“You now perceive that a collision between Ohio and Michigan is inevitable, and will therefore be prepared to meet the crisis.”
— Stevens T. Mason, acting Gov. of Michigan
Letter to Brig. Gen. Joseph W. Brown, March 9, 1835
“General Brown assured them that before the State of Ohio should extend her jurisdiction over this part of [Michigan’s] constitutional limits, she would have to march over the dead bodies of that portion of her citizens who had heretofore been under the jurisdiction of Michigan.”
— Andrew Palmer, commissioner
Letter to Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas, March 1, 1835
There is no rivalry in sports greater than Ohio State vs. Michigan, but The Game has never been decided by muskets, state militias, an act of Congress or a decision of the Supreme Court. Likewise, The Game has never moved the boundaries of a state, or decided who would control Toledo. The Ohio-Michigan war, also called the Toledo War, did just that- and planted the seed that grew into the fervor of the present day Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
The year was 1835 and Ohio, a state for 32 years, still had no settled northern border. The confusion arose because of a series of faulty maps showing the southernmost point of Lake Michigan to be further north than it really was. Since the Northwest Ordinance set Ohio’s northern border to be a point extending east from the southern tip of Lake Michigan, the erroneous maps led to confusion about who controlled certain territory. Ohio claimed control over the entire western end of Lake Erie.
It had never been a problem until Michigan prepared to petition for statehood. Both states claimed control of the “Toledo strip” which included the strategically located Maumee Bay. The disputed land was a mere 468 square miles, but when Michigan attempted to claim the land, the Ohio delegation in Congress blocked Michigan from joining the Union. The ‘boy Governor’ of the Michigan territory, 24 year-old Stevens T. Mason, called for a constitutional convention for statehood anyway. In response, Ohio created a county inside the disputed territory, naming it after then Governor Robert Lucas.
Mason responded, signing the ‘Pains and Penalties Act’ making it a crime for anyone to carry out governmental functions on behalf of Ohio in the disputed territory. He also appointed Brigadier General Joseph Brown to head the Michigan militia and authorized him to forcibly remove Ohioans in the area. Governor Lucas, not to be outdone, formed an Ohio militia to counter the Michiganders.
Although close to 2,000 armed men were sent to the area, only minor skirmishes occurred. In one incident, Michigan militiamen fired upon a group of Ohio surveyors and took several into custody. In another incident a Michigan Sheriff attempted to arrest an Ohioan, Major Benjamin Stickney, but Stickney and his three sons fought back and
Michigan deputy Joseph Wood was stabbed with a pen-knife. Wood recovered, and was the only person injured in the war.
President Andrew Jackson, wanted nothing of armed conflict between states, but was also sensitive to the fact that the Ohio delegation had quickly become a quiet force in Congress, and would be helpful if the Democratic Party was to hold off the Whigs in the next election. He therefore sided with Ohio and refused to allow Michigan entry to the Union until the dispute was settled.
A compromise was proposed in which Ohio would get the disputed strip and Michigan would get the western portion of the Upper Peninsula, previously a part of the Wisconsin Territory. The plan was accepted and it was generally concluded that Ohio had won since the UP was considered a barren wasteland. Large amounts of copper and iron were later discovered there making it quite a consolation prize for Michigan.
The political maneuver didn’t do President Jackson any good, as Ohio, even then considered a swing state, voted for the Whigs in the 1836 Presidential election. The compromise ended armed conflict and prevent open warfare, but it was not until 1973 that the final details of the border between the states were finally set by a decision of the United States Supreme Court. That case, like the war and The Game, is known as Michigan v. Ohio.
Editor’s note: This column first ran in The Gazette in 2006 and is the most frequently requested of Judge Hejmanowski’s columns. It is reprinted here in advance of the big game.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and a graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.