Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Region 1701-1936

Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Region 1701-1936

In 1872, Father Christian Denissen arrived in the Detroit area.  After his appointment to St. Charles Detroit in 1889 he began to research the records of the Church farm to determine whether the proceeds were diocese or parish property.  This retrospective look at the history of the families involved with this property evolved into the monumental task of recording the genealogy of all French families that settled within the Detroit River region from 1700-1900.

Records derive from the early French Catholic churches: Ste. Anne, from 1704; Assumption Parish, Sandwich (in Windsor, Canada), from its creation in 1752; St. Antoine, Monroe, from 1792; Mt. Clemens church from 1846; and the Grosse Pointe church from 1847.

Father Denissen died in 1911 but not before willing his vast collection of 20,000 genealogical pages to his good friend Clarence Burton, eventually becoming part of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.  Mr. Burton worked to organize the 20,000 pages into family groups, adding information, and making corrections until his own death in 1931.

Since that time, the collection has remained a part of the Burton Historical Collection.

Fast forward to 1974 when Alice C. Dalligan, chief of the Burton Historical Collection and Dr. Harold Powell, Wayne State University Professor, collaborated to bring this essential work to the public.  In 1976, the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, Inc. created a 2-volume set entitled “French Families of the Detroit River Region 1801-1911”. 

That first edition sold out within a few months.  Those who purchased these first volumes were requested to submit additions and corrections and this new information was then utilized to create a revised version published in 1987.

It is no secret that the French have a deep distinguished history in the Detroit region on both sides of the river having worked relentlessly to make Detroit what it became in the early 20th Century.  Those family historians researching their genealogical roots in Detroit often stumble upon a French connection wondering how to take their French roots to the next level.  The Denissen Genealogies are their answer.

1269 pages with extensive index this collection is a godsend.  The author of this article has used this collection extensively possessing the 1987 2-volume revision that now retails on Ebay for around $750 or more. 

During recent work for a client with French Detroit connections it dawned upon me that most Americans do not have access to this collection.  Most of the libraries that hold a copy are in the North and very few at that.  And then these collections are not in circulation. 

I have decided to offer my services to you at the reduced cost of $25 (per surname) for my time in searching the volumes on your behalf.  I can photograph the pages (included) or typeset.  If copies are needed the cost will be an additional $.30 per page to cover postage and ink.

Below is a sample page for the RIVARD dit LAVIGNE family. 

Simply submit your request using the form below and I’ll return your message within 24 hours.  Thank you.

How would you like this sent?

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Dating An Early Grand Rapids Photo

Dating An Early Grand Rapids Photo

I love the following glimpse into Grand Rapids’ past.  Taken at 9:30 according to the tower clock in the background it is a northwestern look down Monroe Center toward the Pantlind Hotel.

The photo is now in the public domain.  It was taken by the Detroit Publishing Company and has an estimated time-frame from 1900 to 1910.  Are there perhaps clues in this photo that can narrow down a more precise date?  Let’s take a closer look and find out.

Monroe Center Street NW of yesteryear.

The best method of testing the era of this photo is to examine each of the businesses shown in period city directories to determine what years they were at the locations shown.  This is easily done using which has most of the Grand Rapids City Directories.  Of those listed the ones that point to a specific era include the Grand Rapids Candy Kitchen which did not appear in any directory prior to 1907; the A C Smith Barber who was in another location in 1904; the Dentist, Mr. I L Lee who did not move to this present location until 1907; the Dentist, Mr. Marcus Cox, who moved from this location in 1908.

This refines the year to 1907.  Do objects pictured fit this year?  Without a doubt.  There are three automobiles in the picture mixed in with horse and buggy.  The center car where we can only see the rear does appear to be a 1907 runabout, either Ford or Buick.  The car parked adjacent the Eli Cross Florist is a 1907 Ford Model S.

Everything seems to fit 1907.  As for clothing style, the long-flowing dresses, white shirts and bonnets all fit the 1900s as do the suits and hats for the men.

New for 1907 was the Model R Runabout replacing the Ford Model N in April. The Model R was then revised in August 1907 becoming the Model S.

It’s difficult to determine the model of car driven in the picture above left as it was taken from the rear.  It does appear to be a runabout.  There were several runabout models during the 1907 era: Ford, Buick, Cadillac and others.  The auto may be a Buick Model G or K or a Ford Model R.  The seats seem more like a Buicks.  The rear fenders seem to lift up slightly.

As for the car sitting in front of Eli’s Florist, that does look more like a 1906-07 Ford Model S.  What appears to be passengers sitting in reverse is only an illusion of depth.  They are likely pedestrians walking behind the vehicle.

In either case, I believe the cars help date the photo to the 1907 era.


I believe all evidence points to the year 1907.

1907 Buick Model G Runabout

1907 Buick Model K Runabout

1907 Buick Model S Runabout

1906-07 FORD MODEL “R”

1906-07 FORD MODEL “S”

Monroe Center Street NW today.

How to Locate Michigan Adoption Records

How to Locate Michigan Adoption Records

Michigan Law allows you, the adoptee seeking his/her birth record, or the direct descendant of such an adoptee, to request and receive information pertaining to that adoption.

My Adoption Story

What do you do as a family historian when you come across an adoption or an unplanned pregnancy?  Where do you turn for answers? 

I was not adopted, but Betty, my paternal grandmother born in 1921, was.  Betty, like the rest of our family, was unaware of her adoption until 1998 at the passing of her mother, Pauline.  Pauline had written a revealing letter to Betty, discovered post-death in her personal possessions, that explained how the man Betty knew to be her father was not biological.  Unfortunately for the family, no names were given.  The adoption was left a mystery.

A small photograph of a balding man wearing a cap, apron and sandals, was found in Pauline’s purse.  It was obvious the photo had been viewed on numerous occasions over the years evidenced by the worn edges.  But who was the man?  No-one could identify him.  And no name was written thereon.  Was he Betty’s father?

After Betty’s death in 2008 I inherited all the family photos.  I had never seen these before.  Our heritage was never discussed.  Fortunately, there were enough named photos to piece together the family history, but no further photo of the mysterious balding man held by Pauline.

I decided to dig deep and investigate. 

I started with the balding man, attempting to discover his identity.  To do this I thought it best to search into the early years of Pauline, those years surrounding Betty’s birth and the years prior. 

Pauline had three sisters.  There was also a brother who died young.  I looked at the sister closest in age to Pauline and discovered an early 1918 marriage and subsequent divorce just a short time later.  On the marriage record were given two witnesses: Pauline and the husband’s brother.  The brother turned out to be a band instrument polisher who would wear similar garb as the man in the mysterious photo. 

I brought the family line forward and found a living granddaughter.  I wrote her with a copy of the photo explaining my theory of why I felt her grandfather might be the biological father of my grandmother Betty and the woman called me about a week later.  She confirmed that the man in the photo was indeed her grandfather Alfred.  But I don’t think she liked where the conversation was headed, and I never heard from her again.

At that time, I had taken an AncestryDNA test.  I searched for people on Ancestry with Alfred in their family tree and contacted each to inquire whether any had taken a DNA test.  I heard from a couple that confirmed they had indeed taken a test.  I was disheartened and discouraged when I didn’t see their names listed in my cousin matches.  Alfred was not Betty’s father.

Now I had nothing to go on.  Alfred was in the right place at the right time.  And apparently, Pauline may have thought he was Betty’s father.  Why else carry a photo over some 70 years?  If I were to proceed, I might discover a truth that not even Pauline knew the answer to. 

And if I did proceed, what would my family think once I found some answers?  Was it better to leave it alone and let things be?  Or was it essential as the only family historian to learn the truth and share with others only if asked?  This is a serious issue that you too might face.  There might be people that would rather you let things be and not mar the family name.  But you owe it to yourself and your future descendants to learn the truth if it can be found.  One day we’ll all be gone, and no-one will remember us, our family, and certain not the generation we’re looking into today. 

If we’re capable of discovering the truth behind an anomaly in our family tree, then we should do so.  We must. 

My next step was to turn to the court system.  As a direct descendant of Betty’s, I was privy to the same information she would have received had she been alive.  Because Betty lived her entire life in Kent County, Michigan, it was from the Kent County Probate Court that I requested Betty’s adoption probate record. 

It took a few months, but I was contacted back with the information I sought.  After proving my identity, I was given the adoption record of my grandmother.  That record proved Betty was adopted by the man who raised her two years after Betty was born.  Pauline gave a fictitious name for Betty’s biological father, another false lead.

The man who raised Betty did a fabulous job as her father.  Many in my family that knew him, and I did not, would say the same.  He was yet living when my father and uncles were children and they remember him well.  They choose to remember him as their true grandfather and that is fine, but it doesn’t change that fact that genealogically speaking, DNA says otherwise.  And I would be doing the family an injustice were I to plug this man’s heritage into my own family tree no matter how he was loved as a grandfather. 

This is where feelings tend to get hurt and the family historian despised.  Why stick your hand in the hornet’s nest?  Just let things be as they were.  It is also why great care must be taken not to share what you learn with others unless they are interested in learning the same.  

Neither do I judge anyone as a genealogist.  I have no right.  These are secrets taken to the grave that were intended on being kept secret.  And I certainly have enough faults and skeletons of my own.  I put no blame on either Pauline of the biological father.  Pauline did well in raising Betty, her one and only child.  The truth I was to uncover did not change the love felt between the family between all involved.

I can’t reiterate enough the importance of what you are seeking to do as a family historian.  Be certain you really want to uncover the truth, a truth you might have to keep silent from your own family for years to come.  For that truth can be dangerous if carelessly spoken.

For the rest of my own story I used DNA to piece together the clues.  I took a DNA test with what I call the BIG4 (AncestryDNA, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage).  I also had both my father and mother take a DNA test with AncestryDNA that I imported into MyHeritage, this to differentiate the many matches between my paternal and maternal lines.

I kept seeing the same surnames popping up on my father’s side.  Over a very long period of time, after creating numerous trees and putting all the pieces together, and after eliminating over a dozen male candidates who could have been the biological father, it came down to a single man, one whom I had not yet placed under the genealogical microscope.

And then out of the blue I was contacted by a man living in Germany who had read an online article I had placed on my blog, written some time ago about Alfred, the man proven not to be kin.  The man had been looking at a crossing line and suggested the same individual I had not yet examined rather than Alfred.  What were the chances of such a serendipitous suggestion?  Someone was leading me in the right direction.

Yes, the last piece of the puzzle was a man named Edgar James McMellen.  Once his piece was found and placed into my tree, all other pieces surrounding fit perfectly, meaning that all other DNA matches were precise in suggested relationships.  To date I have over 18 confirmed cousin matches that all point to Edgar, the biological father of my grandmother Betty.

Sound easy?  It wasn’t.  This took many months of tedious work, a ton of persistence, and a little “luck” added in for good measure. 

If the truth is truly something you need to learn, then be prepared for a bumpy road and one that is not so cheerful.  There may be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

This was true for one adoptee I assisted.  Once we discovered the identities of her biological parents, based on non-identifying information received from the adoption agency, the story turned melancholic as we learned her mother had died in a plane crash and her father, though alive, wanted nothing to do with her. 

And sad your story too might be.  Expect the best but prepare for the worst.  Know too that this may be a difficult journey.  Should you choose to not go it alone, I am here to assist should you choose that route.  Just use the form at the bottom of this post to send me a message with as much pertinent details as you choose to share.  We can talk via phone, text or email.  My research services start at $500 (for 10 hours’ time).  I will conduct the research, find the necessary probate court and/or agency information, and write the letters you will need to request the adoption information. 

Still with me?  Then it’s time to investigate Michigan Law.  You need to be armed with what the law allows you to do, and what it does not. 

Adoption law is found in Michigan Probate Code, sections 710.68 and 710.27. 

Your Own Adoption

If you are an adult adoptee, defined as an adopted individual over the age of 18, then you have the right under Michigan Law to request from either the adoption agency and/or the probate court all non-identifying information pertaining to your birth parent(s).  And by law this information must be delivered in written form within 8 weeks upon request.

What can you do with this information?

The information received can be used to search for the identity of either parent using public records such as city directories, birth and death records, newspaper articles, and more.  It all depends on what is received.  Some agencies created rich biographies of one or both parents while other agencies took very little.  I’ve seen both.

How do you request your record?

As an adult adoptee you can request your non-identifying information from the adoption agency that handled your adoption.  If you do not know the name of the agency, then you can request this information from the probate court within the county where you were placed for adoption.  The probate court has 4 weeks (by law) to give you this information.  And the adoption agency has 8 weeks (by law) to supply the non-identifying information once you request it.

What will you receive?

What you will receive will vary.  It all depends on how much information was collected by the adoption agency at the time of adoption.  Probate courts generally do not have the wealth of information found at the adoption agency.  Therefore, we request information direct from the agency rather than the court. 

For adoptions having occurred between 28 May 1945 and 12 September 1980, and if both parents (or a single parent) have statements on file with the central adoption agency consenting to the release of identifying information or if both parents are deceased, you may receive:

  1. Your birth name before adoption.
  2. Name(s) of Parent(s) at time of termination of parental rights.
  3. Most recent name and address of parent(s).
  4. Names of biological siblings at time of termination.

If a single parent is deceased, then you will receive:

  1. Name of the Parent at time of termination of parental rights.
  2. Most recent name and address of that parent.
  3. Your birth name before adoption.
  4. Names of biological siblings at time of termination.

For adoptions where parental rights were terminated before 28 May 1945 or on/after 12 September 1980, the agency or court will release all identifying information to an adoptee unless a former parent has on file a statement (waived at death of the parent) denying consent.

If an adult adoptee wishes to receive information pertaining to an adult former sibling, the agency/court will submit a clearance form to the central adoption registry and then has 28 days after a reply is received to notify the adoptee in writing of the name/address of an adult former sibling – if a statement is on file.

If neither of the birth parents have a statement denying consent on file, then a copy of the clearance reply form will be released to the adult adoptee.  This form can be used to obtain the adoptee’s original certificate of live birth.  Again, this only applies to those adoptions in which parental rights were terminated before 28 May 1945 and on/after 12 September 1980.

What are the fees? 

Fees are set by Michigan Law to $60.00 (or actual cost of supplying information), whichever is less.  But this fee may be waived if indigent or under hardship.

An Ancestral Adoption

Many family historians have brick walls in their family trees where they run into a person that was adopted.  Can they request information about their ancestor from the State of Michigan?  Yes, they can.

Pursuant to the following that reads…

(20) A direct descendant of a deceased adult adoptee may request information under this section. All information to which an adult adoptee is entitled under this section shall be released to the adult adoptee’s direct descendants if the adult adoptee is deceased.

Therefore, if the adult adoptee is deceased, a direct descendant (must be proven) will be treated as if he/she were the adult adoptee and receive the equivalent information authorized by law.

Using DNA to Break Through Brick Walls

DNA can be a useful tool in your search for birth parents or siblings.  You will need to construct a family tree based on each cousin match to prove relationships.  Once you’ve done this with enough trees, you’ll start seeing some cross-connections where each tree overlaps one another until eventually you’ll begin to see the larger picture. 

You might be armed with non-identifying information and that is great.  Sometimes that information can be used to sort through the candidates.  It can be done.  It just takes a lot of willpower to see it through to the end. 

Don’t give up.  Be persistent.  And know that the truth is in sight.  You just need to work for it and lay claim to it.  This may take many hours of confusing research.  Don’t be dismayed.  Keep trekking along and eventually you’ll start seeing cracks in that brick wall. 

What DNA company should you test with?

I am asked this on a regular basis and my answer is always the same.  As many as you of the BIG4 you can afford to.  Why is this?

Taking a single DNA test with one company will leave many family connections unfound.  The truth is that we don’t know what company our relatives on either side may have tested with.  I’ve found connections using this method that would never have been found otherwise.  And in my own case this was crucial.

There are 4 large companies that I highly recommend.  These companies offer substantial discounts if you have time to wait.  These discounts take place around holidays – so it is important to watch for them.


Perhaps one of the largest databases available.  Due to their ample advertising for ethnicity results many people from curiosity submit their DNA sample to find their ethnic composition.  Problem is once these people learn their ethnicity, they abandon Ancestry never to return and thus you may have several cousin queries that go unanswered.  However, Ancestry is extremely useful and comes highly recommended. 

The base price is $99.  This goes on sale for $79 and sometimes $59 based on holidays. 

MyHeritage DNA.

At the time of this writing MyHeritage, a strong competitor to, offers a free membership.  This free membership includes a free upload of your AncestryDNA results.  A brilliant marketing tool for MyHeritage that makes their database one of the largest.  Their base price is $79.  Goes on sale for $59 on occasion.  But you won’t need to pay either price if you simply follow these steps.

  1. Log in to Ancestry
  2. Select DNA from top menu.
  3. Select the Settings tab under your name upper right.
  4. Click “Download Raw DNA Data” the gray bar in the right column.
  5. You will be prompted for your password and must check a box concerning security measures stating that you assume all risk.
  6. You will then receive an email from Ancestry where you must confirm data download by selecting a green button.
  7. Selecting that button will open up a new window in Ancestry where you must once again select the green button that reads “Download DNA Raw Data”.
  8. You will then download a zipped folder: dna-data-(todays date).zip
  9. Browse to
  10. At present (may change in future) – you will see an orange box that reads “Start your family tree”. Select it.
  11. Here you will create your account. Enter all information and select “Get started”. Follow additional prompts until you have set up your free account.
  12. Once your MyHeritage account is set up, log in to your free account.
  13. Browse to the DNA tab from menu across top of page. Select upload DNA data.
  14. Select the purple start button.
  15. You must then select both checkboxes in the gray area and then “upload”.
  16. This will prompt you for the zip folder you downloaded from Ancestry. Find this and click open from the new window.
  17. This will upload your Ancestry results for MyHeritage to digest. This will take a few days. You’ll be notified when results are ready.


23andMe offers a couple options, one with health features added in.  $99 for the base DNA package. 


$79 for the family finder package.

By spreading your DNA across all four of these large databases you are setting up a better mousetrap to find relatives, close and distant.  If you can afford to, I highly recommend purchasing all the above – except for MyHeritage which for the time is free. 

If you can’t, at least take an AncestryDNA test and upload your results to MyHeritage.

Let me know if I can be of assistance to you. 

Below is a sample identifying report from an adoption agency received by a former client with names smeared to protect client identity.


Finding a Surname.

My grandfather believed his surname was created by his grandfather in Scotland as he ran away from an orphanage, stowed away on a boat, and sailed for America.  Was there any evidence to this theory?  How would you go about proving it?

There are presently three types of DNA testing.  The most common is autosomal.  This is the test used by AncestryDNA and it is used to sort all ancestors along all lines several generations deep.  It encompasses the whole of all your ancestors and thus can’t be used to differentiate between your father’s or mother’s side of the family unless either parent has also tested.

Another test that can be used to prove surnames is the Y-DNA test offered by FamilyTree DNA.  This test looks at the Y-Chromosome passed from father to son down through the generations.  Only males can take this test as only they possess the Y-Chromosome.  Thus, if examining your own family line, testing your own Y-DNA would be equivalent to testing that of your male ancestors up the line.

In proving my grandfather’s theory, I could not self-test because my grandfather was maternal, and I did not possess his surname.  I had to find a male descendant to test.  My grandfather had but one brother who passed in 1976.  Fortunately, that brother had a single son.  I contacted that son and convinced him to test on my behalf.  He agreed.  The Y-DNA results proved my grandfather’s surname to be true, many generations deep, thus disproving a family legend.

The Y-111 test is recommended.

A Couple Important Websites

Michigan Adoption Registry.  While the State of Michigan maintains a central adoption registry, this is exclusively for parents of adoptees and adoption agencies.  However, there is a website that you can join and post who you are looking for.  This is good for adoptees seeking birth parents, a birth parent seeking an adoptee, or even adopted siblings in search of their biological siblings.  

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.  This is Michigan’s official adoption site.  Contains some information you might find useful.

Early 20th Century Baby Farms

A recent client was looking for information about his grandfather only to discover that his grandfather was one of many “black market” babies, born in homes set up as maternity hospitals where young pregnant women would go to give birth to unwanted babies, with no records kept, no authorities acknowledged, no paperwork filed. 

These “Baby Farms”, as they were referred to by Michigan papers, were overseen by ruling authorities but loose in application of the law.  Once the public learned of this atrocity via the written word there was an outcry and authorities began clamping down on the injustice.  Still, it took over a decade before rules were enforced. 

During this period, 1890-1910, some babies were born without birth certificates and without adoption records.  Only DNA can prove this type adoption.

If I can be of assistance to you please let me know in the form below.


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