Monroe County History

Prior to Establishment

French missionaries came to this territory as early as 1634. They named the river the River Aux Raisin because of the many grapes in this locality. A trading post and fort were established here in 1778. Francois Navarre was the first white settler in 1780. The first settlement was called Frenchtown when about 100 French families came here from Detroit and Canada. The American Flag was first raised in Michigan at Monroe in honor of President James Monroe. St. Antoine's Church on the banks of the River Raisin was the second church in the state.

Early Records

First records on file in the County Clerk's Office:

  • Birth Records: 1874
  • Death Records: 1867
  • Marriage Records: 1818


Monroe County was established in July, 1817 as one of the first steps in the organization of the Michigan territory after the War of 1812. The old settlement of Frenchtown, which centered upon the square of the present Courthouse, took the name of Monroe and became the County Seat in September 1817

The original Courthouse was a two-story structure, built of logs and located across the street from the present Courthouse at the current site of the Presbyterian Church. It housed not only the Court, but also the jail and the jailer's quarters, and served as such from 1818 to 1839. A new stone Courthouse was constructed in 1839 on the site of the present Courthouse. It served Monroe County until February 28, 1879 when it was almost destroyed by fire. There still remains, in the County Clerk's Office, some of the partially burned records, and some records dating back to 1856, which are still legible and are used for historical facts. The present courthouse was built in 1880, and there have since been three additions. The first was built in 1954 directly behind the structure along Washington Street. The second was constructed in 1966 along First Street and the most recent was built in 1986 on the site of the former jail.

During the early morning hours of April 13, 1992, an arsonist set fire to the Monroe County Courthouse. Fires were set in four separate locations, with extensive damage to the Probate Court, the Historic Circuit Courtroom, Treasurer's Office and main entrance. The restoration and remodeling took some ten months to complete, at a cost of $930,000.00. The arsonist has yet to be apprehended, despite the offering of a $25,000.00 reward by the County Board of Commissioners for information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the person(s) responsible.

In addition to the County Courthouse, several other buildings have been built or acquired to house County offices. The Johnson-Phinney home was purchased with other adjacent property in 1960 and was then known as the Courthouse Annex. This historic structure was moved in 1977 from its original location next to the Courthouse to the corner of Second and Cass Streets, where it housed the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce for some time.  The Stoner-Kemmerling Building, across from the Courthouse, was purchased in 1970, and extensive remodeling of that facility began in late 1988 and was completed in 1989.

The population of the County has grown from 1,340 in 1810 to 154,814 in 2005, based upon estimates of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Development of County Government in Michigan

We trace the beginnings of the Michigan local government system to the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance in 1785 and 1787, the Continental Congress' charter for the settling and governing of the lands west of Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance provided for the temporary rule of these lands by the national government until states were organized in the territory.

Thomas Jefferson, then a member of the Continental Congress, was enamored with the experiment of direct democracy being practiced in the New England Towns. He envisioned a time when the subdivided units of the Northwest Territory would also develop into "pure and elementary republics," much like those in Massachusetts and the rest of New England. He was, therefore, influential in having the Ordinance include provisions that would set the stage for such a town type of government to develop; lands were to be surveyed into townships with one of the sections in each township to be set aside to support a local school system. A collection of townships was partitioned off to become counties upon reaching population thresholds.

In 1796, the acting territorial governor officials set the boundaries for Wayne County--it included virtually all of the state of Michigan and parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Wayne County, with the Detroit settlement as its center, would be the "regional" headquarters for governing this part of the territory.

Gradually, as the lands became settled, state borders were set and new counties were established. The final boundaries for Wayne County were established in 1826. In 1830 there were 12 counties in Michigan, Michilimackinac then having the largest land area. By 1852, the boundaries of most of the counties in the southern part of the Lower Peninsula had been set and in 1891 the last (Dickinson) of Michigan's present 83 counties was organized.

The 1835 Constitution

Michigan's first state constitution provided for the continuation of many of the county officers already established under the territorial government. The 1835 Constitution required the election of a county clerk, treasurer, sheriff, register of deeds, surveyor, and at least one coroner. The governor appointed the prosecuting attorneys. This constitution was also influential in setting the pattern for the system of courts.

The 1835 Constitution, however, did not address the matter of how the county board was to be constituted; so it is little wonder that we in Michigan also had a battle over this question. The legislative council of the Northwest Territory had provided for the supervisors of organized townships to constitute the county board. But in 1838 the state legislature changed the system to provide for the election of commissioners from the county at large. This lasted only four years, when the legislature re-established the supervisor system. Township supervisors sat as members of the county boards until 1966, with the board structure surviving two additional state constitutions.

The 1850 Constitution

By 1850 it was time for a new constitutional convention. The 1850 Constitution reaffirmed most of the patterns that had developed to that point, added the prosecutor as an elected official, and deleted the coroner and surveyor from the list. The statues that the legislature enacted following the adoption of this constitution became fundamental in terms of the powers and duties of the elected officers. To this day many of those statues remain in effect.

The 1908 Constitution

The early 1900s was a period of reaction and reform--reaction to the patronage abuses that flowered under Jacksonian philosophies (Andrew Jackson), and reform in terms of values of "good government" and the idea that government should be managed and run in a "businesslike" way.

The 1908 convention gave home rule or charter government powers to cities and villages but not to counties or townships, although delegates thought about it. In their "address to the people," the delegates stated that they were giving the county boards of supervisors the authority to set their own salaries as "an extension of the right of home rule.

This convention was also notable for its assignment of health and welfare activities to counties. The 1908 Constitution authorized counties to establish "charitable hospitals, sanatoria, and other institutions," as well as an "Infirmary for the care and support of their indigent poor and unfortunate." Otherwise the new constitution left the counties pretty much unaffected; that is, counties retained the same powers and officers accorded them by the 1850 Constitution.

Present Era of Government

We can date the present era of county government in Michigan to the 1963 State Constitution. Although this constitution requires the state legislature to provide home rule for counties, it was not this new constitution that characterized county government as we find it in Michigan today. Other factors were more important.

One of these was the requirement in the national constitution that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's deciding that county commissioners and other legislative bodies had to be elected on the basis of one person--one vote. This decision resulted in the shift from county boards of supervisors to county boards of commissioners and the direct election of county commissioners.

Another important factor was the expansion of the federal role in domestic programming during the 1960s and 1970s, often referred to as active or new federalism. The increased involvement federally resulted in two impacts. First, federal funds flowing directly or indirectly to county government expanded the service and employment levels of county government. Secondly, with funds flowing through the state, was an expansion of the state's role in county government was also expanded. In some program areas, the state assumed full program responsibility. In others, the state developed a kind of state-county partnership. For counties this has meant an involvement in a broader range of programs and services than had previously been the case. It has also produced an increase in state regulations and requirements, with some loss in county board discretion authority. During this period, the expansion of county-state cost sharing arrangements emerged and additional grant programs initiated.

As a result of the 1963 constitution's requirement for home rule, we have seen some changes in the organizational arrangements of county government. The 1973 Optional Unified County Forms Act has led to the election of county executives in Oakland and Bay Counties. And revisions in the county home rule legislation in 1980 paved the way for the formation of the first charter county in the county of Wayne. Thus, the first elected executive under a county charter took office with the beginning of 1983. 

The late 1980's brought about a change in the federal-state-local relationship with the elimination of the federal revenue sharing program in 1986 and a reorganization of the numerous categorical grouts into six block grants. The loss of Federal Revenue Sharing in 1986 coupled with a substantial devaluation of agriculture land between 1986 and 1988 served to destabilize county budgets. The rising demand in the late 1980's and early 1990's for county services, especially law enforcement, corrections and courts have served to exacerbate county financial problems. The enactment of Proposal A school funding and property tax reform, especially the established of capped assessments and the prohibition on millage roll-ups has further restricted county revenue capacity relative to previous decade.

As county government enters the new millennium, the role of county government providing services to citizens on behalf of state government will continue. No doubt the mix of services will change as new needs emerge, however, county government will remain an "agent of the state" that is, carrying out functions and duties on behalf of state government, a responsibility that has lasted since the first Territorial Legislature was created.

The County Reapportionment Board will have the opportunity in 2002 to change the number of county legislators (commissioners), a process that occurs only once every decade following the census. Over the past four decades since the One-Person - One Vote rule, the total number of county commissioners has declined from 1,026 to the present number of 694.