The Toledo War

By Brendan Boynton

Disputed Land between Michigan and Ohio. Credit:

The Toledo War is the name given to a period of political conflict between the Michigan and Ohio over the disputed claim of a strip of land. The conflict arose when the most popular map of the time claimed that Ohio had ownership of the land, yet fur trappers report claimed Michigan’s territory went much further south than the map claimed, and that the map was wrong. Tensions were very high as the Michigan territory and Ohio sought after the strip of land, and each used their own tactics to try and muscle it in their favor, including sending their respective state militias to the area.  At one point, the Michigan state militia open fire, nearly leading to an all-out war. Eventually the Federal Government mediated a resolution to the dispute, recognizing Ohio’s claim to the land, but extending the boundaries of Michigan to include the western half of what we now call the Upper Peninsula.  Michigan also achieved statehood upon the resolution of the conflict. The leaders during the time were Governors Stevens T Mason of Michigan and Robert Lucas for Ohio.

Background of the Conflict

Mitchell Map. Credit: National Geographic

The Map and Wording

The spark to this whole conflict originated from a simple map. The original border for the Michigan territory when it was created with the Northwest Ordinance was, “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan”1. The map that was the most commonly referred to was called the Mitchell Map, named after its creator, John Mitchell. This map gave significant Lake Erie shoreline to Ohio as it placed the border near the mouth of the Detroit River. When Ohio began its process into statehood in 1802, the wording changed to “an east and west line drawn through the southerly extreme of Lake Michigan, running east … until it shall intersect Lake Erie or the territorial line , and thence with the same through Lake Erie to the Pennsylvania line aforesaid.”2 This new wording was overwhelmingly in Ohio’s favor, as this would give them almost all of the Lake Erie shoreline and possibly part of the Detroit River. A fur trapper came along and informed the Ohioans that the Lake Michigan actually went much further south than they anticipated, so they redrafted the line which included the Toledo Strip. When Congress created the Michigan Territory, they went by the rules written down in the Northwest Ordinance, which based off the fur trappers new report, now included the Toledo Strip for Michigan. This issue went mostly unnoticed and brushed aside, until 30 years later, long after both sides felt connected to it and not willing to part with something they believed rightfully belonged to them. When Michigan sought statehood in 1833, they were rejected due to the border dispute, which is when both sides started fighting for it.

Significance of the Land

The importance of the Toledo Strip explains why this was such a hot topic at the time. The Toledo Strip had excellent fertile farmland and miles of land bordering Lake Erie. The benefits with the port access would be less goods had to be funneled through the Detroit River for Michigan and due to the recently built Erie Canal, the trade route became even more prosperous, meaning that any ports build along the lakefront would be very successful and a great revenue generator. The farmland was already well-known for having a high-yield of corn and wheat per acre for many years, so whoever took over the strip, would be rewarded with a prime agriculture spot, as well as thriving ports.


Local Government Actions

Ohio had the upper hand with power as they were already a state, so they had much more options at their disposal, most significantly, representatives in Congress, something a territory does not. Ohio lobbied other states to reject Michigan’s statehood outright, and set up a new county, named Lucas, after their Governor, as a show of power, which significantly increased tensions between the two feuding sides. Ohio also used its power as a state to try and revive a previously rejected bill which would formally set their border where they wanted it, ending the dispute. Michigan, being a territory, had much less power nationally. Just six days after the passage of The Pains and Penalties Act, a Michigan law making it illegal for Ohioans to carry out government actions in the strip, Ohio formed a county in the disputed area and named it after Governor Lucas.3 To back up the law, Michigan Governor Mason appointed Brigadier-General Joseph W. Brown to lead the state militia, and sent them down to the area with orders to act upon Ohio trespassers.

Michigan Governor Stevens T Mason (left) and Ohio Governor Robert Lucas (right). Credit: The Toledo Blade

Attempted De-escalation

Unfortunately for Michigan, at this current time, Ohio was a growing political power, and was a crucial swing state. President Jackson did not want to lose Ohio for his party, therefore fearing that appeasing Michigan would leave his fellow Democrats worse off. Jackson sent two representatives from Washington to try and mediate the conflict and find a suitable compromise.  The Washington mediators suggested that the border be surveyed without Michigan interruption, and the locals could choose which government they would like to represent them until a more official statement was made. Lucas agreed to this temporary solution, while Mason refused.  Three days later elections were held in the area under Ohio law, which was met with harassment from Michigan residents, including two arrests on the basis that the Ohio residents who had voted in the election had practiced law, therefore violating the Pains and Penalties Act.4

Shots fired and Bloodshed

Lucas believed after the election that things had died down, and sent out surveyors to redraw the border. Eventually they were intercepted by dozens of men serving in the Michigan Militia. The surveyors claimed that the militia advised them to retreat, then followed up their words by opening firing, taking those who didn’t flee as prisoners. Michigan claimed that they didn’t fire at them, only shooting a few times in the air as the men retreated.5 Regardless, military action was taken against the surveyors, which infuriated both sides. In response to the attack Ohio passed more controversial laws, including making Toledo the county seat of Lucas county, outlawing the arrests of Ohioans and declaring them to be “abductions,’ and backing up the laws with hundreds of thousands of dollars, while Michigan just continued to pour money into the militia. Lucas also ordered a count of militia, coming back with 10,000 men ready to fight.  Over time, Michigan officials exaggerated this number, with the Michigan Militia daring the supposedly “Ohio Million” into the strip and promising them death if they did. As time went on, both governments continued to try and one-up the other, and both made multiple arrests citing their own laws passed just to harass the other side. Blood was finally spilled when Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood went to arrest Ohio Major, Benjamin Stickney. He and his three sons resisted arrest, one of the sons stabbing the sheriff with a penknife before escaping south into Ohio. Mason demanded he be extradited, yet Lucas refused, as did President Jackson when Mason wrote to him asking the Supreme Court look into this matter.

Resolution through Federal Mediation

As tensions grew tremendously following the battle and the stabbing, war seemed to be on the horizon. With each side proving they were willing to kill their fellow countrymen over the land, Washington realized the situation was getting out of hand and something must be done. President Jackson drafted a bill which would admit Michigan as a state only if they surrendered the Toledo Strip to Ohio, but in return they would gain a vast amount of land in the western portion of the Upper Peninsula, to be taken from the land boundaries of the Wisconsin Territory. Michigan was very hard pressed to accept this deal, yet they found their pockets quickly becoming emptier due to the high militia upkeep.  Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of dollars were about to be distributed to all the states, but not territories. So the Michigan government accepted the settlement, become a state, and thereby received vast amounts of land in the north and money to prevent bankruptcy.  Yet in doing so, they lost the strip of land they had fought so hard over.

Benefits to Ohio

In the end Ohio got what they wanted. Their major port town properly named “Toledo” grew into a large city, becoming a major manufacturing area as time went on. As railroads grew in popularity Toledo became a major hub for many rail companies, attracting many industries to spring up as a result of Toledo being a great crossroads, which led to thousands of immigrants moving here to take up factory jobs as it was easy to get there. However in the long-term, due to Toledo’s focus on manufacturing, the Great Depression in the 1930s caused high unemployment in the city.  Detroit and other Michigan cities would also see a similar fate during those troubled years.

The Unemployed in Toledo during the Great Depression, photo credit to

Benefits to Michigan

The vast amount of land of the western Upper Peninsula Michigan received still left people with a bitter taste in their mouth, as the land at the time was viewed as barren, useless wilderness. However unbeknownst to the bitter Michiganders, this land was anything but barren or useless, as it is abundant in natural resources and mineral wealth, especially lumber, copper and iron.  Mining became a very lucrative business in Michigan, creating thousands of jobs and also helped pave the way for Michigan to become an industrial powerhouse that it has been, especially in the auto industry. The economic gain obtained from the western Upper Peninsula is said to have offset the loss Michigan sustained when it surrendered the land to Ohio by a wide margin.