The annals of American history are rife with glory. But who can match those stirring days of 1835-36 when the brave lads of the State of Ohio stared down the stalwart sons of Michigan Territory and won the prize—the Toledo Strip. Or did they really win, after all?
Militias on both sides were mobilized and facing each other across the mighty Maumee River on that cold day, December 14, 1836 when a Michigan conclave known to history as the Frost-Bitten Convention, meeting under pressure from Congress and President Andrew Jackson agreed to give up its claim on the port of Toledo on Lake Erie and a narrow strip of 468 square miles stretching to the Indiana border.
In exchange for losing the lucrative port and fertile land, Michigan would be admitted to the union and was awarded a virtual waste/wilderness of Native American land on 3/4s of the Upper Peninsula between the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior—land that was previously in Wisconsin Territory.
Michiganders were sure that they got a raw deal. Voters had previously overwhelmingly rejected essentially the same terms offered by Congress in exchange for ceding its claims on the strip to Ohio. But the Territory was near bankruptcy and without the author to levy and raise taxes and sell certain public lands which came with statehood, government would be unable to function. Thus the desperate Frost-Bitten Convention.
The dispute had its roots going back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 which organized the territories west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. “Not less than three and not more than five” future states were to be carved from the vast land. The north-south boundary for three future states—Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana—was supposed to be a continuous “…east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.”
Unfortunately, no one knew exactly where the “southerly bend of Lake Michigan” was. The best available map of the day guessed that it was at about the same latitude as Fort Detroit. That map was seriously wrong.
In 1802 Ohio held a constitutional convention to prepare for applying for statehood. The draft constitution assumed that the so called “Mitchell Map”, the best available, was correct and laid claim to boundary north of the Maumee River, which would give the new state all of ports and potential ports on Lake Erie west of Pennsylvania. In the course of the Convention, delegates heard reports from a trapper who had worked the portage between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River that the southern tip of Lake Michigan extended much further south than they had believed.
The Convention submitted the Constitution to Congress that continued to assume a northerly boundary but which maintained that in the case that was proven wrong, a departure from the main line should be made angling south to include the mouth of Maumee on Erie, thus guaranteeing Ohio a port.
Congress at first accepted the Constitution with the rider of understanding intact. But then a committee dominated determined that the exact line, “had yet to be determined.” And then left the issue dangling. But Ohio assumed a boundary well south of today/s line.
Three years later Michigan submitted its first attempt to statehood recommendation. Its documents assumed a southern line that would in include the Port of Miami, later known as Toledo. And Congress adopted that resolution, thus setting up two conflicting definitions of the boundaries.
Ohio residents eager to fortify their claims, continually begged Congress to clear up the contradiction. Finally, in 1812, it agreed to have the line formally surveyed. But the War of 1812 and subsequent conflicts with native tribes on the Northwest frontier delayed the dispatch of surveyors until after the admission of Indiana to the Union in 1816. Then the U.S. Surveyor General, Edward Tiffin, a former Ohio governor, sent teams into the field who Michiganders deeply suspected.
The Northwest Ordinance might as well have been named the “Land Surveyor Full Employment Act of 1787.” Just about anyone who owned a surveyor a set of surveyor’s chain links and a sextant or could steal them got a chance at federal employment as a vast area had to be laid out. Needless to say some were more adept than others. And some could be, ahem, bribed, by local interests and land speculators.
Surveyor William Harris and his crew submitted a northerly line based on the lines of the Ohio Constitution. Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, a powerful Democrat, complained loudly then commissioned his own survey which followed the directions of the Northwest Ordinance. The three to five mile wide strip between the two lines became known as the Toledo Strip.
Although Ohio never ceded its claims, Michigan began a de-facto occupation of the disputed land.
Meanwhile the Erie Canal was completed linking New York City on the Hudson River to Lake Erie at Buffalo. That made the potential port at the western tip of the lake, Toledo, the gateway to western expansion. Ohio suddenly became very interested in renewing it claims.
When Michigan reached a population of 10,000 and was thus eligible for admission to the Union as a state in 1833, it found its ambitions crushed by Ohio supporters who demanded the implementation of the northern line.
In February, 1835 Ohio moved to form counties out of the disputed strip. Michigan’s Territorial Governor, 23 year old Stevens T. Mason, and the Territorial legislature responded by making it a felony for any citizen to recognize the authority of the new Ohio counties or respect their ordinances. Mason, for obvious reasons, was known by the nick names The Boy Governor, Young Hotspur, and The Stippling depending on one’s opinion of him.
Mason appointed an active duty Regular Army officer, War of 1812 hero General Joseph Brown, as head of the Michigan Militia. Ohio Governor Robert Lucas mobilized his own militia under his direct command with the assistance of General John Bell.
In March of 1836 Lucas and Bell marched 600 troops to Perrysburg only ten miles from Toledo. Mason countered by sending 1,000 men—a huge portion of his adult male population—to occupy Toledo itself and fortify the Maumee line. The Toledo Strip War was officially begun.
President Jackson and Congress were desperate to find a solution, but practical politics got in the way, Michigan’s biggest congressional supporter, former President John Quincy Adams, then sitting as a Member of Congress from Massachusetts, reported mournfully that, “Never in the course of my life have I known a controversy of which all the right so clearly on one side and all the power so overwhelmingly on the other.”
When President Jackson asked Attorney General Benjamin Butler for an official opinion on the dispute, he got an answer that he did not like—that until Congress dictated otherwise, the land rightfully belonged to Michigan. The problem for Jackson was that Ohio had grown into a political powerhouse with 15 Representatives in Congress in addition to its Senators. That translated into 17 Electoral College votes in the upcoming Presidential Election. Despite the fact that Ohio leaned Whig, Jackson hoped that if he helped settle the matter in the state’s favor, he might win those electoral votes.
So the pressure was on Michigan to capitulate. But Michigan was not yet ready. Jackson sent emissaries to the scene to “arbitrate” the dispute. Believing the mater settled in his favor Gov. Lucas de-mobilized his troops and moved to have local elections in the disputed area under Ohio law.
Mason was defiant. He kept his forces in the field, announced his intentions of enforcing Michigan’s Pains and Penalties acts on anyone participating in the election. On April 8 a Michigan sheriff arrested Ohio partisan Major Benjamin Stickney and another family member under the act. His forces tried to prevent polling places from opening where ever they were able.
But the Michiganders were unable to stop the election. Governor Lucas decided to celebrate by ordering surveyors to prominently mark the border as recognized by Ohio. On April 26 a large party of surveyors at Phillips Corners was confronted, “as they observed the Sabbath” by 50 Michigan Militia. Ordered to retreat, the majority got away, but seven were captured by Michigan after either being fired upon, as Ohio tells the story, or after hearing the Militia fire their guns in the air to celebrate the victory, the Michigan version. This bloodless “battle” was the only organized military action of the war.
In response to the action, the Ohio Legislature designated Toledo the county seat of a new Lucas County, named for the Governor, and established a court specifically to hear cases of “abduction and unlawful imprisonment” against Michigan officers and politicians.
Mason and his legislators replied by appropriating an astounding $315,000 for its Militia—a disastrous move that soon broke the government. They also drafted a new Constitution to be sent to Congress.
All summer both sides mobilized their forces and retched up their rhetoric. Michigan Sheriffs continued to try and arrest Ohioans. Ohio authorities filed a blizzard of lawsuits and made their own arrests. When a Michigan posse arrived in Toledo to arrest Major Stickney and his family again, a scuffle broke out and one of Stickney’s adult sons stabbed a deputy with a pen knife. The non-lethal wound was the only known bloodshed, apart from some bloodied noses in fist fights, of the entire war.
Mason asked President Jackson to intervene or to refer the case to the Supreme Court. Jackson declined, and on the advice of an Ohio Congressman removed Mason as Territorial Governor and replaced him with a more tractable politician, John Horner, known, for obvious reasons as Little Jack. Before his replacement could take over, Mason ordered 1000 militia men into Toledo to prevent the first session of Ohio’s new court.
Ohio authorities opened a brief, late night session to symbolically assert authority, and then retreated before the Michigan forces arrived.
Michiganders hated their new Governor and harassed him at every turn. In the November elections, they approved the Constitution drafted over the summer and re-elected Mason by a landslide.
Congress, however, refused to recognize the Constitution and would not seat either the would-be states sole elected Representative or either Senator.
The stand-off on the ground continued into 1836, with Michigan practically burning money. The much more populous Ohio could easily afford their little war.
In August, President Jackson signed legislation admitting Michigan, but only if they gave up claims on the Toledo Strip. Voters rejected that condition overwhelmingly in November.
But over the winter, reality finally sat in. Mason was forced to call his Frost-bitten Convention and accept an only slightly sweetened offer.
Ohio was jubilant, their war aims secured. But Michigan may have had the last laugh. The “worthless” Upper Peninsula turned into an economic powerhouse when copper was discovered. Within decades it was one of the world’s largest producers. Its vast forests fed the needs of a nation exploding in population and expanding its boundaries.
Toledo thrived for a while as a port. But its significance was soon challenged by the increasing network of railroads. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, it became a major manufacturing center. But its aging factories were hit hard by the oil crisis recession of the ‘70s. A quintessential Rust Belt city, its fortunes have continued to decline. Today it is a shadow of itself having lost more than half of its population, much of its land empty after old factories were torn down to become poisonous brown fields. Many Ohioans would just as soon give the place back to Michigan. But Michigan with plenty of problems of its own doesn’t want it.
Today the great Toledo Strip War lives on mostly in the intense rivalry between college and professional sports teams—especially the University of Michigan vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten.