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Our Rich History: The Toledo War — Ohio versus Michigan; it was nearly bloodless

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

You may think this is a story about the football rivalry between the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan — it is not. Long before that famous rivalry was born, Ohioans and Michiganders had another reason to battle, Ohio’s border with Michigan, including Toledo and the surrounding lands. This border dispute caused armies of militiamen from both to mass on opposite sides of the Maumee River, ready to take the area by force if necessary. Luckily, this war was nearly bloodless.

When the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created the northern boundary of the Ohio Territory, the seeds of dispute were planted. A faulty boundary was drawn for Ohio when Congress mistakenly accepted a line that was erroneously given to be north of the mouth of the Maumee River. Again in 1802, as Ohio was preparing for statehood, the line was reaffirmed. News of the mistake arrived in time that convention delegates at the Ohio Constitutional Convention demanded that the boundary line include the mouth of the Maumee.

Current EPA map of the mouth of the Maumee River and Toledo, Ohio. Courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsPhoto: Current EPA map of the mouth of the Maumee River and Toledo, Ohio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ohio was accepted for statehood by Congress with no mention of the boundary problem. The same boundary was in place in 1805 when Michigan became a territory. The scene was set for conflict.

As concerns arose between Ohio and the Michigan Territory in regard to the boundary line, the United States Congress tried to rectify their mistake in 1812 by resurveying the boundary line. This effort was cut short by the eruption of hostilities known as the Napoleonic Wars, or in the United States, as the War of 1812.

After the war, both Ohio Governor William Harris and Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass had surveys done in 1817 and 1818. The surveyors each drew a favorable line for their respective sides. This created a small strip of contested land. Neither accepted the lines drawn by the other and neither would compromise. The conflict, not settled, continue to simmer as Michigan marched towards statehood.

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made control of the “Toledo Strip,” as it was now known, quite desirable. With the canal linking Lake Erie to the eastern states, Toledo was set to be a major shipping center for western goods. Whoever controlled Toledo could expect large revenues from trade.

Michigan acted first by building roads to Toledo and settling it as part of Michigan Territory. They even went so far as to hold elections and collect taxes. Meanwhile, the state of Ohio pled its case to the United States government.

Michigan was eligible for statehood in 1833. They met the minimum population requirement partially by counting settlers in the Toledo Strip. Ohio protested this to Congress. The Senate was sympathetic to Ohio and sided with them in trying to get the strip attached to Ohio prior to Michigan statehood. The House of Representatives, however, did not agree with the Senate and the dispute, along with Michigan’s quest for statehood, continued.

The brewing conflict began to boil over in 1835 when Michigan elected 23-year-old Stevens Mason as their governor. Mason signed into Michigan Territorial law what was known as the “Pains and Penalties Act.” This legislation allowed for costly fines and jail for any Ohioan who tried to exert control over the Toledo Strip. In response, Robert Lucas, governor of the state of Ohio, moved its Lucas County border deep into the strip and declared Toledo the county seat. Blood-boiling threats ensued, and both governors mobilized their militias.

Michigan began raiding the Toledo Strip, arresting Ohio officials under Michigan’s Pains and Penalties Act. A detachment of Michigan militia drove off a group of Ohio surveyors after firing warning shots and arresting nine of them in what was known as “The Battle of Phillips Corners.” Blood was finally shed in July of 1835 when Michigan sheriff, John Wood, tried to arrest Major Benjamin Stickney and his family at a tavern. The Stickneys resisted and a fight broke out. During the fight, one of Stickney’s sons, named Two, stabbed the sheriff with a small knife. The wound was not life-threatening, but it did give Wood the dubious honor of being the only casualty of the “war.”

Governor Mason of Michigan got wind of Ohio’s intention of holding a session of the Court of Common Pleas in Toledo in order to exercise their rights to the land. He mobilized over 1,000 Michigan militiamen to prevent this from happening. Unbeknownst to Mason and his force, the Ohio judges held a court in the middle of the night and then fled back to the safety of uncontested Ohio land. Mason put the Michigan militia on high alert and prepared to take the strip by force if necessary. Governor Lucas of Ohio did the same. Both groups marched to the strip. At one point, the only thing separating the militias of the two sides and conflict was the Maumee River, the Michigan militia occupying the north bank and Ohio’s the southern. With bloodshed possibly imminent, the federal government under President Andrew Jackson intervened.

Federal officials suggested that both sides govern the disputed area while a resolution was sought, but this compromise met with rejection by the Michigan governor. Andrew Jackson promptly had him removed from office. Jackson replaced Mason with a more open-minded governor, John Horner. Michigan’s populace immediately disliked him for his willingness to reach a compromise. He was burned in effigy, had vegetables thrown at him in public, and endured all kinds of verbal abuse. Desperate for statehood, Michigan finally reached an agreement with Ohio over the Toledo Strip. Michigan would drop its claim to the strip in return for statehood recognition by President Jackson, as well as the addition of 9,000 square miles of land to the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Michigan was officially made a state on January 26, 1837. Aside from gaining statehood, many in Michigan felt they got the raw end of the deal. At the time, the upper peninsula land was deemed worthless contrasted to the shipping center that Toledo was, thanks to the canal system. It wasn’t until later that its rich mineral deposits of iron ore and copper were discovered. The ensuing mining boom turned into a financial win-win for both states. The rivalry of the states is largely forgotten … except during college football season.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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