Michigan and Ohio are now famous for their college football rivalry, but in 1835, the residents of the Wolverine and Buckeye states nearly came to blows over a small sliver of land containing the modern day city of Toledo. The little-known border war saw the two sides mobilize their militias, conduct arrests and issue legal challenges against one another. Casualties were limited to one unfortunate Michigander who was stabbed in a barroom brawl, but the saber rattling eventually grew so intense that Congress and President Andrew Jackson were forced to step in and mediate.
The so-called “Toledo War” had its roots in the shortcomings of 18th century geography. In 1787, Congress drafted the Northwest Ordinance, which stipulated that 260,000 square miles of territory surrounding the Great Lakes would eventually be carved into a handful of new states. Specifically, the law decreed that the border between Ohio and Michigan was to run on “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan” until it intersected with Lake Erie. There was just one problem: the best available maps depicted Lake Michigan’s southern tip as being several miles north of its true location. As a result, the original border placed the mouth of the Maumee River and the future city of Toledo in northern Ohio rather than in southern Michigan.
The map issue was still unresolved in the early 19th century, but when Ohio was admitted to the union in 1803, it included a measure in its constitution asserting that it owned the land around the Maumee no matter what future surveys might show. Just a few years later, representatives of the newly formed Michigan Territory challenged Ohio and argued that newer maps showed the region to be theirs. The controversy only grew in the late 1810s, when a pair of land surveys came to conflicting conclusions about the location of the border. The discrepancies created a 468-square-mile slice of land—the “Toledo Strip”—that was officially claimed by both the state of Ohio and the Michigan Territory.
Ohio and Michigan both had good reason for wanting control of Toledo and the Maumee River. By 1825, the completion of the Erie Canal had linked the Great Lakes to the east coast, presenting valuable opportunities for trade. As the largest port on Lake Erie’s western side, the growing village of Toledo was poised to become a commercial hub. With so much riding on the contested territory, both sides attempted to tighten their grip on it. The Michigan Territory settled the region and constructed roads, held elections and collected taxes. Ohio, meanwhile, tried to find support for its cause in Washington. In the early 1830s, Buckeye congressmen even helped block a Michigan petition for statehood in an effort to force the Territory’s surrender of the Toledo Strip.
The Toledo dispute started to spin out of control in early 1835. Just a few months earlier, the territorial governorship of Michigan had fallen to a brash, 23-year-old politician named Stevens T. Mason. The “Boy Governor” wasted little time in asserting his authority over the Toledo Strip. “We are the weaker party, it is true,” he proclaimed, “but we are on the side of justice…we cannot fail to maintain our rights against the encroachments of a powerful neighboring state.” In February 1835, Mason oversaw the passage of the “Pains and Penalties Act,” which levied harsh fines and jail sentences on any Ohio officials who tried to exercise jurisdiction over the contested territory. Not to be outdone, Ohio Governor Robert Lucas and his state legislature passed a resolution that extended their county borders into the Strip. They also contracted a team of surveyors to re-mark the boundary line. As the tensions grew, Michigan and Ohio both raised militias to guard their sovereignty over the disputed land.
While federal mediators tried in vain to diffuse the conflict, Michigan’s authorities went to work enforcing their Pains and Penalties Act. On April 9, 1835, a posse led by a Michigan sheriff rode into Toledo and arrested several Buckeye state officials. Newspapers later reported that an Ohio flag was torn down, dragged through the streets and then burned. A few days later, Michigan militia leader General Joseph Brown led 60 Wolverine partisans on a mission intercept the Ohio border survey team. On April 26, in what became known as the “Battle of Phillips Corners,” Brown’s militia confronted the surveyors, fired warning shots over their heads and arrested nine members of their party.
No one was killed or injured in the Battle of Phillips Corners, but it wasn’t long before the Toledo War turned bloody. In July 1835, Michigan Sheriff Joseph Wood entered Toledo to arrest an Ohio partisan named Two Stickney. A scuffle broke out when the Sheriff’s posse confronted the Ohioan in a tavern, and during the ensuing brawl, Stickney drew a penknife and stabbed Wood in the side, leaving him with a minor wound.
Sheriff Wood is now remembered as the Toledo War’s lone casualty, yet in the early autumn of 1835, Michigan and Ohio seemed poised for a pitched battle. Ohio Governor Lucas had announced his intentions to hold a court session in Toledo to establish his state’s rights to the land. In response, Michigan Governor Mason gathered 1,200 Wolverine militiamen and marched on the Toledo Strip. The Michiganders were prepared to use violent force to prevent the session from taking place, yet after arriving on September 7, they found they had been outsmarted: the Ohioans had already held a secret midnight court and then fled the area to avoid bloodshed.
The court incident marked the last gasp of armed hostilities in the Toledo War. Having lost patience with Stevens T. Mason’s militancy, President Andrew Jackson entered the fray and removed him from his post. Michiganders almost immediately voted the “Boy Governor” back into office, but by then tempers had cooled and the two sides had called off their militias.
With the threat of civil war averted, Jackson and the federal government looked to settle the land dispute once and for all. The issue remained in legal limbo for the next several months, with much of the debate in Congress centering on the Michigan Territory’s ongoing pleas for statehood. Finally, on December 14, 1836, Michigan reluctantly accepted a Congressional compromise that saw it relinquish its claims on the Toledo Strip in exchange for admittance to the union as the 26th state. At the stroke of a pen, Toledo and the Maumee officially became part of the state of Ohio. Michigan, meanwhile, was compensated with 9,000 square miles of land on the Upper Peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. At the time, many Michiganders considered the trade-off a bad deal. The Detroit Free Press even dubbed the Upper Peninsula a barren wasteland of “perpetual snows,” but public opinion later shifted after the region was found to contain valuable deposits of copper and iron ore.
While the Toledo War is now remembered as the most ferocious conflict in Ohio-Michigan history, it wasn’t the last time to the two states clashed over their border. The precise location of the states’ land boundary remained the subject of debate until 1915, when a new government survey was completed. Michigan and Ohio’s governors celebrated the resolution by shaking hands across the border at a peninsula in Lake Erie, and in 1965, their lieutenant governors repeated the ceremony. That same year, the old rivals fixed a plaque with the words “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” to a boundary marker on the state line.