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"An engaging account of the Toledo War of 1835, a serious confrontation whose outcome established the borders of the state of Michigan. Faber expertly narrates the history of a dispute conducted by fascinating characters practicing political shenanigans of the highest order."
---Andrew Cayton, author of Ohio: The History of a People and a general editor of The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia
Most are familiar with the Michigan-Ohio football rivalry, an intense but usually good-natured contest that stretches back over one hundred years. Yet far fewer may know that in the early nineteenth century Michigan and Ohio were locked in a different kind of battle---one that began before Michigan became a state.
The conflict started with a long-simmering dispute over a narrow wedge of land called the Toledo Strip. Early maps were famously imprecise, adding to the uncertainty of the true boundary between the states. When Ohio claimed to the mouth of the Maumee River, land that according to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 fell in the territory of Michigan, the "Toledo War" began.
Today the fight may bring a smile to Michiganians and Ohioans because both states benefited: Ohioans won the war and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula. But back then passions about rightful ownership ran high, and it would take many years---and colorful personalities all the way up to presidents---to settle the dispute. The Toledo War: The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry gives a well-researched and fascinating account of the famous war.
Don Faber is best known as the former editor of the Ann Arbor News. He also served on the staff of the Michigan Constitutional Convention, won a Ford Foundation Fellowship to work in the Michigan Senate, and was a speechwriter for Michigan governor George Romney. Now retired, Faber lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Jeannette, and indulges in his love of Michigan history.
I need not remark to you that this Act of Michigan will be wholly disregarded by Ohio. -Governor Robert Lucas of Ohio to a correspondent
Like lions stalking prey, a posse of thirty armed Michigan men crept forward, shushing each other all the while. They had gathered in Adrian the previous night, before marching fourteen miles south to where they expected an encounter with the enemy. The men were carried part of the way in wagons before the roads gave out, in this part of southern Michigan near the Ohio border. A veteran of the march, Benjamin Baxter of Tecumseh, Michigan, remembered being furnished with U.S. arms and ammunition. His recollection of who supplied the arms was to be the subject of a heated dispute between the governor of Ohio and the secretary of war. In an official report, Baxter's commanding officer said muskets for his men were supplied by the territory of Michigan, an important distinction.
In any event, it was noon on Sunday, April 26, 1835, at a field belonging to a certain Phillips, later known as Phillips Corners, when the men under the command of Lenawee County undersheriff William McNair surprised a party of Ohioans who werelounging about. The Ohioans' duty had been to re-mark the William Harris survey line in a steadily worsening border dispute between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan. A strip of land, five miles wide at the Indiana line and eight miles wide at Toledo on Lake Erie, totaling 468 square miles, was the bone of contention. The Ohio contingent consisted of three survey commissioners appointed by Governor Robert Lucas and some sharpshooters for their protection. The survey party had been followed-harassed, by some accounts-ever since they had begun running the line eastward from Indiana toward the mouth of the Maumee River.
Both sides were on military high alert. A month earlier, on March 27, Governor Lucas ordered part of the Seventeenth Division of the Ohio militia mustered. Across the border, Governor Stevens T. Mason had also placed his Michigan militia in a state of readiness, under the command of Major General Joseph W. Brown. Brown was an apt choice to lead the militia. One of the original founders of the Michigan town of Tecumseh, he now found himself in a position to put his medals on parade, so to speak, right in his own backyard.
The press in both states whipped up war fever. The March 28 issue of the Cleveland Herald reported, "Michigan is marching her troops to the scene of action, to repel any attempt on the part of this state to extend her jurisdiction over the territory in question." On April 22, a rival paper, the Cleveland Whig, trumpeted, "In the boundary dispute between Michigan and this state, the citizens of Michigan have taken men prisoners just as if it were war. Ohio women have been treated with violence. We can destroy this band of ruffians, but the governor wishes us to forbear, and it is probably for the best." Newspapers in Michigan tended to cast the coming conflict as Michigan's David standing up to Ohio's Goliath. On March 6, Governor Mason in Detroit wrote to General Brown, "I enclose to you the report of the adjutant general of Ohio, cautioning me against resisting 'the authorities of the powerful State of Ohio.' I have no use for it here." Mason seemed to be daring his southern neighbor to test the mettle of the great territory of Michigan.
Disagreement over ownership of the Toledo Strip, as this wedge of land was called, dated to the early nineteenth century. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, mandated an east-west line as the boundary between the northern and southern states in the Northwest Territory. That line would begin at the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan and run eastward to where it intersected Lake Erie, thus placing the mouth of the Maumee River in the territory of Michigan.
But maps in those days were not precise, and there was considerable doubt as to the exact location of Lake Michigan's southernmost point. Adding to the uncertainty was the absence of a good survey. When Ohio became a state in 1803, the importance of a harbor on Lake Erie became evident. To provide for this need, the state's constitution included a provision that claimed the mouth of the Maumee River for Ohio, disregarding the boundary line placed by the Northwest Ordinance.
Congress accepted Ohio's constitution, a necessary step to statehood, but did not expressly give consent to the changed boundary. After the War of 1812, a survey run by an Ohio-paid engineer named Harris, angling from the Indiana line to Maumee Bay, put a strip of land ostensibly owned by Michigan in Ohio. Not to be outdone, Michigan employed a survey engineer named Fulton, whose line closely followed the original Northwest Ordinance line. A federal survey by U.S. Army engineers in 1834 also put the disputed territory in Michigan. Although both states claimed the 468-square-mile chunk of territory, matters were quiet until Ohio began underwriting a series of canals that were intended to link up with the Maumee River near where it empties into Lake Erie. In 1827, with no opposition from Ohio, Michigan actually organized the Toledo Strip into tax-collecting, law-enforcing, local government agencies.
In the early 1830s, Michigan began to push for statehood. By now, many people in Ohio, including its political leadership, believed the planned canals would make Toledo, not yet organized as a city, a great maritime center. Until it was assured possession of the Toledo Strip and the mouth of the Maumee, Ohio planned to use its strength in Congress to block Michigan's bid for admission to the Union. George Fuller, in his Michigan Centennial History, writes, "The immediate cause of the war was the announced intention on the part of Ohio to survey and mark the line described in its constitution as the state's northern boundary, that is, a line running on a diagonal from the southern end of Lake Michigan to the northernmost cape of Maumee Bay. The surveyors in marking this line from the Indiana border had to cross Lenawee and Monroe counties in the Territory of Michigan."
At the request of President Andrew Jackson, U.S. attorney general Benjamin F. Butler addressed the jurisdictional dispute and opined that Michigan was in the right. Furthermore, he said, Michigan's Pains and Penalties Act, making it a criminal offense, punishable by a heavy fine or imprisonment, for anyone to attempt to exercise any official functions within the jurisdiction of Michigan under any authority not derived from the territory or from the United States, was a valid law. As early as February 23, 1835, just eleven days after the act was passed, Governor Lucas wrote to a friend, "I need not remark to you that this Act of Michigan will be wholly disregarded by Ohio."
When Butler's ruling came in March, Lucas brushed it aside as inconsequential and ordered a survey crew to run the line when the weather warmed up. Mason bided his time, ordering General Brown to keep an eye on the movements of the interlopers. Scouting reports indicated that the Ohioans were armed, and enforcement of the warrants for their arrest would require a posse of armed men. When the Ohioans arrived within the county of Lenawee, Undersheriff McNair and his posse of thirty men were poised to pounce. The next six months of hostilities, such as they were, would be known as the Toledo War.
But the men on both sides of the line at Phillips Corners that Sunday morning were not thinking about history or the Pains and Penalties Act. A few were nursing hangovers. After a "night of jollification" in Adrian, Benjamin Baxter wrote, "we started out on a Sabbath morning for the invaded territory." Baxter was not even of legal age to join the troops, but like many a young lad ambitious of military glory, he ran away from home and joined McNair's forces. He must have wondered why they had time to party in Adrian, given the seriousness of the situation.
Undersheriff McNair was prepared to serve warrants for alleged violations of the Pains and Penalties Act. His marching orders were to arrest the Ohio survey party or to run them out of the territory, and it was with a sense of heightened anticipation that his men, peering through the trees, spied their quarry taking their ease. McNair stopped to consider what to do next. Ordering his men to stay a distance off, he warily approached the camp of the enemy with an aide.
It was a tense situation for both sides, this first meeting of "statesmen" and "territorialists." McNair inquired as to the whereabouts of the survey commissioners. Told they had left and would return shortly, he decided to wait. But when his men, impatient for activity, arrived on the scene to ask for instructions, the Ohioans suddenly grabbed their rifles. One of the Ohio party, Colonel Hawkins, was immediately arrested, and a few more surrendered on the spot. Nine other riflemen fled and took refuge in a nearby cabin, where they barricaded themselves inside. Surrounded by the Michigan posse, who were spoiling for a fight, the Ohioans were ordered by McNair to give up; they refused. Eventually they came out with their rifles cocked. The Michigan and Ohio men faced each other, about eight rods apart, according to McNair's report, when the Ohioans suddenly bolted for the woods "in double quick time."
Reports of what happened next vary. According to McNair, his men fired a volley over the heads of the fleeing Buckeyes and gave chase. The discharge of thirty or so Springfield muskets echoed and reechoed in the woods. A number of the pursued escaped and, meeting up again with the survey commissioners, made their way through the Black Swamp to Perrysburg, with the added humiliation of tattered clothing and numerous mosquito bites.
Back at Phillips Corners, a handful of Ohio men were taken into custody and jailed at Tecumseh, then the Lenawee County seat. Two of the prisoners were released for lack of evidence; six others posted bail; and one, Colonel J. E. Fletcher, refused bail and opted to remain a prisoner-under orders, he said, from Governor Lucas. Benjamin Baxter later reported, "Our prisoner, Col. Fletcher, remained with us for many months, a genial gentleman not suffering apparently from his incarceration, but sometimes subjecting us to the inconvenience of hunting him up when we had occasion to use the jail for some counterfeiter or horse thief, as he was likely to be found riding with one of the sheriff's lovely daughters, having taken the jail keys with him." In the Battle of Phillips Corners, the first real skirmish of the Toledo War, no one was injured. A claim by the Ohioans that a Michigan musket ball had "passed through the clothing" of a member of their party was dismissed as a joke. McNair humorously reported to Governor Mason that "the commissioners made good time through the swamp" and arrived at Perrysburg that next morning "with nothing more serious than the loss of their coats."
The events of Phillips Corners were not so amusing to Ohio. The re-marking of the state's northern boundary was stopped dead in its tracks. The upstart territory had given the established state a comeuppance. Governor Lucas had lost face with his people. The three Ohio survey commissioners who eluded capture at Phillips Corners wrote to Lucas that they deemed it "prudent" to suspend their activities until such time as they could adequately be protected. Unbeknownst to them, on April 15, Lucas had ordered Major General John Bell to muster 500 men as a protection squad for the surveyors, but Bell was only able to raise 292 men.
The commissioners appointed by Governor Lucas and charged with re-marking the Harris line were Jonathan Taylor of Licking County, Uri Seely of Geauga County and John Patterson of Adams County. In a letter to Lucas from Perrysburg, Ohio, dated May 1, the trio gave a report of what happened at Phillips Corners. They clearly tried to put the best face on an embarrassing situation. Thus they wrote, "During our progress [of marking the line], we had been constantly threatened by the authorities of Michigan; and spies from the Territory ... were almost daily among us." On Saturday, April 25, the commissioners and their party "retired to the distance of about one mile south of the line, in Henry County, within the state of Ohio, where we thought to have rested quietly, and peaceably enjoy the blessings of the Sabbath."
In their report, Taylor, Patterson, and Seely doubled the size of McNair's invading force: "An armed force of about fifty or sixty men hove in sight within musket shot of us, all mounted upon horses, well armed with muskets, and under the command of General Brown of Michigan. Your commissioners ... thought it prudent to retire and so advised our men." They were, in fact, outnumbered. The commissioners said they had only five armed men as lookouts among them; other reports had nine or ten armed men. The Ohio version has the retreating Buckeyes being "fired upon" by the enemy. In any event, no one was wounded. On that, both sides agree.
Interestingly, the commissioners, who were not even at the camp when McNair's men arrived, nonetheless counted "thirty to fifty shots" fired at them and noted, "Our party did not fire a gun in turn." They reported to Lucas, "Your commissioners, with several of their party, made good their retreat to this place. But sir, we are under the painful necessity of relating that nine of our men, who did not leave the ground in time, were taken prisoners, and carried away into the interior of the country." The nine named are "Cols. Hawkins, Scott and Gould, Major Rice, Capt. Biggerstaf and Messrs. Ellsworth, Fletcher, Moale and Rickets." If there was any question about Michigan retaining jurisdiction of the disputed land, all doubts now were removed. In fact, after the Battle of Phillips Corners and throughout the summer of 1835, Michigan continued to vigorously enforce the Pains and Penalties Act by serving process on alleged violators.
For now, it was enough that the routed Ohio forces arrived at Perrysburg in disarray and with their clothing torn, there to relate to Governor Lucas how they bravely escaped the attack of General Brown and how their missing comrades were taken prisoners. Lucas reported to President Andrew Jackson in Washington, who sent a copy to Governor Mason, requesting a statement of facts from the officers engaged in the melee. McNair's report said the proceedings were civil in character and not a military expedition.
While the politicians deliberated on what to do next, the people of Michigan rejoiced at the news from Phillips Corners. In a headline story of May 9, 1835, the Detroit Free Press blared, "The First Blow Struck!" The story gleefully related how Charles Hewitt, a magistrate of Michigan, had issued warrants for the apprehension of the survey party "and other persons engaged in violating the laws of the territory." Continuing its fanfare, the Free Press reported, "The warrants were given to the sheriff of Lenawee, who summoned a posse of 30 or 40 respectable persons of that county. On arriving near the house of Phillips, seven miles within the Michigan line, they found nine or ten armed men, ascertained to be a portion of the Ohio party and demanded their surrender, which the latter refused to do." The newspaper account has McNair's men, undaunted, "pressing hard upon their Ohio neighbors and, in obedience to orders, firing over their heads-a maneuver which instantly caused them to take to their heels." The account reports, "They were, however, chased by the Michiganians, and captured."
Not surprisingly, the Columbus Hemisphere saw things in a different light. As reprinted in the National Intelligencer of May 12, 1835, the Hemisphere's story told of how General Brown "made an attack upon the commissioners and their party who were stopped during the Sabbath with some private families." The report continued, "Brown and some 80 armed men made captive nine of our Ohio corps. Governor Lucas postpones further active measures for 2-3 days. General Andy Jackson [President Jackson] will veto the proceedings of the Hotspur of Michigan." The Hotspur mentioned in the report is Stevens T. Mason, who, in his supposed youthful impetuousness, recalled Shakespeare's character known by that name.
As for the foot soldier veteran Benjamin Baxter, the whole experience at Phillips Corners was a bit of a lark. Some of the men, he says, had not yet arrived at the enemy camp but were "rapidly approaching the forest." Confused by the sound of musket fire reverberating through the tall trees, Baxter stopped for a minute "to consider," he said, "how I could best find out which side I was on." He then "started for the battlefield very excited and nearly on the run." Baxter recalled that about twelve of the invaders were taken and as many got away, "running some 15 or 20 miles to Maumee, where they arrived in the night, very peculiarly and lightly clad, it is said, by reason of the prickly ash and blackberry bushes through which lay their line of retreat." Many years later, Baxter would describe "thrilling events and hairsbreadth escapes" of the Toledo War.
Excerpted from THE TOLEDO WAR by DON FABER Copyright © 2008 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1 The Battle of Phillips Corners 1
Chapter 2 Roots of the Dispute I: The Northwest Ordinance 12
Chapter 3 Roots of the Dispute II: Ohio Statehood 25
Chapter 4 Prelude to War, 1815-30 29
Chapter 5 Path to Statehood 41
Chapter 6 A War of Words Opens the Curtain 53
Chapter 7 Acts of Provocation 66
Chapter 8 Events of April-June 1835 83
Chapter 9 Bloodshed in Toledo 98
Chapter 10 The Case for Ohio 106
Chapter 11 The Case for Michigan 116
Chapter 12 Governor Mason Is Fired 123
Chapter 13 Statehood in the Balance 131
Chapter 14 Bloodless Victory at Toledo: Lucas Trumps Mason 156
Chapter 15 War's End 174
Time Line for the Toledo War and Michigan Statehood 193
Posted August 19, 2009
In 1835, two militias mustered on opposite sides of the Maumee River. Secretary of War Lewis Cass warned that they were on the brink of a civil war. It was all because the State of Ohio and the Territory of Michigan each laid claim to a strip of land that included what would become Toledo.
The Toledo War, by Don Faber, tells the story of that contentious time. It was mostly a war of words between Ohio Governor Robert Lucas and Michigan's Stevens T. Mason played out in letters and in the newspapers. President Andrew Jackson pretty much sat on the sidelines, worried about the possible fallout from politically strong Ohio. A few shots were fired, but nobody was hurt. In the end, skullduggery on both sides of the Toledo Strip won the day.
Faber does an excellent job writing the story. This is the best book written on the subject in over 100 years. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in American history.
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