January 2008 Issue
Toledo, Michigan? The northwest Ohio City's allegiance hung in the balance during an early-19th-century dispute.
What is a border, really? Unless it follows the natural flow of a river or runs along the obvious shoreline of a lake, bay or ocean, it’s abstract — an imaginary line on the ground that exists only if everyone agrees it’s there. And if everyone doesn’t, you can have trouble.
In what must strike us nowadays as a somewhat comical precursor to the modern gridiron rivalry that defines the relationship between Ohio and Michigan, it’s a little-remembered fact that back in the early 19th century, the two states almost came to blows — real, musket-wielding, no-kidding combat — over where the border between them would run.
It’s an episode known today as the Ohio-Michigan War, the Ohio-Michigan Border War, the Battle of Phillips Corner, or, most famously, the Toledo War.
“Famously” might overstate the matter, considering that most Ohioans these days have never heard of the conflict. But in its day, the conflict consumed the attention of three governors, hundreds of soldiers, two legislatures, the Congress and the President of the United States, who had to finally step in.
|Illustration by A.G. Ford
“I wouldn’t venture that very much of the population is aware of it at all, or really cares,” chuckles Fred Folger, a retired Toledo-area teacher and noted local historian. “You can call it a footnote in history, but when you explain it it gets pretty complicated. And there are some interesting quirks in the whole story.”
Complicated, indeed. The disagreement stemmed from the differences in maps and surveys of the wooded, swampy terrain between the western end of Lake Erie and the southern tip of Lake Michigan, which was so tangled it defied precise description. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance that laid out much of today’s Midwest set the southern boundary of Michigan on a line that ran north of the Maumee River mouth that lies at the center of Toledo. When Ohio became a state in 1803, that line was the chosen one.
Two years later, Michigan was established as a territory. Its surveyors realized that Lake Michigan’s tip extended farther south — meaning that on their maps, the mouth of the Maumee wasn’t in Ohio anymore. Somewhat awkwardly, Michigan and Ohio both now laid claim to a 468-square-mile stretch of land that was five miles wide at the western end, and eight miles wide at the eastern side. The region came to be known as the “Toledo Strip.”
Folks in Michigan desperately wanted a port on Lake Erie as a key to their development, since Detroit was upriver and hard to reach. Michigan’s territorial government started exercising jurisdiction over the strip, setting up towns and collecting taxes. The border was an active, bloody front during the War of 1812, which delayed any real settlement of the matter. After the war, new surveys failed to fix a true boundary, and both state and territory just sort of let things go on as they were.
Until 1833, that is — when Michigan asked for statehood. Congress told the territory it had to clear up the boundary question first. Ohio, meanwhile, formalized its claim to the Toledo Strip.
The governor of Michigan, a popular firebrand in his early 20s named Stevens Mason, proposed forming a commission to settle the border. The older, equally assertive governor of Ohio, Robert Lucas, dismissed the idea, and things went rapidly downhill.
In 1835, Ohio’s legislature turned the strip into a county that it named after Gov. Lucas, officially rubbing salt where it hurt. Mason responded by putting Michigan’s militia on alert, and cooked up a law called the Pains and Penalties Act, which made it a criminal act to support Ohio’s point of view in the dispute. He sent 1,000 Michigan militiamen to Toledo to keep order. Ohio responded to Michigan’s response by sending about 600 militiamen to Perrysburg, about 10 miles away. The Toledo War was off and running.
Barbs, threats and heated words flew back and forth, and the federal government got involved when President Andrew Jackson sent in a couple of commissioners to figure it all out. Perhaps not surprisingly, they only made things more confusing, and both sides remained angry and on edge. Ohio held local elections in the strip, and Michigan considered that going too far.
On April 25, 1835, a group of Ohio surveyers in the strip were surrounded by a squad of 50 or so Michigan soldiers and fired upon — or not, depending on who’s telling the tale — in what came to be known by the somewhat exaggerated and yet inflammatory name of The Battle of Phillip’s Corners. Even though it wasn’t much of a battle, and nobody was hurt, it was enough to get stirred-up Ohio legislators to authorize $300,000 to pay for increased military presence along the border. Not to be one-upped or out-budgeted, Michigan’s lawmakers voted to raise $315,000.
Border skirmishes, ugly talk and troop movements happened across the strip all summer. Posses formed, spies skulked, sabers rattled, lawsuits flew, and it seemed for a while that a real shooting war was on the way. Fortunately, it never came to that — largely because, by several accounts, the troopers of both militias were unable to find one another in the dank, swampy country between Toledo and Perrysburg long enough to mount an engagement. Frustrating for them, no doubt, but in hindsight a good thing.
The closest thing to an actual casualty occurred when a deputy sheriff from Monroe County, Michigan, was stabbed in the side with what is usually described as a penknife by an Ohioan he was trying to arrest in Toledo. Stabber ran to Ohio; stabbee healed up fine.
But President Jackson finally had enough. Keenly attuned to Ohio’s growing influence in Congress, he’d been inclined toward the Buckeye side all along, and removed Stevens Mason as Michigan’s territorial governor. His replacement, John S. Horner, was never popular, but minded the shop during the politicking needed to end the war. Jackson and Congress told Michigan it had to give up the Toledo Strip to gain statehood; in return, the United States would give Michigan 9,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula, then part of the Wisconsin territory.
A contentious state meeting in Ann Arbor in December 1835 that came to be known as “the Frostbitten Convention” settled the matter at long last, and Michigan became a state on Jan. 26, 1837. Toledoans breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing for the first time which side to root for in future Ohio State-Michigan games.
Really, though, plenty of folks trace the football contest’s intensity back to the hard feelings left over from the Toledo War (a symbolic cross-border handshake by both governors in 1915 notwithstanding). It’s probably worth noting that the two states didn’t settle their dispute about where the border ran in Lake Erie until the 1970s, and only then with U.S. Supreme Court involvement.
Historian Folger enjoys pointing out how the dispute echoes, if quietly, into the modern day. There are, for instance, the several north-south roads in Lucas County and farther west that jog sharply because of the inconsistencies in surveying on both sides of the border.
Then there is the funny little bit of land called “the lost peninsula” — a piece of Toledo that sticks into Lake Erie north of Maumee Bay, the tip of which happens to jut just past the state line. Meaning that it’s in Michigan. Meaning, Folger says, that its police and firefighters have to drive through Toledo from Erie Township in Michigan.
“It is kind of amusing,” says Folger. “At the University of Toledo, I had a history professor, one of the best, named Dr. Randolph Downes. He often said that by all legal means, Toledo should be Toledo, Michigan. Land purchases here were recorded in Monroe County, Michigan, and the U.S. Postal Service back then considered it Michigan. Hand cancellations on letters all have ‘MG’ on them.”
And there are, in a local archives, two envelopes addressed to one Sanford Collins, who back in the days before the war was postmaster of Tremainsville, a town now part of the Toledo suburbs. Says Folger, “One is addressed to him at ‘Tremainsville, Lucas or Monroe County, Ohio or Michigan.’’ The other locates the village in the “State of Uncertainty.”
The way in which that uncertainty was finally resolved left the strangest quirk of all in this very quirky tale: Namely, that the biggest loser in the Toledo War was a non-combatant — Wisconsin, which a decade before its own statehood, lost what would prove to be the rich copper, timber and tourism lands of the Upper Peninsula.
Come to think of it, though, Ohio State-Wisconsin is usually a heated game, too.