A long-running border dispute between Michigan and Ohio was eventually settled through a clandestine operation. At 1 A.M. on 7 September 1835, Colonel Mathias Van Fleet chose thirty of his best Ohio militiamen, each armed with a musket and two pistols.
They rode into Toledo with members of the Lucas County Court to enforce the orders of Governor Robert Lucas. By candlelight and with guards standing watch, the court conducted its business in secret session.
This covert meeting of Ohio officials exercising jurisdiction within the disputed Toledo Strip virtually settled the boundary controversy that had raged for years with numerous skirmishes threatening confrontation between the militias of the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan.
The issue that led to hostilities over the Ohio–Michigan boundary resulted from an inaccurate survey and conflicting language in four documents. As Michigan moved closer to statehood, the precise boundary became increasingly important.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for the admission of three states, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and specified that “if Congress shall find it expedient, they shall have the authority to form one or two [additional] states in that part of the said [Northwest] Territory, which lies north of an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan” (1 Stat. 51).
The Ohio Enabling Act of 30 April 1802, as passed by Congress and signed by the president, set the northern boundary of Ohio as: “an east and west line drawn through the southerly extreme of Lake Michigan, running east after intersecting the due north line from the mouth of the Great Miami River, until it shall intersect Lake Erie, or the territorial line, and thence with the same through Lake Erie to the Pennsylvania line” (2 Stat. 173).
On the advice of an old fur trapper who was familiar with the remote area in question, the Ohio Constitutional Convention added section 6 to Article VII of its new constitution, proclaiming:
That if the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan should extend so far south, that a line drawn due east from it should not intersect Lake Erie, or if it should intersect said Lake east of the mouth of the Miami river of the Lake, then and in that case, with the assent of the Congress of the United States, the northern boundary of the State shall be established by, and extend to, a direct line running from the southerly extremity of Lake Michigan to the most northerly cape of the Miami Bay, Maumee, after intersecting the due north line from the mouth of the Great Miami river as aforesaid, thence, northeast to the Territorial line and by the said Territorial line to the line of Pennsylvania. (2 Stat. 201)When Congress admitted Ohio to statehood, it accepted the Ohio Constitution with the addition of section 6, but it did not expressly approve the added section.
Louis Joliet’s eighteenth-century map of the Great Lakes created the error. John Mitchell, a Virginia botanist, physician, and fellow of the Royal Society, accepted Joliet’s plot when he mapped western America for the British Lords of Trade. His drawing became the authority for the Proclamation Line of 1763 and the Peace Treaty of 1782. Thomas Hutchins, geographer-general of the United States, endorsed it.
The error in the maps arose from the mistaken belief that a line of latitude drawn eastward from the southern tip of Lake Michigan would strike Lake Erie somewhere north of Maumee Bay. Lake Michigan actually extends so far that a line of latitude drawn eastward from its southern extremity strikes Lake Erie southeast, not north, of Maumee Bay.
In 1807, 1809, and 1811 the Ohio legislature instructed the state’s congressional delegation to have the national government fix its boundary line. On 20 May 1812, Congress directed the surveyor-general to mark the boundary on a due east-west line, but the War of 1812 prevented immediate action.
After the war, on 22 August 1816, Deputy Surveyor William Harris discovered that a line due east from the most southern point of Lake Michigan intersected Lake Erie seven miles south of the most northerly cape of Maumee Bay.
Harris plotted a line directly from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the northern cape of Maumee Bay in conformity with section 6 of the Ohio Constitution, not in accordance with the state’s enabling act.
The next year Governor Lewis Cass of the Michigan Territory protested that the line took a strip of land, including the city of Toledo, “seven miles and forty-nine chains” wide from Michigan and gave it to Ohio. On 24 June 1818, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford agreed with Cass and directed the commissioner of the Land Office to have the northern boundary of Ohio redrawn to agree with the order of 1812.
The controversy continued for years. Then, as progress halted in Congress, a newly appointed acting governor of the Territory, twenty-seven-year-old, Virginia-born Stevens T. Mason, sent a letter to Ohio governor Lucas, stating that his legislature had passed a law on 26 December 1834 opposing any measures to rob Michigan of its soil.
He said he had appointed three commissioners to meet with a like number from Ohio to adjust the boundary. On 6 February 1835, Governor Lucas informed his legislature of Mason’s proposal. He said he did not wish to appoint any commissioners and requested the legislature to declare Ohio authority all the way to the Harris line and to direct local officials to exercise jurisdiction over the Toledo Strip.
Michigan responded with a statute of 12 February 1835 “to prevent foreign jurisdiction” within the limits of its territory, providing penalties of $1,000 fine or five years’ hard labor or both for persons other than Michigan officials exercising authority in the area.
The confrontation grew. Both sides anticipated armed conflict. On 9 March, Governor Mason wrote to General Joseph W. Brown, commander of the Michigan Militia Third Division:
[Y]ou will perceive that a collision between Ohio and Michigan is now inevitable, and you will therefore be prepared to meet the crisis .... You will use every exertion to obtain the earliest information of the military movements of our adversary, as I shall assume the responsibility of sending you such arms, etc., as may be necessary for your successful operation, without waiting for an order from the Secretary of War, so soon as Ohio is properly in the field. (Killits, 140)Governor Lucas with members of his staff and General John Bell, commanding the 17th Division of the Ohio Militia, marched into Perrysburg in the disputed territory with surveyors to begin marking the Harris line on 31 March.
Michigan conducted three raids. Between midnight and 3 A.M. on the morning of 8 April, the sheriff of Monroe County and his posse rode into Toledo, broke into two homes, and seized a couple of people.
Three days later they returned, pulled down Ohio’s flag, dragged it through the streets, threatened some of the residents, and indicted several persons for holding Ohio office. Another assault of nearly 200 posse men failed to take any prisoners since most officers had fled.
As the armies prepared to engage, the president appointed two commissioners, Richard Rush of Pennsylvania and Colonel Benjamin C. Howard of Maryland, who arrived in Perrysburg on 6 April.
They conferred with the governors, examined a few witnesses, ordered running the Harris line, and recommended to the residents of the area that they should choose which authority to obey. But on 25 April a Michigan force of over fifty men captured nine members of the survey party after firing about forty shots, one piercing the clothes of a surveyor.
Hostilities continued. On 15 July the deputy sheriff of Monroe County, Michigan, rode into Toledo and made 150 arrests. When the deputy tried to arrest Two Stickney, the man drew his knife and inflicted a 4-inch slash to the hand of the Michigan officer. Later that day Michigan forces returned, broke into the local newspaper, demolished its press, and arrested Stickney and six or seven others.
On 6 September Governor Mason invaded Toledo with an armed militia of 1,200. They threatened to burn the town, shot a horse, again damaged the newspaper office, and set fire to a cornfield. Even after the secret 7 September meeting a few skirmishes continued. For example, on 9 September a Michigan sheriff captured an Ohio sheriff in a 100-shot battle in which one man was wounded.
President Jackson removed Mason from office and appointed a new territorial governor to create harmony. Then, in October the people of Michigan petitioned Congress for statehood, adopted a constitution, and elected Mason their first governor. On 2 March 1836, the House Judiciary Committee reported a bill to admit Michigan to the Union, minus the 500-square-mile Toledo Strip but with the 20,000-square-mile Upper Peninsula.
The bill became enmeshed in the slavery controversy, so that Michigan, a free state, was eventually paired with Arkansas, a slave state. Finally, on 7 January 1837, Toledo held a gala celebration as part of Ohio, and Michigan was admitted to statehood on 26 January 1837.