Berrien County, Michigan
History, Records, Facts and Genealogy

Berrien County was created on 29 Oct 1829 (Organized in 1831) and was formed from Cass County. Some early records before 1831 may be located in Cass County. The County was named for John M. Berrien, Attorney General of the United States under U.S. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1831). The County Seat is St. Joseph .

Counties adjacent to Berrien County are Van Buren County (northeast), Cass County (east), St. Joseph County, Indiana (southeast), La Porte County, Indiana (southwest). Townships found in Berrien County include Bainbridge, Baroda, Benton Charter, Berrien, Bertland, Buchanan, Chikaming, Coloma Charter, Galien, Hagar, Lake Charter, Lincoln Charter, New Buffalo, Niles, Oronoko Charter, Pipestone, Royalton, Sodus, St. Joseph Charter, Three Oaks, Waterviet, Weesaw Townships. Cities, Towns and Communities include Baroda, Benton Harbor, Berrien Center, Berrien Springs, Bridgman, Buchanan, Coloma, Eau Claire, Galien, Grand Beach, Hagar Shores, Harbert, Lakeside, Michiana, New Buffalo, New Troy, Niles, Riverside, Saint Joseph, Sawyer, Shoreham, Sodus, Stevensville, Three Oaks, Union Pier, Watervliet

  • The Berrien County Official Government Website
  • Search Historical Newspapers from Michigan (1837 - 1922) - Quickly find names and keywords in over 450 million articles, obituaries, marriage notices, birth announcements and other items published in over 2,800 historical U.S. newspapers. New content added monthly!
  • Family History Library - The largest collection of free family history, family tree and genealogy records in the world.
  • Stories, Memories & Histories - Stories and histories compiled by others researching a person or area can be an amazing source of information about your ancestors. Not only do they generally contain dates and places of vital events like birth, marriage, and death, but they often relate stories and memories that help you really get to know the character of your ancestors.
  • Search Michigan Historical Records - Databases include Court, Land, Wills & Financial Records; Birth, Marriage & Death Records; Voter Lists & Census Records; Immigration & Emigration Records; Obituary Records; Military Records; Family Tree Records; Pictures; Stories, Memories & Histories; Directories & Member Lists and much more....

  • Berrien County, Michigan History Books at Amazon.com

County Court, Probate and Tax Records

See Also Michigan Land Records, Marriage Records, Court, Tax & Probate Records

PLEASE READ FIRST!!! Please call the clerk's department to confirm hours, mailing address, fees and other specifics before visiting or requesting information because of sometimes changing contact information.

Researchers often overlook the importance of court records, probate records, and land records as a source of family history information.

All departments below at located at the Berrien County Courthouse, 811 Port Street, St. Joseph, MI 49085 , unless a different address is listed below. NOTE: The date listed for each category of record is the earliest record known to exist in that county. It does not indicate that there are numerous records for that year and certainly does not indicate that all such events that year were actually registered. See also the Berrien County Courthouse History

Berrien County Clerk has the following Records for: Births & Deaths: 1867 to present, Marriages: 1831 to present, Divorces: 1867 to present, Other Records: DD214/. The Office is located at the County Administration Center, 701 Main Street, St. Joseph, MI 49085; Phone: 616-983-7111 ext. 8233
Fax: 616-982-8667

The County Clerk is responsible for keeping records of births, deaths, assumed names, co-partnerships, issuing and filing marriage licenses, gun permits, notary bonds and processing passports.

Berrien County Register of Deeds has Land Records from 1831 and is located at the County Administration Center, 701 Main Street, St. Joseph, MI 49085; Phone: 269-983-7111 ext. 8562, Fax: 269-982-8659.

The Register is the County's official recording officer for all legal documents pertaining to the transfers and encumbrances of all real estate property within the County. The Register also provides permanent storage for approved original subdivision plats, condominiums, land surveys and section corners.

Berrien County Clerk of the Probate Court has Probate Records from 1834 and is located at the County Courthouse, see address above for contact information. Phone: 269-983-7111 ext.8365 .

The Court Adjudicates and disposes of cases involving property of persons who have died or become incompetent, interprets wills and trusts, commits the mentally ill when necessary and appoints guardians and conservators for minors, incapacitated individuals and individuals with developmental disability.

Berrien County Clerk of the Circuit Court has Court Records from 1833 and is located at the County Courthouse, see address above for contact information. Phone: (616) 983-7111, Ext. 8368 .

The Clerk provides a variety of functions for the court such as, but not limited to: filing and maintaing the official record for all cases that come before the court; providing staff to assist in the operation of the court; working with the Jury Commission and notifying all potential jurors to appear for jury duty; and, processing felony criminal cases bound over from the District Court.

County Treasurer - Property tax records at the county level usually date back to the first land records. Either the county treasurer or the register of deeds will be the custodian of these records.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Court Records. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Court Records by clicking the link below:

  • Order County Court, Civil or Criminal Records Online
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • Michigan Land Records: Michigan Pre-1908 Homestead & Cash Entry Patent and Cadastral Survey Plat Index.
  • Michigan Eastern District Naturalizations: Index to Naturalization papers of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Detroit, 1837-1903 and U.S. Circuit Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Detroit, 1837-1903
  • Berrien County, Michigan Court Books at Amazon.com
  • Court, Land, Wills & Financial - Court records are an often overlooked, yet very valuable tool for finding information to assist you in your research. Land records, such as deeds, allow you to tie an ancestor to a specific place at a point in time. Other court records like those dealing with finances and estates often list related family members or give interesting details like the total value of property owned by your ancestors to add interest to your family history.
  • Immigration & Emigration - As our ancestors moved from one country to another, details about their lives were recorded on passenger lists and government documents. Immigration and emigration records can help you learn where your ancestors originally came from, where they went, when they left, who they traveled with, and more.

County Birth, Marriage, Divorce and Death Records

See Also Vital Records in Michigan

Birth, marriage, and death records are connected with central life events. They are prime sources for genealogical information.

The State of Michigan Vital Records Office is located at 201 Townsend Street, Capitol View Bldg, 3rd Floor, Lansing MI 48913 (across the street from the state capitol - south side). The office hours are 8:00 am - 5:00 pm Mon-Fri, except for State holidays. They are open thru the lunch hour. If applying in person, you must submit your request by 3:00 pm in order to obtain same-day service. It can take up to 1-3 months to get a vital record from Michigan.


  • Birth Certificates: The Vital Records Office maintains birth records that occur in Michigan since 1867 to the present. Birth records are restricted in Michigan and only a person or parent named on the record or a legal guardian of the person named on the record may request a copy. A legal representative is eligible to request a copy if he/she represents the person named on the record. Photo identification is required to request a Michigan birth record (unless the birth record is at least 100 years old).
    • Cost: Initial search (fee includes a 3-year search, Each additional year is $12.00 per year) and one certified copy or certification of the record or No Record Statement is $26.00 and $12.00 for each additional copy. Make your check or money order payable to "STATE OF MICHIGAN". Enclose a business-size self-addressed envelope. If no record is found or no copy is made, state law requires that we keep check amount for a searching fee. Please do not send cash in the mail. Mail to: Vital Records Requests, PO Box 30721, Lansing MI 48909
    • Processing Time: If the birth year is 1906 to the present, your request will be processed within 4 weeks. If the birth year is prior to 1906, the processing time will be 1-3 months. when ordered by MAIL or 2-5 Days when you order ELECTRONICALLY
  • Death Certificates: The Vital Records Office maintains death records that occur in Michigan since 1867 to the present.
    • Cost: Initial search (fee includes a 3-year search, Each additional year is $12.00 per year) and one certified copy or certification of the record or No Record Statement is $26.00 and $12.00 for each additional copy. Make your check or money order payable to "STATE OF MICHIGAN". Enclose a business-size self-addressed envelope. If no record is found or no copy is made, state law requires that we keep check amount for a searching fee. Please do not send cash in the mail. Mail to: Vital Records Requests, PO Box 30721, Lansing MI 48909
    • Processing Time: If the death year is 1916 to the present, your request will be processed within 4 weeks of receipt in the vital records office. If the death year is prior to 1916, the processing time will be 1-3 months when ordered by MAIL or 2-5 Days when you order ELECTRONICALLY
  • Marriage Certificates: The Vital Records Office maintains marriage records that occur in Michigan since 1867 to the present.
    • Cost: Initial search (fee includes a 3-year search, Each additional year is $12.00 per year) and one certified copy or certification of the record or No Record Statement is $26.00 and $12.00 for each additional copy. Make your check or money order payable to "STATE OF MICHIGAN". Enclose a business-size self-addressed envelope. If no record is found or no copy is made, state law requires that we keep check amount for a searching fee. Please do not send cash in the mail. Mail to: Vital Records Requests, PO Box 30721, Lansing MI 48909
    • Processing Time: If the marriage year is 1926 to the present, your request will be processed within 4 weeks of receipt in the vital records office. If the marriage year is prior to 1926, the processing time will be 1-3 months when ordered by MAIL
  • Divorce Certificates: The Vital Records Office maintains divorce records that occur in Michigan since 1867 to the present.
    • Cost: Initial search (fee includes a 3-year search, Each additional year is $12.00 per year) and one certified copy or certification of the record or No Record Statement is $26.00 and $12.00 for each additional copy. Make your check or money order payable to "STATE OF MICHIGAN". Enclose a business-size self-addressed envelope. If no record is found or no copy is made, state law requires that we keep check amount for a searching fee. Please do not send cash in the mail. Mail to: Vital Records Requests, PO Box 30721, Lansing MI 48909
    • Processing Time: If the divorce year is 1925 to the present, your request will be processed within 4 weeks of receipt in the vital records office. If the divorce year is prior to 1925, the processing time will be 1-3 months when ordered by MAIL.
  • Order Online: You can also order Order Electronically Online to obtain a certified copy of a birth, marriage, death or divorce record with a credit or debit card and get the certificates within 2-5 days by ordering from VitalChek Express Certificate Service.
  • Apply In Person: If you wish to apply in person to order a Michigan vital record, you may do so at the office located at 201 Townsend St, Capitol View Building, 3rd Floor, Lansing MI 48913 (across from the State Capitol). Lobby hours are 8:00 am - 5:00 pm. Directions are available by logging onto our website at: www.michigan.gov/mdch or by calling 517-335-8666. A check or money order is preferred, and orders in our lobby must be placed by 3:00 pm in order to request same-day service. An additional fee of $10.00 is required for same-day service orders. Please allow a 2-3 hour waiting period for same-day service.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Vital Records. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Vital Records by clicking the link below:

  • Vital Records from Archives.com: Birth Records, Marriage Records, Divorce Records and Death Records
  • VitalChek Express Certificate Service. - Some documents are just too important to wait six weeks for. With VitalChek Express Certificate Service you won’t have to. VitalChek is the fast and convenient way to order certified government-issued vital records online. They make it easy for you to purchase the documents to which you are legally entitled. Beware of other online services that do not have relationships directly with the agencies that store your vital records. VitalChek's order process usually takes less than 10 minutes --And you can select express courier service for even faster delivery when time is running out.
  • Click Here to Search the Social Security Death Index for FREE- Search over 82 million death records and get genealogical information crucial to your family research. New content added weekly! Most comprehensive SSDI site online!
  • Research Death records In The World's Largest Newspaper Archive at NewpaperArchive.com! - Find thousands of historical Arkansas newspaper articles about deaths. Search for local articles about an old family friend that died many years ago or a celebrity that committed suicide. Historical newspapers contain a wealth of information about the deceased.
  • Birth, Marriage & Death - Vital records (births, deaths, marriages, and divorces) mark the milestones of our lives and are the foundation of family history research. Vital records, usually kept by a civic authority, can give you a more complete picture of your ancestor, help you distinguish between two people with the same name, and help you find links to a new generation.
  • Michigan Marriages to 1850: This database of Michigan marriages to 1850 contains 13,000 names.
  • Michigan Marriages, 1851-75: This database contains records of marriages within the state for the years 1851 through 1875.
  • Michigan Deaths, 1971-1996: With over 2.75 million records, the Michigan Death Index covers the years from 1971 to 1996, making this database of particular interest to those with relatives from Michigan.
  • Berrien County, Michigan Birth, Marriage & Death Books at Amazon.com

County Census Records

See Also Research In Census Records & Statewide Records that exist for Michigan

Few, if any, records reveal as many details about individuals and families as do government census records. Substitute records can be used when the official census is unavailable

Countywide Records: Federal Population Schedules that exist for Berrien County, Michigan are 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890 (fragment, see below), 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930.

Other Federal Schedules to look at when researching your Family Tree in Berrien County, Michigan are Industry and Agriculture Schedules availible for the years 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880. The Mortality Schedules for the years 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880. There are free downloadable and printable Census forms to help with your research. These include U.S. Census Extraction Forms and U.K. Census Extraction Forms.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Census Records. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Census Records by clicking the link below:

  • Census Records at Archives.com
  • Michigan Census, 1827-70: This collection contains the following indexes: 1827 Territorial Census Index; 1837 Kalamazoo County Index; 1840 Federal Census Index; 1840 Pensioners List; 1845 State Census Index; 1850 Federal Census Index; 1860 Federal Census Index; 1870 Federal Census Index; Early Census Index.
  • Michigan State Census, 1894: This database contains information from the 1894 Michigan State Census for the counties of Barry, Bay, Benzie, Dickinson, Emmet, Gratiot, Iosco, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Keweenaw, Lapeer, Menominee, Montcalm, and Washtenaw.
  • Berrien County, Michigan Census Books at Amazon.com
  • Census & Voter Lists - A census is an official list of the people in a particular area at a given time, while voter lists show those who were registered to vote in a certain area. The valuable information found on census records helps you to understand your family in their time and place. Voter Lists serve as a confirmation of residence in between the years that the census was taken.

County Maps & Atlases

See Also Statewide Maps that exist for Michigan

Genealogy Atlas has images of old American atlases during the years 1795, 1814, 1822, 1823, 1836, 1838, 1845, 1856, 1866, 1879 and 1897 for Michigan and other states.

You can view rotating animated maps for Michigan showing all the county boundaries for each census year overlayed with past and present maps so you can see the changes in county boundaries. You can view a list of maps for other states at Census Maps

You can view rotating animated maps for Michigan showing all the county boundary changes for each year overlayed with past and present maps so you can see the changes in county boundaries. You can view a list of maps for other states at County Maps

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Maps. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Maps by clicking the link below:

  • The USGenWeb Archives Digital Map Library
  • Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection: Michigan Maps
  • Historical Maps of Michigan - Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Map of Michigan Territory
  • American Memory Map Collection: 1500-2004 - extensive selection from the Library of Congress Map Collections, focusing on Americana and cartographic treasures.
  • Berrien County, Michigan Map Books at Amazon.com
  • Maps, Atlases & Gazetteers - Maps are an invaluable part of family history research, especially if you live far from where your ancestor lived. Because political boundaries often changed, historic maps are critical in helping you discover the precise location of your ancestor's hometown, what land they owned, who their neighbors were, and more.

County Military Records

See Also Military Records in Michigan

Military and civil service records provide unique facts and insights into the lives of men and women who have served their country at home and abroad.

The uses and value of military records in genealogical research for ancestors who were veterans are obvious, but military records can also be important to re-searchers whose direct ancestors were not soldiers in any war. The fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and other close relatives of an ancestor may have served in a war, and their service or pension records could contain information that will assist in further identifying the family of primary interest. Due to the amount of genealogical information contained in some military pension files, they should never be overlooked during the research process. Those records not containing specific genealogical information are of historic value and should be included in any overall research design.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Military Records. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Military Records by clicking the link below:

  • Michigan Society of Daughters of the American Revolution
  • National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution,
  • Michigan Society of Sons of the American Revolution,
  • National Society of Sons of the American Revolution, 1000 South Fourth Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40203; (502) 589-1776
  • Southern Claims Commission (The National Archives): View, Print Copy & Save Original Documents In the 1870s, southerners claimed compensation from the U.S. government for items used by the Union Army, ranging from corn and horses, to trees and church buildings.
  • Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900 from the State of Michigan (The National Archives): View, Print Copy & Save Original Pension applications for service in the U.S. Army between 1861 and 1917, grouped according to the units in which the veterans served.
  • Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783 (The National Archives): View, Print Copy & Save Original Documents in NARA publication M246 include muster rolls, payrolls, strength returns, and other miscellaneous personnel, pay, and supply records of American Army units, 1775-83.
  • Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War (The National Archives): View, Print Copy & Save Original Documents in NARA publication M246 include muster rolls, payrolls, strength returns, and other miscellaneous personnel, pay, and supply records of American Army units, 1775-83.
  • Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files (The National Archives): View, Print Copy & Save Original Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, from NARA publication M804.
  • Civil War Principals and Substitutes Index
  • Civil War Soldier Images Database
  • Guest Register of World War I Michigan Clubroom (located in New York City)
  • World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing: State of Michigan
  • 1835 Michigan Territorial Pensioners
  • 1840 Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services State of Michigan
  • Michigan in the Civil War: This database contains a report compiled from reports of the Adjutant General and reports held by the War Department in Washington, of the services of Michigan regiments, batteries, and companies in the Civil War.
  • Michigan Military Records, 1775-1836: This database, originally compiled in 1920, is a collection of burial and pension records for residents of the state prior to 1836.
  • Berrien County, Michigan Military Books at Amazon.com
  • Military - The men and women called to serve their country in military duty are a source of pride to their families and to their nation. Now, with databases containing more than 16 million names and thousands of government records available to search, researching your veteran ancestors has become easier than ever before.

County Genealogical Addresses

See Also Other Michigan Genealogical Addresses

The Repositories in this section are Archives, Libraries, Museums, Genealogical and Historical Societies. Many County Historical and Genealogical Societies publish magazines and/or news letters on a monthly, quarterly, bi-annual or annual basis. Contacting the local societies should not be over looked. State Archives and Societies are usually much larger and better organized with much larger archived materials than their smaller county cousins but they can be more generalized and over look the smaller details that local societies tend to have. Libraries can also be a good place to look for local information. Some libraries have a genealogy section and may have some resources that are not located at archives or societies. Also, take a special look at any museums in the area. They sometimes have photos and items from years gone by as well as information of a genealogical interest. All these places are vitally important to the family genealogist and must not be passed over.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Genealogical Addresses. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Genealogical Addresses by clicking the link below:

  • The Berrien County Historical Association, 313 N. Cass Street, P.O. Box 261, Berrien Springs, MI 49103. The archives are accessible during museum hours, but researchers are strongly urged to call ahead to insure that the curator will be available to assist them. The museum can be reached at (269) 471-1202 Fax (269) 471-7412.
  • Berrien County Genealogical Society, E-mail address info@bcgensoc.com, P.O. Box 8808
    Benton Harbor, MI 49023-8808
  • Four Flags Area Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 414, Niles, MI 49120-0414
  • National Archives - Great Lakes Region (Chicago), 7358 South Pulaski Road, Chicago, Illinois 60629-5898; 773-948-9001; E-mail: (Maintains retired records from Federal agencies and courts in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.) General Information Leaflet
  • State Archives of Michigan, 702 W Kalamazoo Str, P.O. Box 30738, Lansing, MI 48909-8238; (517) 373-1408; Original material generated by government offices at the state and/or local level, including census records, tax assessment rolls, military records and photographs are among the extensive holdings. They also have some naturalization files, correctional facility records, school records, and depression era agency files. The archives distribute information circulars on many topics. The circulars act as finding aids to their extensive collection.
  • The Historical Society of Michigan, 1305 Abbott Rd., East Lansing, MI 48823; (517) 324-1828; Fax: (517) 324-4370, e-mail:
  • Library of Michigan, : 702 W. Kalamazoo St, Lansing, MI 48909; Holdings here include an extensive genealogical and historical collection including books, microforms, manuscripts, newspapers, surname index, Centennial and Sesquicentennial Certificate applications, and diaries. Records are housed in a new building with card catalog. See: http://michigan.gov/hal/libraryofmichigan for more information/services. Limited reference service to mail request. They also offer online reference services at:
  • Newspapers & Periodicals - The Newspapers & Periodicals Collection lets you discover a wealth of information about your ancestors from many historical newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. These types of sources can often supplement public records and provide information that is not recorded anywhere else. Here, you can learn more about your ancestor's possible daily activities by placing them in the context of their time.
  • Directories & Member Lists - Directories and member lists are typically compilations of information about people who belonged to various associations and groups or lived within city boundaries. They can be thought of as the predecessors to the modern-day phone book and usually list names, addresses, and sometimes the occupations of your ancestors.
  • Michigan Genealogical Society Books at Amazon.com

County Church & Cemeteries

See Also Church & Cemetery Records in Michigan

Obituaries can vary in the amount of information they contain, but many of them are genealogical goldmines, including information such as names, dates, places of birth and death, marriage information, and family relationships.

There are many churches and cemeteries in Berrien County. Some transcriptions are online. A great site is the Berrien County Tombstone Transcription Project.

The earliest religious denomination in Michigan was the Roman Catholic church, established through a mission in 1668 at Sault Ste. Marie. Ste. Anne's, in Detroit, has parish records beginning in 1703.

Michigan Historical Collections in Ann Arbor holds large collections from the Presbyterian Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church, in addition to other denominations. Dutch Reformed church records are at Calvin College and Seminary Library in Grand Rapids; Finnish church records are deposited at the Finnish-American Historical Archives at Suomi College in Hancock. The Upjohn Library at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo has a large collection of Baptist archive material. Many early Detroit churches have their records deposited at the Burton Historical Collection-Detroit Public Library. The Michigan Historical Records Survey, WPA, completed an Inventory of the Church Archives of Michigan, and many of the church records from this inventory were published from 1936 through 1942.

The Library of Michigan in Lansing and the Burton Historical Collection have over 1,000 books of transcribed or published tombstone readings from Michigan cemeteries. To locate a cemetery in the state, consult the Michigan Cemetery Compendium. It lists most cemeteries in Michigan.

Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Cemetery & Church Records. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Cemetery & Church Records by clicking the link below:

  • Cemetery Records at Archives.com
  • Find Obituaries in The World's Largest Newspaper Archive at NewpaperArchive.com! - Find thousands of Michigan obituaries to help you research your family history. Search for a Michigan newspaper obituary about your ancestor or a celebrity. Begin your search today and find death notices and funeral announcements printed in newspapers from Michigan.
  • Obituary Records at Archives.com
  • America's Obituaries (1977 to current) at Genealogybank.com - Obituaries contain helpful information such as names, dates, places of birth, death, marriage and family information. Over 28 million obituaries make this the most complete collection from the 20th and 21st centuries - includes over 1,100 U.S. newspapers. New content added daily!
  • Revolutionary Soldiers Buried in Michigan
  • Berrien County, Michigan Cemetery Books at Amazon.com
  • Berrien County, Michigan Church Books at Amazon.com

Family Trees & Genealogy Tidbits

 

The use of published genealogies, electronic files containing genealogical lineage, and other compiled sources can be of tremendous value to a researcher.

When view family trees online or not, be sure to only take the info at face value and always follow up with your own sources or verify the ones they provide. Below is a list of online resources for Berrien County Family Trees, web forums and other family type information. Email us with websites containing Berrien County Family Trees, web forums and other family type information by clicking the link below:

  • Search for Local Michigan Researchers or Earn Money by becoming a Local Michigan Researcher!
  • Search 60 Years Of Everton Data: For the first time ever you can get access to more than 150,000 pedigree files and family group sheets from Evertons. Learn More
  • Sites on USGenweb: [ Berrien County ] [ Michigan ] [ Main Page ]
  • Search the Family Tree DNA Project- Use DNA testing to break through your genealogical barriers!
  • The Michigan Family Group Sheet Project
  • Berrien County MIGenWeb Archives
  • [GenForum Message Boards] [Rootsweb Message Boards]
  • Genealogy Encyclopedia: General Abbreviations, Early Illnesses, Nickname Meanings, Worldwide Epidemics, Early Occupations, Common Terms, Censuses Explained, Free Genealogical Forms
  • Nichols and Related Families of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virgina.
  • Family Trees - Ancestry has thousands of family trees shared by other members. They can help you identify how ancestors are related and give you clues about birth, marriage, and death information. Family trees are an excellent resource for filling in gaps in your research or even to simply know where to begin.
  • Pictures - One of the more exciting discoveries in doing family history research is finding a photograph of your ancestors or their residence. Finding historic postcard photos and drawings of towns and important events throughout history can also give you a visual look into your ancestors lives.
  • Reference Materials & Finding Aids - Reference materials, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other how-to books, can be tremendously helpful in finding and interpreting historical documents. Many of these books can help you learn where to look for more information and how to use what you've already found to uncover more clues.
  • Berrien County, Michigan Family Books at Amazon.com

Extended History

 

Located on Lake Michigan in the southwest corner of the state, and bisected by the St. Joseph River, Berrien County has a long history that begins with the earliest explorers of the Great Lakes. Jacques Marquette was the first white man to visit the region. But it was Rene' Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle who had the first real impact.

Arriving in 1679, La Salle built Fort Miami at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. Located at the present site of St. Joseph, Ft. Miami became the base for several explorations into the Mississippi River Valley. Near the end of the seventeenth century other French explorers built Ft. St. Joseph up the river at the present site of Niles. They also established a Jesuit mission at the Niles fort.

Though Ft. Miami fell into disuse, Ft. St. Joseph was occupied until the French left the area in 1763. The British held the fort until captured by the Spanish in 1781. Though the Spaniards stayed only a few days, their presence provided Niles with the unique distinction of being a "Town of four flags"; the only Michigan community able to make such a claim.

With the exception of a few traders, Berrien remained unsettled until Squire Isaac Thompson, the county's first settler, arrived at Niles in 1823. Organized in 1831 and named after U.S. Attorney General John M. Berrien, the county was populated by settlers who poured into Berrien during the 1830s and endured a multitude of hardships.

One problem, the "ague," a form of malaria that came on as attacks of violent chills, high fever, and copious sweating, plagued the newcomers throughout the 1830s. But the settlers resolved their problems with ingenuity. One Buchanan housewife rigged up a harness so her husband could churn the butter and rock the baby each time he was afflicted with the "shakes."

During this period Michigan's Indians and settlers maintained a cordial relationship. But in one instance, that cordiality temporarily ended. At the James M. Sorter cabin it was common for Indians to spend severe winter nights before the cabin's fire. But one morning when the Sorters awoke they discovered that their nocturnal guests had stolen part of their precious winter food supply. Disappointed that their trust had been violated, a week later, the Sorters were pleased to find a freshly killed deer on their table as repayment for the missing food.

Pioneers continued to immigrate to Berrien and by the outbreak of the Civil War the county's population stood well over 20,000. Answering their country's call-to-arms, Berrien sent over 3,000 men and a few women to war.

With the advent of war Hannah Carlisle of Buchanan accompanied the 2nd Michigan Cavalry to St. Louis, was assigned as a nurse, and served in that capacity for the duration. Women at home received less publicity but also 'served.' After the war, D. W. Gaugler of Berrien Springs was able to sell his farm and enter the furniture business because, while he was off to war, his wife had managed the farm so efficiently that she greatly increased its value.

Following the war, Berrien experienced impressive growth. As early as 1670 a member of La Salle's expedition wrote that the area's warm winters and sandy soil provided a good place for growing all kinds of fruit.

The French were mainly trappers, not farmers, and did not exploit this opportunity, but it foretold of things to come. As early as 1834 peaches were being harvested and in 1839 the first shipment of peaches was transported and sold in Chicago. From these small beginnings, Berrien County's fruit production has grown to enormous proportions.

Today Berrien is the heart of Michigan's 'fruit belt,' and its fruit production is awesome. The county leads all Michigan counties in the production of peaches, pears and grapes, is second in apples, plums and prunes, and a respectable fourth in tart cherries. Berrien is also the home of Michigan's wine production. Benton Harbor has long been the home of the world's largest outdoor retail fruit market, and every spring a half-century old "blessing of the blossoms" ceremony begins a weeklong celebration, which is culminated by a parade viewed by crowds in excess of 250,000.

The second aspect of Berrien's trinity of growth is tourism. As with the fruit industry, Lake Michigan and the proximity to Chicago greatly aided the county's tourist trade.

In 1873 Stanley Morton, one of Benton Harbor's earliest residents, ran his small ship, the Lake Breeze, to Chicago and transported tourists to southwestern Michigan. By the summer months of the early twentieth century, numerous ships made the short voyage and brought thousands of Chicagoans to Berrien.

Up and down Berrien's fifty-mile coastline, as well as among its eighty-six inland lakes, were resorts, which catered to the tourists' demands. Places like the Whitcomb, Golfmore, Planks Tavern, Paw Paw Lake, and Tabors Farm, were only a few of the many resorts that were jammed every summer. But with the popularity of the automobile, tourists followed highways north and tourism today is more a fond memory than a flourishing industry.

Industry is the trinity's final element. In 1911 Fred and Louis Upton moved to St. Joseph, obtained a patent for an electric clothes washer, and began the Upton Machine Company. The company almost failed, but after a decade of problems the Uptons enjoyed success. They changed the company's name in 1950 and the Upton Machine Co., now known as the Whirlpool Corporation, has become a leading manufacturer of home appliances and one of the nation's largest corporations.

About the time the Uptons moved to St. Joseph, a small Chicago tool company relocated in Buchanan. Today Clark Equipment Company is internationally famous as a leader in the manufacture of a variety of items, particularly heavy-duty machinery.

Other men of industry and commerce, who at least began their careers in Berrien, include John and Horace Dodge, and Montgomery Ward. The Dodge Brothers were born in Niles and owned a bicycle manufacturing business before moving to Detroit and establishing Dodge Brothers, Inc., producer of automobiles. Montgomery Ward moved to Niles as a young boy and lived in Berrien until 1865 when he moved to Chicago and founded the mail order department store chain that still bears his name.

As with fruit and tourism, the list of industrial contributions is long and impressive. But Berrien has produced more than industrialists, farmers and hotel managers. The county's greatest literary figure was Ring Lardner.

Born in Niles in 1885, Lardner was one of the best-known American authors in the 1920s. He began his career writing sketches of sporting events for a local paper, and later worked for papers in Chicago and New York, where he wrote a popular syndicated column. Beginning in 1914 the Saturday Evening Post began publication of a series of articles that were to become Lardner's best-known works. Later entitled You Know Me Al, the articles were letters from an ignorant bush league baseball player to his friend, and were among the first literary uses of American common speech. Lardner died in 1933 and his achievements were favorably compared to those of Mark Twain.

Though not a native, Carl Sandburg lived at Harbert for fifteen years, and during that period worked on the biography of Abraham Lincoln that won him the Pulitzer Prize.

And finally, the residents of the sleepy village of Three Oaks, who challenged the nation and won. As a result of a contest to raise money for a memorial to the men of the Maine, sunk in Havana harbor in 1898, Three Oaks raised the largest contribution, per capita, of any U.S. community. As victors they received a cannon captured by Admiral George Dewey at the battle of Manila. President William McKinley dedicated the cannon memorial on October 17, 1899*, which still stands in Dewey Cannon Park as a proud reminder of the campaign labeled by locals as "Three Oaks Against the World."

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