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Michigan vs Ohio: The Toledo War

Today, Ohio and Michigan are known as one of the biggest and best rivalries in American football. While fans may think of this sport as war, these two states were on the verge of bloodshed only two centuries ago.

The Mitchell Map

The Mitchell Map

Lets start at the beginning. The Toledo War became a reality due to a long chain of dominoes crashing into each other, with the very first back in 1787. The United States government decided to enact the Northwest Ordinance, which described the border between Ohio and Michigan as “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend of Lake Michigan.” With limited technology, Congress used the “best map” at the time. The Mitchell Map was used to create this horizontal border, putting most of the western side of Lake Erie within Ohio’s technical borders. This includes Maumee Bay, where Lake Erie and the Maumee River meet. 

What’s this all mean? Well, having access to the Maumee Bay gave Ohio a huge economic advantage. This area was a paradise for shipping industries, allowing Ohio to take complete control of one of the largest opportunities given to a state during this time. In addition, the Strip west of the Toledo area is a prime location for agriculture, because of its well-drained and fertile soil.

Even though the government used the best map available, it was discovered in 1803 that The Mitchell Map was incorrect. The tip of Lake Michigan was much farther south, making the map wrong in its assumption to give complete control of the Maumee Bay to the Ohioans. The correct border, as described to be “from the southern bend of Lake Michigan”, would have taken all of Lake Erie from Ohio. In an attempt to avoid the loss of their shipping industry and economic haven, Ohio changed the description of the border in historical documents, claiming that it now ran northeast from the tip of Lake Michigan to Maumee Bay. This description stayed legally bound until 1833, thirty years afterwards.

The Toledo Strip

The Toledo Strip

Why was it such an issue? Michigan applied for statehood. Up until then, Michigan was considered a territory to the American government. Michigan, unlike Ohio, had kept the old Northwest Ordinance line description, and drew it to the correct tip of Lake Michigan. This overlap between the Ohio and Michigan versions between the Ordinance created the “Toledo Strip”, a ribbon of land five to eight miles wide.

Ohio’s then-governor Robert Lucas, scared of losing its commercial profits, used his connections to convince Congress to deny Michigan it’s request of statehood. The Ohio Congressional delegation blocked Michigan from attaining its statehood by lobbying other states to vote against the matter. Imagine that: a state uses political strings to keep a territory from joining the United States.


Michigan Governor Stevens Mason

Michigan Governor Stevens Mason

Upset by this extreme scheme, the Michigan governor Stevens Mason enacted the Pains and Penalties Act in February 1835. This law basically claimed that anyone caught in the Toledo Strip supporting Ohio would be jailed for up to five years and fined $1,000 (roughly $25,000 today). This seems to be just a giant slap fight between two toddlers, doesn’t it? It’s one thing to make a law; it’s another thing to enforce it. Stevens Mason raised a militia of 1,000 men and stationed them within Toledo. Both of these states wanted what seemed destined to become a crucial, prosperous region.

Here’s where the slap fight continues. Governor Lucas of Ohio sent 600 men in retaliation.

It was a tense fight just waiting to happen.

In a desperate attempt to prevent armed battle, President Andrew Jackson decided the government had to step in. Ohio was an expanding political power in the Union, with a total of nineteen representatives and two senators. Michigan, on the other hand, still being a territory thanks to the influence Ohio had on the applications of its statehood, had only a single non-voting delegate. Ohio was and still is considered a crucial swing state in presidential elections, and it would have been devastating to the fledgling Democratic Party — with Jackson at its head — to lose Ohio’s electoral votes. Jackson and his cabinet decided that his party’s best interest would be keeping the Toledo Strip a part of Ohio.

Even the American government was against the written descriptions of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.

However, Benjamin Butler, Jackson’s Attorney-General, advised Jackson that until Congress said otherwise, the land rightfully belonged to Michigan. This presented a political dilemma for Jackson, the Ohio-desperate Democrat, which would greatly impact the outcome of this so-called war growing in the north.

For the next five months, a series of upsetting skirmishes, unlawful arrests, sketchy and biased lawsuits occured throughout the Toledo Strip. Despite all of this, there was no real violence until July 15th, 1835 when Michigan Sheriff Joseph Wood attempted to arrest Major Benjamin Stickney for voting in an Ohio election. Stickney resisted. Stickney’s sons, named One and Two (why?), joined in on the resistance. In the melee, Two stabbed Sheriff Wood with a hidden pocketknife. Tensions and emotions finally overflowed the bucket of political bullshit and blood was spilled in the Toledo Strip.

Michigan's Gain (green) and Loss (red) in the compromise.

Michigan’s Gain (green) and Loss (red) in the compromise.

This injury, although not life threatening, was enough to begin peace talks. Troops were temporarily withdrawn and the political dispute raged until December 1836. Desperate to keep both states happy at this point, Congress offered Michigan an odd compromise. They were given the option to give up the commercially stable Toledo Strip and gain statehood alongside a large portion of the Upper Peninsula, which was up for grabs but more-or-less considered part of Wisconsin.

Michigan had spent so much time, effort, and money maintaining the military presence in the Toledo Strip, but they were finally running out of all three. They weren’t happy with it — and to this day true Michiganders dislike the trade-off — but they had no real reasonable choice but to accept the compromise.

On January 26, 1837, Michigan was finally admitted to the Union as the 26th state.

Without the Toledo Strip.

The stats? One thousand Michigan troops, Six hundred Ohioan troops, One injury.

Even after the compromise, legal battles between the states occurred periodically until 1973, when it took a Supreme Court ruling to resolve claims to the waters of Lake Erie. Now Ohioans and Michiganders bring their tensions into college football. The Toledo War is oftentimes cited as the true origins of the strong hostility represented in the rivalry we see in the world of entertainment and sports.



I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books. Unlike the stereotypical leftist, I do not necessarily censor myself. I apologize in advance if you find yourself offended by something I’ve said; but I do enjoy hearing criticism and having debates.

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Joseph Kaminski
I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books.


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