When Ohio became a state in 1803, breaking off from the Northwest Territory, parts of the border remained ambiguous. Three decades later, this ambiguity led to a conflict between Ohioans and Michiganders which became known as the Toledo War.
In the state’s enabling act, the northern boundary of Ohio was defined as “an east and west line, drawn through the southerly extreme of Lake Michigan, running…from the mouth of the Great Miami [today the Maumee River] until it shall intersect Lake Erie or the territorial line.” Provisions were made for Congress to alter the northern border “at any time.”
Most contemporary maps of the Great Lakes region followed the conventions of a map by John Mitchell, published in 1755. Possibly the most well-known map of North America in the 18th century, it was used in the 1783 Treaty of Paris to establish the borders between the US and Great Britain.
Ohioans in 1803 would have looked at Mitchell’s map and seen Lake Erie (or Oswego) scooping far south of the Ontario Peninsula, with Lake Michigan roughly its mirror in size. If the Mitchell map reflected reality, the northern border of Ohio would have run comfortably north of the Maumee River. Already in 1803 the map was known to be out of date, and the true shape and extent of Lake Michigan dubious.
As this key reference point had not yet been ascertained, a backup plan was inserted into the Ohio constitution: should the line running due east from the Lake Michigan’s southernmost point not intersect Lake Erie, or should it intersect east of the mouth of the Maumee, then the east-west line would be abandoned and the northern border would be defined by a line running from the southern end of Lake Michigan to the northern cape of the Maumee Bay.
The two potential border lines were not surveyed until 1817. Ohio promptly acknowledged the more northerly border. The territorial governor of Michigan, which had by this time organized north of the state of Ohio, ordered his own survey. This, perhaps inevitably, reinforced the southern line and Michigan’s control over what came to be known as the Toledo Strip. In 1832, Michigan put forth its own petition for statehood, officially claiming the contested area in addition to a small section of what became the Upper Peninsula.
The map below, published by the United States Engineers in 1835, shows the contrast between the two border claims. The disputed strip of land was small – only 468 square miles. The largest settlement, Toledo, was home to barely over 1000 inhabitants. And yet, this tiny town was a prize worth fighting for.
Toledo’s location on Lake Erie was full of promise, particularly in the wake of the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal was an important shipping lane which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, via the Hudson River and the pre-eminent port of New York City.
In the same year that the Erie Canal was finished, the construction of another canal was approved by the Ohio legislature. Beginning farther south, the Miami and Erie Canal would connect the city of Cincinnati with Lake Erie and all that lay to the east. The Maumee Bay was the ideal entrance to the lake, and Toledo lay just upriver.
With covetous governors on either side of the Toledo Strip, and Michigan’s statehood petition sitting on Congressional desks in DC, tensions rose perilously. Militias were mustered in both states and sent to the border. A Virginia newspaper, the Lynchburg Virginian, reported in 1835: ”A letter from a respectable lawyer dated Detroit, Aug. 27th – says “we are on the eve of a border war with Ohio. Blood must be shed. I am this moment under marching orders.”
But the only blood shed in what came to be called the Toledo War was that of Michigan deputy sheriff called Wood, who was stabbed (non-fatally) with a pen knife while arresting Two Stickney, a resident of the town of Toledo. When Stickney fled south, Governor Lucas of Ohio refused his Michigan counterpart’s request to extradite the young man. Stickney’s memory survives in Toledo in the name of Stickney Avenue, which ran along the family farm.
Meanwhile, official border negotiations continued, with fewer pen knives and – eventually – more results. At a convention in September 1836, Michigan rejected a proposal to give up the Toledo Strip in exchange for the western three-quarters of a large peninsula of land between Lake Superior and Michigan. Barely a month later, however, a separate convention approved the proposal. On January 26, 1837, the State of Michigan, now composed of two pleasant peninsulas, entered the Union.
Like most Michiganders, I think we got the sweet end of the deal. The city of Detroit provided a port onto Lake Erie and grew much larger than Toledo. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula turned out to be full of mineral resources, some of which are shown on this map. The UP is also home to incredible wildlife, Michigan’s only real mountains, and beautiful windswept coastlines along Lake Superior, rightfully earning us the title of Great Lakes State.
Upper Peninsula scenery. Pulpit Rock, Presque Isle [Park], Lake Superior. Detroit Publishing Co., c1898. Prints and Photographs Division.
I enjoyed this blog post. It was interesting to see the early maps and think about their influence on the politics of the time. The post was also timely and relevant to things happening now. Recent news reports have mentioned that the only nickel mine in the USA is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nickel is an important mineral needed for EV batteries (worth the trade of Toledo I guess).
“Like most Michiganders, I think we got the sweet end of the deal.”
There was no deal. We won the war, and we got the land.
“Hail to the victors,” as your people like to say.
A native son of the Toledo Strip’s Lucas County currently residing in the Toledo War headquarters of Perrysburg, Wood County, Ohio.