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The Detroit Public Library’s special collections

So The Legal Genealogist is off on another adventure — to Detroit today, and tomorrow’s 10th Annual Family History Festival at the Detroit Public Library, co-sponsored by the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society, Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation, and the Louisa St. Clair Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.

BHCI’m honored to be co-presenting with my friend Deborah A. Abbott, Ph.D., in a day-long program entitled Not Far From the Tree. I’ll lead off the day with “No Vitals? No Problems! Building a Family Through Circumstantial Evidence,” and Deb then presents “Analyzing the U.S. Federal Census.”

After lunch, I’ll pick up with “‘Don’t Forget the Ladies’ – A Genealogist’s Guide to Women and the Law,” and Deb wraps it up with “You Only Have a Death Announcement – Now What?”

It’s going to be a great day, not the least of which will be because I get to hear Deb speak too.

And it’s free. (Lunch is extra, but hey… you still have to eat, right?)

But today is going to be a great day, too, for me. Because I’m going to get a chance to see the treasures of one of America’s great special collections, the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. Here’s how that collection is described:

The Burton Historical Collection (BHC) of the Detroit Public Library began as the private library of Clarence Monroe Burton. In addition to being a prominent attorney, Mr. Burton was a Detroit historiographer and the founder of the C. M. Burton Abstract Co. Mr. Burton’s original intention was to assemble a collection on the history of Detroit. Realizing that Detroit’s history was inextricably connected to that of Michigan and the Old Northwest and those histories to that of Canada and New France, he assembled a collection that was one of the most important private historical collections in the country.

The BHC is both a repository of records of the past and a workshop of historical activity in the present, with emphasis on the history of Detroit and Michigan from the time of settlement in the 17th century to the present.

The background history encompasses the Great Lakes area, New England, and New France as well as local and county histories for both the United States and Canada. Noted for its source material, the BHC contains books, pamphlets, bound newspapers, atlases, maps, pictures, photographs, personal papers, archives, business records, and ephemeral items such newspaper clippings, broadsides, and scrapbooks.

Genealogical materials in the BHC include federal census population schedules, family histories, cemetery inscriptions, church records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths, military records, hereditary society indexes, heraldry books, immigration records, probate indexes and records, vital records, obituaries, and land records.

The Map Collection holds materials from around the world dating from the 16th through the 20th centuries with a particular emphasis on Detroit and Michigan. The collection includes maps, atlases, Sanborn fire insurance maps, gazetteers and geographical dictionaries.

Over 4,000 manuscript collections, consisting of personal papers, records of organizations, businesses and churches, and the governmental archives of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan make up the manuscript collection. Of particular interest are: the Grace Bedell letter to Abraham Lincoln; French licenses to voyageurs; correspondence and papers of local notables such as Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Anthony Wayne, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Lewis Cass.1

Just reading about the goodies in this collection is enough to make a genealogist drool. I can’t wait to be able to see some of these treasures with my own eyes.

And that’s hardly all that the Detroit Public Library has to offer to the genealogist — or to anyone with an interest in history, period — even when you’re at home in the middle of the night in your jammies and bunny slippers.

The Digital Collections of the Detroit Public Library are truly amazing. Incorporating thousands of items from five collections — the Burton Historical Collection, Ernie Harwell Sports Collection, National Automotive History Collection, E. Azalia Hackley Collection, and Rare Book Collection — the digital offerings are stunning.

We’ll start off with an overview of the digital items from the Burton Historical Collection, since that’s where I’ll be today. You can see some of these goodies for yourself, right online, as part of a total (as of today) of 23,292 items such as:

Appointment of William Woodbridge as collector for the district of Detroit by President James Madison, 1814.

• Four pages of a petition to Abraham Lincoln to appoint Thomas Lockwood as U.S. Attorney

• Artist’s sketch of Third Michigan Regiment marching off to the Civil War, 1861-1865.

• Photograph of Sojourner Truth.

• Photograph of Fort Street Presbyterian Church after 1876 fire.

• Photograph of Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph.

• Photograph of students at the Bishop School, June 1922.

• Photograph of the jurors in the 1925 Ossian Sweet murder trial.

• Photograph of two unidentified African American children playing with toy train cars on bed of large wooden wagon

• Portrait of Ossip S. Gabrilowitsch, conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1918-1936.

In addition to the Burton Historical Collection, make sure to take a look at the other digital collections and the amazing goodies they offer too:

• In the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection, 5,826 items, including a team portrait of the 1886 Detroit Wolverines (a team that played in baseball’s National League from 1881 to 1888) and a copy of a Cy Young American Tobacco Co. card from around 1910. (Who knew that before there were bubble gum cards, there were tobacco cards?!?)2

• In the National Automotive History Collection, 36,676 items, including an image of the very first Ford Motor Company factory and a terrific photo of a man driving an 1899 Packard Model A. Talk about a classic!

• In the E. Azalia Hackley Collection, 3,081 items, including a great composite photograph of Louis Armstrong and a gorgeous portrait of singer Billie Holiday.

• In the Rare Book Collection, 43 items, including 129 pages of a diary by George Washington and a portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder as an adult.

If you’re able, we’d love to see you tomorrow at the Detroit Public Library. The Burton Historical Collection alone is worth the trip.

But if you’re not able, or you’re just looking for a research tip in the wee hours of the morning as you sit there in your jammies and your bunny slippers, check out the Detroit Public Library and all of its digital collections.


Image courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Note that this is the 100th anniversary year for the Burton Historical Collection and the 150th anniversary of the Detroit Public Library!

  1. Burton Historical Collection,” Detroit Public Library ( : accessed 24 Sept 2015).
  2. See Frank Ceresi, “Tobacco Baseball Cards,” Baseball Almanac ( : accessed 24 Sep 2015).
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