Roots of a Rivalry: The Toledo War

The Mitchell Map, used to determine the Ordinance of 1787.

The Mitchell Map, used to determine the Ordinance of 1787.

While the word “united” is right in the name, the relationships between the states making up the United States have not always been happy ones. While the most serious rift between states in US history was the Civil War, several minor skirmishes have occurred that were not near as grand in scale but nevertheless influenced how individual states developed. One such skirmish occurred between Ohio and Michigan (then a territory) in 1835, and it laid the foundation for a legendary college sports rivalry that thrives still today.


A question of boundaries

The conflict that sparked what would become known as the Toledo War began before either Michigan or Ohio were born. Both states would eventually be formed from the Northwest Territory, which was established by the Ordinance of 1787.  The vast tract of land was to be divided into no fewer than three and no more than five states. If the land was split into five states, a dividing line would run east to west from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. However, maps of the day placed Lake Michigan much further north than it actually was.

This simple mapping error became a bone of contention between Ohio, which became a state in 1803, and the Michigan territory. It put a large strip of land on the border between the two states in a sort of limbo, with both sides claiming it as their own.

Congress passed a resolution in 1812 to have the land surveyed and end the dispute. The British, however, had other plans. The War of 1812 put the survey on the backburner until 1817. Edward Tiffin, who was a former governor of Ohio, was surveyor general of the United States at the time. He ordered William Harris to survey the border line according to Ohio’s constitution. Naturally, the Harris line put the disputed land in Ohio’s territory. The governor of Michigan Territory ordered his own surveyor, John Fulton, to make a line according to the Ordinance of 1787.

The resulting discrepancy put a strip of land that was eight miles wide to the east, five miles wide in the west, containing 468 square miles of land. This was known as the Toledo Strip, and it contained valuable farmland and waterways, not to mention the port city of Toledo at the mouth of the Maumee River. Both sides knew how valuable the land would be to their economies, and neither side would back down.


Outbreak of “war”

Ohio Governor Robert Lucas

Ohio Governor Robert Lucas

Michigan was moving toward statehood in 1833, stoking fears in Ohio that their northern neighbor would grab the disputed land. Congress was called to weight in on the matter in 1833, but while the Senate sided with Ohio, the House of Representatives refused to endorse this view.

Meanwhile, Governor Stevens Mason, governor of Michigan Territory, wanted to form a commission to solve the dispute, but Ohio’s governor, Robert Lucas, refused. Ohio moved along as if Michigan’s claim to the land didn’t exist. In 1835, Ohio’s legislature passed a bill establishing Lucas Country out of the Toledo Strip. Ohio’s Common Pleas Court held session in the area.

Incensed by this arrogant behavior, Governor Mason called Michigan Territory’s militia, ready to take the land by force if need be. Ohio responded in kind. Apparently not expecting such a response, and afraid the situation would lead to bloodshed, Governor Mason asked President Andrew Jackson to intervene. Jackson sent two representatives to form a commission to settle the issue. Both sides still had their fingers on the trigger. Governor Mason ordered Ohio’s commissioners arrested.

At a loss, the federal representatives proposed that both states administer the area jointly until Congress could solve the issue. Ohio agreed, but readied its militia to take the land if Michigan didn’t. The two militias faced each other on opposite banks of the Maumee river. All out war, it seemed, was imminent.


A peaceful resolution

Andrew Jackson, who settled the dispute between Michigan and Ohio.

Andrew Jackson, who settled the dispute between Michigan and Ohio.

A frustration President Jackson took action before the two sides could fire a shot. He sacked Governor Mason and replaced him with John Horner, who was willing to work with Governor Lucas to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The agreement they eventually reached wasn’t very popular in Michigan, so much so that angry citizens began to burn Horner in effigy. Ohio would get the disputed land, while Michigan would get statehood and 9,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula. The citizens of Michigan were angered because the Upper Peninsula was seen as useless land, full of forests and Indians and not much else. Later, deposits of valuable minerals would be found in the area, turning it into a cash cow for the state.

Despite the upset citizenry in Michigan, Jackson ratified the governors’ agreement on June 15, 1836. The war between Michigan and Ohio was largely a bloodless affair. Only one man was wounded. he was a Michigan sheriff, who was stabbed during a barroom brawl by a man with the unfortunate name Two Stickney, an Ohioan.

This border dispute birthed a rivalry that remains between Michigan and Ohio. These days there is a lot less risk of bloodshed. Over the years the bad blood as moved from the battlefield to the football field. The rivalry between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines is legendary in college football, a legacy of an odd incident between two states.


“The Toledo War.” Michigan State University. August 1, 2014.

“Toledo War.” Ohio History Central. August 1, 2014.