If you’ve never heard that Michigan and Ohio hate each other, you might be surprised to hear that the two have been to war. Well, at least in name anyway. It’s called the Great Toledo War, and it’s one of those things they’d probably just leave at “it’s complicated” on their social media page or something. So what exactly was the Great Toledo War all about?
Ohio-Michigan War or Michigan-Ohio War?
The Great Toledo War also gets referred to as the Ohio-Michigan War or the Michigan-Ohio War. Without using any brainpower you know with certainty that this is entirely dependent on whether or not you are in Ohio or Michigan, respectively.
So what caused the Great Toledo War? Well, between 1835 and 1836 Ohio and Michigan had a bit of a spat over their territorial boundaries. By this point Ohio had already become a state (1803), while Michigan was still a territory (it became a state in 1837). That is to say states were still figuring out who could say what stuff was theirs. The stuff in dispute? A little 468 square mile strip along the shared border between Ohio and Michigan. Nowadays it’s known as the “Toledo Strip,” after the city of Toledo.
And if you know that Toledo is currently in Ohio, then you’ve already figured out who “won” the war.
Legislators Don’t Use Maps
The seeds for the Great Toledo War were planted as far back as the late 1780s and the early 1800s because legislators back then were really bad at geography.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created the Northwest Territory. In today’s terms that’s the upper Midwest. While still a territory, the 1787 ordinance did specify the Northwest Territory be split into somewhere between 3 and 5 states later on, with the north/south boundary drawn through “the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.” In the modern American map that’s around Gary, Indiana–which neither Ohio nor Michigan are too concerned about.
Here’s where we get problems. If the language in “southerly bend or extreme” sounds a little wishy-washy to you, it’s because legislators didn’t actually know where this extreme was. The commonly used map in the 1780s placed the extreme near the mouth of the Detroit River. Which, for those keeping track, is not Gary, Indiana.
When Ohio was going through the process of becoming a state in 1802, Congress defined its boundaries with an east-to-west line “drawn through the southerly extreme of Lake Michigan, running east […] until it shall intersect Lake Erie or the territorial line” with the British. This language is similar, but not the same as the ordinance passed in 1787. Because again, legislators didn’t really understand the geography behind the Great Lakes.
Ohio thought it the intent of Congress that they would get most (if not all) of the Lake Erie shoreline that was west of Pennsylvania. New states after Ohio would only get access to the Great Lakes through Michigan, Huron, or Superior.
But once Michigan Territory became a thing in 1805, Congress used the language of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to define its boundaries. Distinctly not the same language used by the Enabling Act of 1802 that Ohio used to define its own borders.
The Toledo Strip
Nobody really did anything about this little error, because it wasn’t a problem. You know how any organization is. Stuff’s not dealt with until it’s an emergency. Sometimes even when it’s an emergency it doesn’t get dealt with, but who’s to say?
So remember when we put the southern extreme of Lake Michigan in two different places? Well now we have two different maps–one favoring Ohio and one favoring the newly formed Michigan territory. You can guess who picked which map.
Michigan Territory challenged Ohio, arguing what is not the Toledo Strip to be theirs. Ohio disagreed. When land surveys came to different conclusions in 1810, Michigan Territory and Ohio were at an impasse. Both had claimed ownership of the Toledo Strip, and nobody was arbitrating it.
By 1825, control of the Toledo Strip became even more important with the completion of the Erie Canal. Whichever region got to stick their flag in the mud would be given trade opportunities that would be denied to the other. At the time, Toledo was shaping up to be a commercial hub–which only made the desire for the region ever stronger.
It started super passive-aggressively. Michigan Territory settled in the Strip and set up roads while collecting taxes. Ohio tried a different route–going to the manager. So successful was Ohio at lobbying the federal government that they blocked Michigan Territory’s petition for statehood.
Once 1835 rolled around, Michigan Territory’s governorship was in the hands of Stevens T. Mason, who asserted Michigan Territory “was on the side of justice” and that they could not “fail to maintain their rights against the encroachments of a powerful neighboring state.”
Also known as Stevens T. Mason wanted the Toledo Strip. Mason saw fines and jailtime for Ohio officials exercising jurisdiction over the Strip. Ohio retaliated by passing legislation that extended their borders (state legislation, so really it was just spite) and remarking boundaries with their own surveyors. Which really just screams “we investigated ourselves and found nothing wrong” energy.
Anyway, things kept escalating until both Michigan Territory and Ohio mobilized their own militias. Michigan Territory detained Ohio officials/land surveyors and burned their flag. In one instance they fired warning shots in “The Battle of Phillips Corners.” None connected and nobody was injured.
In a tavern a Michigan sheriff (Joseph Wood) waltzed in to arrest an Ohio partisan. This started a bar fight wherein the latter party drew a knife and stabbed Wood. The wound was minor, and this is regarded as the sole casualty of the Great Toledo War.
With tensions escalating, Michigan and Ohio seemed poised to an actual armed conflict. At which point the federal government decided maybe it was time to step in. Then-president Jackson was fed up with Steven T. Mason’s militant attitude and had him removed as governor (he was reelected as soon as he was able, though).
But, as we mentioned Toledo is a city in Ohio, you know how this story ends. Congress eventually handed Michigan a deal. Give up the 468 square mile Toledo Strip for statehood and also receive 9,000 square miles of land between Lake Michigan and Superior. Michigan took the deal, though people who lived in Michigan generally considered the compensation land not worth the loss of the Toledo Strip.
Speaking of Ohio and Michigan, the state universities also fight over stuff. Quiz about it here.