Why does Michigan have so many townships?

In Michigan, if you don’t live in a city, you live in a township

Farmer, J. & V. Balch And S. Stiles. (1826) Map of the surveyed part of the territory of Michigan on a scale of 8 miles to an inch. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.)

If the human body is mostly water, Michigan is mostly townships. In fact, the majority of Michigan residents live in a township.

Me? I’m a township kid. I grew up in Redford and Canton townships. My family was a township family. I’ve always wondered why I was surrounded by townships and not cities.

Townships are the lifeblood of the state’s geographic makeup, and if you go to many other states, you’ll find they have none. In fact, most states have zero. Zilch. Nada. But why? If townships are so great, why aren’t they more prevalent?

Let’s set the table for this article, before we get into the meat of the issue. Here are some important key facts:

  • Michigan is one of 20 states that has some form of township government
  • Nearly 52% of residents live in a township, covering 5.1 million people, according to the Michigan Townships Association (MTA)
  • Townships govern 96% of Michigan’s land area, consisting of 1,240 townships in total, according to MTA
  • There are two types of townships -- general and charter. Most are general. In Michigan, 140 are charter townships, which offer more flexibility in org structure and are better protected against annexation and general tax authority. Charter townships are only found in Michigan.
  • The Census considers townships and towns to be the same thing, so you may see those words used interchangeably

Other states with township governments include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. Towns and townships comprise more than 20 percent of the U.S. population.

For comparison, Michigan has 1,240 townships, while Ohio has 1,308, Pennsylvania has 1,454 and Illinois has 1,428.

What’s the difference between a city and a township?

Townships and counties are statutory units of government, having only those powers expressly provided or fairly implied by state law, according to MTA. Cities (and villages) are vested with “home rule powers,” which means they can do pretty much anything within legal reason.

Townships, generally speaking, are smaller than cities. State law mandates three township functions: property assessment, tax collection and elections administration. Townships can also perform many other functions, based on community needs, such as planning and zoning, public safety, cemeteries, and parks and recreation.

As for villages, by state law, the population in Michigan villages is counted in the townships they are in, and villages have very limited “home rule” power.

Where did townships come from?

Townships or towns date back to New England. These 17th century towns were considered the first local governments in what would become America. Early townships were modeled after the English system of government. Towns would provide local services while counties served as the main arm of local government.

From there, township governments spread to other areas, including the Midwest. Actually, townships were in place in many Midwest states, including Michigan, before they even became states. They were just territories at the time.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 charted a government for the Northwest Territory, laying the groundwork for statehood in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. State legislatures and territorial governments started creating county and township governments in 1790.

Charter townships were created as a special township classification in Michigan in 1947 to provide more powers for small local governments.

Michigan township history

Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan, settled by the French in 1668 -- it’s believed to be the third oldest settled city in the U.S.

But townships are a bit harder to pin down.

Muskegon Township claims to be the oldest township in the state, created by the state in 1837, which is true, if you only consider townships created post-statehood. But while Michigan was still a territory, townships started popping up in 1826.

Those townships included Bath Township (now a charter) and Raisin Township (now a charter). By 1827, a bunch more were on the map, including Ann Arbor Township (now a charter), Bloomfield Township, Dexter Township, Harrison Township, Huron Township (now a charter), Shelby Township (now a charter), Warren Township and Ypsilanti Township (now a charter), to name a few.

Bucklin Township was first organized in 1827. It included what are now the cities of Westland, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Livonia, Inkster, Garden City, Wayne and Redford Township. Part of Bucklin eventually turned into Nankin Township (the namesake of Nankin Hardware), which was disestablished in 1966 after much of its parts (not related to hardware) split off into their own cities or townships.

Sauer, Wm. C. Detailed official atlas of Wayne County, Michigan : containing general maps of Wayne County and city of Detroit, general township maps (Library of Congress/Wm. C. Sauer, c1893)

So why townships and why Michigan?

It’s a good question. Maybe it’s just the way things worked out. If you drew it up again, from the start, maybe we wouldn’t have that many townships.

I asked the Michigan Townships Association this question, too. The MTA was formed in 1953 to be an advocate for townships in Lansing. They’re essentially a lobbying arm for township style government. There is a national version of this, too, the National Association of Towns and Townships.

“Townships are an integral part of Michigan’s past, present—and future. Following each decennial census, population numbers show that more and more residents are choosing to live in townships,” said Jenn Fielder, Communications Director with the MTA. “Townships offer residents and businesses the ability to choose the community that best suits their wants and needs—from a small, rural community with a level of services commensurate with resident’s wishes, to among the largest municipalities in the state, offering the wide variety of amenities and services found in any larger local government. Our largest townships—Clinton Charter Township, for example, tops 100,000 population—are larger than many Michigan cities.”

As a fun hypothetical, I asked Fielder, if she had to create a new place from scratch, would it be a city or a township, and why?

“We would absolutely make a new “place” a township. Townships are where neighbors are committed to serving their neighbors—elected to the township board, serving on appointed boards and commissions, volunteering to help their community. Townships are where elected leaders are accessible to and represent the wishes of their residents. Townships offer the level of services that their residents desire—and do so at a much lower tax rate than cities. From rural, suburban or urban, townships offer residents and businesses the ability to choose to live and locate in an area that offers the quality of life amenities and community character that fits their needs.”

The MTA itself works to advocate for townships at both the state and national levels. They provide resources to members to keep them up-to-date on changing laws.

“We also provide education, resources and information to our member officials to ensure that they are kept aware of these changes, as well as to share updates, trends, new technologies, statutory requirements and more as officials lead and serve their communities,” said Fielder. “And, we help to connect officials with one another—from Houghton County down to Monroe County—to share experiences and offer insights, information and solutions with one another as they serve their townships.”

In case you’re wondering, there doesn’t appear to be any sort of group pushing against townships. The large majority of U.S. territory is settled and things aren’t really ever changing. Cities and towns are set in stone. Townships don’t have any sort of pushback. People in them seem to like it.

Data: Michigan’s most populated townships

The data below shows Michigan’s most populated townships, ranked, as of the 2020 Census count. Clinton, Canton, Macomb, Shelby and Waterford lead the state pack, with Clinton Charter Township the only one with more than 100,000 residents.

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.