GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan and Ohio aren’t the friendliest of neighbors, with a rivalry that extends far beyond football.

It can be traced back to the 18th century: A slow-simmering border dispute lasted decades, nearly led to a “war” and culminated with Congressional action — stepping in on this day in 1836 to settle the dispute.

It’s known as the “Toledo War,” but the name is misleading. While there were some skirmishes, there were no all-out battles. In fact, blood was only drawn once in the three decades of fighting.


The story starts in 1787, when the Northwest Ordinance was passed, expanding the United States farther west. The ordinance stated the giant chunk of land should be divided up into anywhere from three to five different states.

The territory included what now makes up Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. The ordinance dictated that one of the boundaries dividing the territories would run east-west at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

The Northwest Ordinance, adopted on July 13, 1787, expanded the United States further west and paved the way for five more states, including Michigan and Ohio, to join the union. (National Archives)

In 1803, Ohio became the first state out of the territory to be recognized by the union. It established a state constitution and appointed a governor, secretary and a panel of judges. But it wasn’t without controversy.

One year earlier, at a constitutional convention in Ohio, a fur trapper told state delegates that the maps being used to draw state lines were incorrect and that Lake Michigan extended further south. With correct maps, the mouth of the Maumee River would legally be Michigan territory.

So Ohio delegates included a clause in the new state constitution that the state’s northern boundary must include the mouth of the Maumee River. Congress accepted Ohio’s constitution but never made a ruling on the state boundary.

This sparked a fight between Michigan and Ohio, arguing whether the Northwest Ordinance or Ohio’s state constitution took precedence.

Congress eventually tried to end the dispute, approving a new survey to establish the boundary in 1812, but it was delayed by the War of 1812. Later that decade, both Ohio and Michigan ordered surveys done to establish the boundary.

Ohio’s surveyor, William Harris, was instructed to draw the map based on Ohio’s state constitution. Michigan’s surveyor, John Fulton, was instructed to follow Congress’ 1787 ordinance. The difference is called the “Toledo Strip,” 468 square miles in all, about eight miles wide on the eastern edge and five miles wide on the western edge.

By 1825, construction on the Erie Canal was complete. The Great Lakes were officially linked to the East Coast and the fight over Toledo intensified, with the city — thanks to the Maumee River — primed to become a major business hub.

The Mitchell Map, drawn based on surveys by John Mitchell, were key a primary source in the Treaty of Paris and setting boundaries for several new states. (Public Domain)


The fight over Toledo continued. Michigan worked to settle the region to stake its claim. The state laid roads, held elections and even collected taxes. Ohio lawmakers put their focus on Washington, using its two senators and six congressmen to deflect any legal claims on the land.

In the early 1830s, Ohio congressmen even blocked Michigan’s petition to join the union, trying to convince Michigan leaders to surrender the Toledo Strip in exchange for statehood.

That’s when things started to get violent. In the spring of 1835, Ohio lawmakers once again sent out a team of surveyors to try and map the land. A posse, led by a Michigan sheriff, spotted the group and took nine of them prisoner, charged with violating the territory’s Pains and Penalties Act, which allowed the men to be imprisoned without a trial. The surveyors who avoided capture returned to Ohio and told lawmakers what had happened.

Tensions grew even hotter in the summer. On July 15, 1835, Monroe County deputy sheriff Joseph Wood went to Toledo to arrest a man who had allegedly violated the Pains and Penalties Act. The man resisted arrest and stabbed Wood. The deputy sheriff survived the attack and was ultimately the only person to be injured in the Toledo War.

Portraits of Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason (left) and Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas. (Public Domain)

Another clash brewed in September, when Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas announced plans to hold a state court session in Toledo to establish the state’s rights to the land. In response, Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason assembled a group of more than 1,000 militiamen and marched into Toledo. But they found an empty courthouse. Ohioans held their session early in the morning and had left Toledo before the militia arrived.

The potential of an actual battle got the attention of President Andrew Jackson. He discussed the problem with his attorney general, Benjamin Butler, who believed the law dictated Michigan had the rights to the land.

It wasn’t the answer Jackson wanted to hear. While he would not run for a third term as president, siding with Michigan could cause a lot of backlash in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana and hurt the Democratic party’s chances in 1836.

Jackson appointed two commissioners to head west and strike a deal. Mason agreed to keep things civil as long as Ohioans stayed out of Toledo. Lucas rejected that idea and the fight continued.

Eventually, Jackson flexed his presidential muscle and made a compromise. He fired Mason as the territorial governor of Michigan, replacing him with John Horner.

Horner was despised by many Michiganders, who hanged him in effigy and verbally assaulted him. With Horner in place, Jackson could finally broker a deal, and on June 15, 1836, an agreement was ratified: Ohio took control of the Toledo Strip, Michigan would be admitted into the union as the nation’s 26th state and Michigan would take control of 9,000 square miles of land of the Upper Peninsula.

At the time, many Michiganders thought they got the short end of the deal, but the Upper Peninsula proved to be a treasure trove in its own right, supplying copper, iron ore and timber.