "water of light."

Iron

1885

Named for the iron deposits and mines found in the county.

Isabella

1859

Schoolcraft proposed naming this county for Queen Isabella (1451-1504) of Spain, under whose patronage Columbus undertook his voyages in 1492.

J

Jackson

1832

Named for Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 7th president (1829-1837) of the United States.

K

Kalamazoo

1830

Named for the river that runs through it, the Native American form of which was probably "Ke-Ken-a-ma-zoo." A widely accepted translation is "boiling water." Other versions are "otter tail" or "reflected river."

Kalkaska

1871

This word was a Henry Schoolcraft creation, originally spelled Calcasca. One suggestion is that this is a play on words. Schoolcraft's family name formerly was Calcraft. The Ks may have been added to make the name appear more like a Native American word.

Kent

1836

Named for Chancellor James Kent (1763-1847), New York jurist. Michigan employed him to defend its rights during the "Toledo War," 1836-37.

Keweenaw

1861

A Native American word, "Kee-wi-wai-non-ing" meaning "portage" or "place where portage is made" is the source of this name.

L

Lake

1871

The county has several small lakes and is only one county away (Mason) from the shore of Lake Michigan.

Lapeer

1833

This is said to be a derivation of the French "la pierre," meaning flint or flint stone.

Leelanau

1863

Created by Henry Schoolcraft (Ottawas and Ojibwas did not use the letter L), who gave the name "Leelinau" to some Native American women in his stories.

Lenawee

1826

From a Native American word meaning "man," either from the Delaware "leno or lenno" or the Shawnee "lenawai."

Livingston

1836

Named for Edward Livingston (1764-1836) of Louisiana, secretary of state under President Jackson from 1831 to 1833.

Luce

1887

Named for Cyrus G. Luce, then governor of Michigan (1887-1890).

M

Mackinac

1849

The county was originally laid out under the name of Michilimackinac in 1818. Some references claim the word was the French interpretation of a Native American word that meant "great turtle," the shape of the island from a distance. Others claim it came from "place of the Mishinimaki," an ancient tribe that inhabited the island and whose spirits still dwell there.

Macomb

1818

Named for General Alexander Macomb (1782-1841), an officer in the War of 1812.

Manistee

1855

This Native American name was first applied to the county's principal river. It means "river at whose mouth there are islands."

Marquette

Organized 1848;
Reorganized 1851

Named for the French Jesuit missionary and explorer, Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675).

Mason

1855

Named for Stevens T. Mason (1811-1843), first governor of the State of Michigan (1835-1840).

Mecosta

1859

Named for the Indian chief, Mecosta.

Menominee

Organized as Bleeker, 1861;
Reorganized 1863

This is the name of the Menominee tribe who lived in the vicinity. The word means "rice men" or "rice gatherers."

Midland

1850 (no elections held until 1855)

This county is located near the geographical center of the Lower Peninsula.

Missaukee

1871

Named for a Ottawa chief who signed the treaties of 1831 and 1833.

Monroe

1817

Named for James Monroe (1758-1831), 5th president of the United States (1817-1825). He visited Detroit on August 13, 1817, and stayed five days. The county was named in anticipation of his visit.

Montcalm

1850

French General Marquis de Montcalm is this county's namesake. His defeat and death in 1759 marked the end of the French and Indian War in North America.

Montmorency

1881

It is not clear for which of the historical persons named Montmorency (or Morenci) the county was named. None had direct connections with Michigan.

Muskegon

1859

The county took its name from the river running through it that empties into Lake Michigan. The word comes from the Ojibwa/Chippewa word "mashkig" meaning "swamp" or "marsh."

N

Newaygo

1851

This was derived from then name of a Chippewa chief who signed the Saginaw Treaty of 1819 or from a Native American word meaning "much water."

O

Oakland

1821

Named for the numerous oak openings in the county. Bela Hubbard described an oak opening as "a majestic orchard of oaks and hickories varied by small prairies, grassy lawns and clear lakes."

Oceana

Organized 1851;
Reorganized 1855

It borders Lake Michigan, the fresh water "ocean."

Ogemaw

1875

Named after Ogemaw-ki-keto, a prominent Saginaw Valley Indian chief who signed the Treaty of 1819. "Ogima" in Ottawa or Ojibwa is "chief" or "boss."

Ontonagon

1848

Named for the river, called "Nantounagon" on a 1670 French map. The Ojibwa "onagon" means "dish" or "bowl."

Osceola

1869

Named for the Seminole Indian chief, Osceola (1800?-1838), of national prominence.

Oscoda

1881

This Schoolcraft creation is believed to be a combination of two Ojibwa words, "ossin" (stone) and "muskoda" (prairie).

Otsego

1875

A county and a lake in New York bear the name derived from the Mohawk Iroquoian word that meant either "clear water" or "meeting place."

Ottawa

1837

Named for the Ottawa tribe called "Ondatahouats," or "people of the forest," by the Hurons.

P

Presque Isle

Organized 1871;
Reorganized 1875

A derivation of the French phrase for "peninsula," literally "almost an island."

R

Roscommon

1875

Roscommon County is in the central part of Ireland.

S

Saginaw

1835

There are two possible derivations: from "Sace-nong" or "Sak-e-nong" (Sauk Town) because the Sauk (Sac) once lived there, or from Chippewa words meaning "place of the outlet" from "sag" (an opening) and "ong" (place of).

St. Clair

1821

Named for Lake St. Clair. According to Bela Hubbard in 1879, LaSalle and the crew of the Griffin came upon the lake on the feast day of Saint Claire in 1679 and named the waters for her. According to other sources, the county was named for General Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory.

St. Joseph

1829

The river for which the county is named got its name from a mission established along it by the French. They named the mission for St. Joseph, the patron saint of New France. New France included the lands the French claimed in what are now Canada and the United States.

Sanilac

1848

Named for Sanilac, a chief, according to Wyandotte (Huron) traditions.

Schoolcraft

1871

Named for Henry R. Schoolcraft who lived in Michigan from 1820 to 1842. Author and Indian agent, he developed and suggested (in 1838) the names of many of Michigan's counties.

Shiawassee

1837

Named for the river, its derivation is difficult. Suggestions have included: "now it is light," "straight running river," "twisting river," "sparkling waters," green river" and "it runs backward and forward."

T

Tuscola

1850

Created by Henry Schoolcraft, it is believed to be a combination of "dusinagon" (level) and "cola" (lands).

V

Van Buren

1837

Named for Martin Van Buren of New York, secretary of state under President Jackson (1829-1831) and later 8th President of the United States (1837-1841).

W

Washtenaw

Organized 1826

Native American people called the area west of Detroit, "Wash-ten-ong," meaning "further district" or "land beyond." Another explanation is that it was a name for the Grand River and referred to the areas along and near the river.

Wayne

1815

Named for the American General "Mad" Anthony Wayne (1745-1796).

Wexford

1869

Wexford County is in the southeastern part of Ireland.

For more information about Michigan counties and their names (note that not all authorities agree on the sources of Michigan's county names), please consult the following:

  • Armitage, B. Phyllis. A Study of Michigan's Place-Names. Michigan History Magazine, Vol. 27 (Oct-Dec 1943), pp. 626-637.
  • County histories published in Michigan History Magazine. A limited selection of back issues featuring the county history series is available for purchase from the Museum Store.
  • Jenks, William L. History and Meaning of the County Names of Michigan. Collections and Researches of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. Vol. 38 (1912), pp. 439-478.
  • Michigan Manual (the "Red Book") published biennially by the Legislative Service Bureau under the direction of the Legislative Council, State of Michigan.
  • Reports of Counties, Towns and Districts. Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan. (Second Ed.) Vol. I (1874-6). Lansing, MI: Robert Smith Printing Co. 1900, pp. 94-520.

What does the name "Michigan" mean? Why is Michigan sometimes called the Wolverine State or the Great Lake State? Find out on the Michigan FAQ page.

Contact the Michigan Historical Center.

Updated 05/07/2010

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