3 American Border Disputes You Probably Never Studied

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This article was originally posted last year.

When America was being divvied up, surveyors and cartographers were as accurate as possible drawing the boundaries between these new regions. Unfortunately, mistakes were still made. And minor map mistakes led to years of fighting—sometimes in the courts, and sometimes on the field of battle.

1. The Toledo War: Ohio vs. Michigan

The story of The Toledo War actually begins in 1787, when the U.S. government enacted the Northwest Ordinance. The Ordinance described the border between Ohio and Michigan as "an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan." Congress used the best map available at the time, The Mitchell Map (above), to create this east-west line, putting most of the west shoreline of Lake Erie within Ohio's borders. This would include Maumee Bay, where the Maumee River and Lake Erie meet, giving Ohio a significant economic advantage for shipping.

However, it was discovered in 1803 that The Mitchell Map was incorrect—the tip of Lake Michigan was actually farther south. A straight line from the correct southern point would have cost Ohio almost all of Lake Erie. Hoping to avoid this loss, Ohio changed the description of the border so that it now ran northeast from the tip of Lake Michigan to Maumee Bay. This new description wasn't an issue until 1833, when Michigan asked for statehood. Michigan kept the old Northwest Ordinance line description, but drew it from the correct tip of Lake Michigan. The overlap between Ohio and Michigan's descriptions created the "Toledo Strip," a ribbon of land five to eight miles wide, encompassing present-day Toledo.
Toledo-Strip-Location.jpg

In an effort to make Michigan concede the Strip, Ohio's governor, Robert Lucas, used his political connections to convince Congress to deny Michigan statehood. Upset by Lucas' scheme, Michigan governor Stevens Mason enacted the Pains and Penalties Act in February 1835. This law said that anyone caught in the Strip supporting the state of Ohio could be jailed for up to five years and fined $1,000 (about $24,000 in today's money). To enforce his act, Mason raised a militia of 1,000 men and stationed them inside Toledo. In response, Governor Lucas sent 600 men. It was a fight just waiting to happen.

For the next five months, a series of skirmishes, arrests, lawsuits, and general chest thumping occurred in the Toledo Strip. But no one was killed or seriously injured until July, when Michigan sheriff Joseph Wood attempted to arrest Major Benjamin Stickney for voting in an Ohio election. Stickney and his sons, named—I kid you not—One Stickney and Two Stickney, resisted. In the melee, Two stabbed Sheriff Wood with a pocketknife.

Though the sheriff's wound was not life threatening, this scuffle was enough to instigate peace talks, and troops were withdrawn. Still, the political dispute raged on until December 1836 when Congress offered Michigan a compromise—give up the Toledo Strip, but gain statehood and a large portion of the Upper Peninsula instead. Michigan had spent so much maintaining the militia's presence in the Strip that they were quickly running out of money. They weren't happy about it, but they had no choice but to accept the compromise.

Ohio-State-Michigan.jpgEven after the deal, 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 Ohio and Michigan citizens channel their border war tensions onto the college football gridiron. Ohio State vs. Michigan is one of the great sports rivalries. And lately, bragging rights have gone to the Buckeyes—Ohio State has won the last four meetings.

2. The Pig War: United States vs. Great Britain

On June 15, 1846, the British and U.S. governments signed The Oregon Treaty, establishing the border between Oregon Country and the Columbia District in Canada. The border would reside from the 49th parallel, down through the middle of the channel that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, and then out to the Pacific Ocean. The only maps available at the time were a little fuzzy on details, though, so neither government knew there were actually two channels that separated Vancouver Island from the mainland—the Haro Strait to the west and the Rosario Strait to the east. Stuck in the middle of those two straits were the San Juan Islands.

Pig-War-Map.jpg

Both Britain and the United States claimed the islands, but the dispute was dormant for many years. Then, on June 15, 1859—exactly 13 years after the Oregon Treaty was signed—Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, noticed a large, black boar rooting in his garden. On the other side of Cutlar's fence was Charles Griffin, an Irishman, who sat laughing as the pig destroyed Cutlar's crops. Annoyed, Cutlar took out his rifle and shot the boar dead.

After cooling down, Cutlar offered to pay $10 for the pig, but Griffin refused, demanding $100 instead. Cutlar countered by saying he shouldn't have to pay anything since the animal was trespassing on his land. Tensions mounted and British authorities threatened to arrest the American, who then called the United States for protection. Both governments responded to the situation by sending troops to the San Juan Islands.

The dispute escalated for the next two years. At its peak, Britain had amassed five warships carrying 167 guns and manned with 2,140 soldiers. The Americans had a still-respectable 461 troops with 14 cannons in reinforced positions. Wisely, the commanding officers saw how silly the whole thing was and demanded that neither side fire unless fired upon; they knew it wasn't worth dying over a pig.

Eventually it was agreed the armies should leave 100 men each and send the rest home. This small military occupation lasted for another 12 years without a single shot being fired. In fact, the occupying troops became friendly with one another, celebrating holidays and even playing games during their stay.

The dispute was finally resolved in October of 1872. Canada suggested a compromise boundary running through the islands, but the final border ran through the Haro Strait to the west, making all the islands part of the United States. In November, the British pulled their troops; in July, the Americans left as well. The only casualty of this "war" was a hungry farm animal.

3. The Honey War: Missouri vs. Iowa

Aside from incorrect maps, surveying mistakes have also been a major factor in American border disputes. In 1816, renowned surveyor John Sullivan was hired to map out the northern border of Missouri. In his description of the boundary, fittingly called "The Sullivan Line," he referenced a latitude line passing through "the rapids of the River Des Moines." Little did he know this simple phrase would come to complicate the state's history for years to come.
Honey-War-Map.jpg

Twenty years later, the Sullivan Line was resurveyed after Missouri annexed land to the west. Sullivan had died, so Joseph Brown was hired. Going by the somewhat vague description of the rapids, Brown searched on the banks of the Des Moines River until he found what he thought was the correct location. In fact, he was 9.5 miles north of Sullivan's designation, accidentally carving out a large strip of new land for Missouri.

The discrepancy in Brown's Line was not noticed until two years later, when Congress was establishing the Iowa Territory. Congress decided that Iowa's southern border would simply be where it met Missouri's northern border. This required yet another survey, this time done by Major Albert Lea. Looking at Brown and Sullivan's descriptions of "the rapids," Lea decided there were a handful of possible spots for this landmark: the first was at Brown's Line; the second was at Sullivan's Line; and the third possibility was south of Sullivan's Line, 15 miles into Missouri. This new location was where the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers met, a place referred to as "The Des Moines Rapids." As one might guess, Missouri preferred the Brown Line, while Iowa preferred the new line at The Des Moines Rapids.

Without waiting for Congress to decide on the survey, Lilburn Boggs, Missouri's governor, ordered his officials to enforce Missouri law up to the Brown Line. In response, Iowa's governor, Robert Lucas (yes, the same Governor Lucas involved in The Toledo War went on to become the governor of Iowa), demanded that Missouri keep out of the disputed area. Tensions rose until a Missouri sheriff attempted to collect taxes in November 1839. The Iowans ran him off, but not before he decided to collect his due in another way—by chopping down three trees filled with honey, an important local commodity, as partial payment.

The loss of the honey trees set off a political firestorm. Lucas sent 300 militiamen to defend the border; Boggs sent 800 men of his own. Cooler heads prevailed by late December, and both governors agreed to withdraw their troops. Not a single shot was fired. A temporary boundary was drawn until 1851, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the border should be placed down the middle of the strip of disputed land, along the original Sullivan Line of 1816.

See also...

3 Controversial Maps
"¢ The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America

Rob Lammle is probably the only cartographer you'll ever meet who has an English degree. Read more on his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.

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September 1, 2009 - 11:41am
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