The Time Ohio and Michigan Almost Went to War

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Ohio State vs. Michigan is one of the best rivalries in sports. But two centuries ago, Ohio and Michigan were ready to go to war for real.

The story of The Toledo War 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 (below), 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.

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 (roughly $25,000 today). 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.

Feeling Stabby

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.

Even 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.

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November 30, 2013 - 9:45am
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