· · · MICHIGAN, OHIO · · ·


The Toledo War

Never in the course of my life have I known a controversy of which all the right was so clearly on one side, and all the power so overwhelmingly on the other.


Michigan officially became a state on January 26, 1837, yet its state seal bears the date 1835. The discrepancy represents the period during which Stevens T. Mason led the self-declared state in what has come to be called the Toledo War.

The seed of this dispute was inadvertently planted by Congress in 1787, when it stipulated how the Northwest Territory would eventually be divided into states. Among those boundaries was one that divided “the said [Northwest] territory which lies north of an east-and-west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.” Unfortunately, Congress was using an inaccurate map.2 If an accurate map had been available, the stipulated line would have put Toledo in Michigan, had Toledo existed in 1787. As American commerce on the Great Lakes swiftly increased, however, Toledo not only came into existence, it brought Ohio and Michigan to the brink of war.

In 1802 a hunter told delegates to Ohio’s statehood convention that he believed Lake Michigan extended considerably farther south, so much so that Toledo, whose first white settlers had arrived eight years earlier, might be in the territory to be created north of Ohio.3 Since no one knew for sure the latitude at which Lake Michigan ended, or the latitude at which the Maumee River (known then as the Miami River) emptied into Lake Erie, the delegates defined Ohio’s northern border slightly differently than in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. They stipulated it as being “a direct line running from the southern extremity of Lake Michigan to the most northerly cape of the Miami Bay.” Congress was aware of this alteration in wording, as was President Thomas Jefferson, who had authored the report that led to the boundaries specified in the Northwest Ordinance. Given the uncertainties, however, a report jointly issued by his administration and Congress concluded that it was “unnecessary to take it at this time into consideration.”4

Stevens T. Mason (1811-1843) (photo credit 20.1)

Toledo, Ohio, or Toledo, Michigan?

Meanwhile, Americans were beginning to migrate to the region above Ohio in larger numbers, and in 1805 Congress created the territory of Michigan. Yet twelve more years were to pass before Michigan challenged Ohio’s boundary adjustment. Why so long? Possibly because of another event that took place in 1817, the year their boundary dispute commenced. Construction began that year on the Erie Canal.

Toledo, at the western end of Lake Erie, was now of such importance that Michigan’s territorial governor, Lewis Cass, wrote to the surveyor general, “Report says that the line which has been recently run, purporting to be the line between the State of Ohio and this Territory, was not run [along] a due east course from the southern extremity of Lake Michigan to Lake Erie, but a course somewhat to the north of this, although how much I am unable to ascertain.” Cass went on to cite the boundary mandated by the Northwest Ordinance, then said of the altered boundary in Ohio’s constitution, “This proposition has never been acceded to by Congress … [and] no agreement, even by that body, without our consent, could alter these lines.”5

The fact remained, however, that Congress had approved the constitution of Ohio with the boundaries it had stipulated.6 But also a fact was that the Northwest Ordinance mandated that the “following articles shall be considered as articles of compact between the original states and the people, and states in the said territory, and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent.” Cass’s letter resulted in a second survey of the Michigan-Ohio boundary. The first survey, to which he’d referred in his letter, came to be known as the Harris Line. It followed the boundary stipulated in the constitution of Ohio. The second survey, which came to known as the Fulton Line, conformed to the boundary stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance. Both surveys were then presented to Congress. It did nothing.

For nearly twenty years the issue remained an open wound before an infection entered, in the form of a second canal. “It will doubtless be gratifying to your readers,” a correspondent for Washington, DC’s National Intelligencer wrote, “to learn that another navigable communication between the Ohio River and the Northern Lakes has been commenced, and is now in progress of actual construction. This canal … extends from the head of steamboat navigation on the Wabash River to the Maumee Bay.”

Conflicting federal survey lines

The Wabash and Erie Canal would connect the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico via the Maumee, Wabash, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Its entry point on the Great Lakes was Toledo. During the commencement of its construction in the early 1830s, Michigan’s population reached the point at which it could seek to become a state—a fact whose significance was not lost on Ohio. “This subject is particularly interesting at this time,” Ohio’s Scioto Gazette reported, “from the obvious necessity to Ohio that Maumee Bay, which will be the future termination of the Wabash and Erie Canal, should be included in the limits of this state.”

Since Congress had never responded to the two conflicting surveys, Ohio’s legislature upped its claim over the disputed region by enacting legislation in early 1835 (the year engraved in Michigan’s crest) that created counties within the region. Six weeks later, Michigan’s territorial legislature enacted the Pains and Penalties Act, making it a criminal offense for anyone other than officers of the Michigan Territory or the United States to exercise official functions in the disputed region.

The fight was on: Stevens Thomson Mason, Michigan’s twenty-three-year-old territorial governor, versus Ohio’s Governor Robert Lucas.

Mason came from a distinguished Virginia family. He was the great-grandson of Thomson Mason, who had been chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court and whose brother, George Mason, was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (the direct inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights). He had arrived in Michigan in 1830 after President Andrew Jackson appointed his father, John Mason, as secretary of the territory. John Mason resigned after a year to pursue a purported business venture in Mexico. The venture may in fact have been a secret mission for President Jackson, as it closely followed a meeting with Jackson (at which the younger Mason was present) and as Jackson then appointed Mason’s then nineteen-year-old son to take his place.7

Whether or not the appointment was a political quid pro quo, the people of Michigan were not pleased. A citizens’ committee passed a resolution stating that the “great responsibility and trust … conferred on Stevens Thomson Mason, a minor, is … derogatory to the freemen over whom he is thus attempted to be placed, and that we hold it to be our duty to take prompt measures with a view to his removal from office.”8 Jackson’s appointment particularly galled the residents of Michigan because it coincided with Governor Cass’s departure to become secretary of war and, as his replacement was yet to arrive, the teenage Mason would be in charge.

What the people of Michigan didn’t know, but soon learned, was that young Mason was an extraordinarily talented individual. Public opinion changed as Mason deftly navigated the territory through difficulties involving the Black Hawk War during the absence of the new governor, George B. Porter. When Porter died in 1834, Mason became acting governor, now with considerable support as he led Michigan in its bid for statehood.

In 1835 Ohio Governor Lucas issued a directive to commence surveying in the newly created counties. In response, Michigan Governor Mason issued a directive, too. “The [Pains and Penalties Act] must be rigidly enforced,” he directed the commander of Michigan’s militia. “You are authorized to call to your aid, in the event that the posse comitatus of the sheriff should be insufficient, any assistance that may be required to resist the strength the military authorities of Ohio may bring against you.”

President Jackson sought to dissipate the tension by submitting Michigan’s Pains and Penalties Act to his attorney general for an opinion regarding the jurisdictional issues. Jackson’s neutrality was suspect; the 1836 presidential election was just around the corner, and Jackson’s favorite, Martin Van Buren, would need Ohio’s electoral votes. Michigan, having no electoral votes, viewed Jackson’s gesture as a clearly political gambit. But Michigan modified that view when Attorney General Benjamin Butler reported back that “the act of the legislature of Ohio extending the jurisdiction of that state over the Territory of Michigan is … repugnant to the act of Congress.”9 Butler commented that Congress had the authority to determine the line, but that until it did so, “it will be the duty of the president to consider [the 1787 line] as the boundary of the Territory of Michigan.”

The effect of the attorney general’s opinion was to give Michigan the ammunition it needed to load—literally—the muskets of its militia. Three weeks later, Ohio’s legislature, at the behest of Governor Lucas, appropriated $300,000 to equip and dispatch 500 troops to the disputed region.

President Jackson quickly dispatched two mediators to meet with the governors in April 1835, one of whom was the nation’s preeminent diplomat, Richard Rush. The Ohio State Journal reported:

Our last week’s paper gave the gratifying intelligence, received at the hour of going to press, that all fears of disturbance in the disputed territory were for the present removed … [due to] the advice or instructions of the Commissioners, Messrs. Rush and [Benjamin C.] Howard.… But the scene has changed. On Wednesday night, at a late hour between twelve and three o’clock, a [Michigan] posse … came to Toledo … prowling about the streets and taking some of the citizens.… A number of the Toledians [sic] have been indicted for accepting office under Ohio law.

At this time Michigan began its self-declared statehood convention, amid continuing violence that included the stabbing death of a deputy sheriff.10 The rhetoric of both governors reflected, if not abetted, the rage in the region. Ohio Governor Lucas declared to his legislature:

Some [residents of Toledo] have been driven from their houses in dread and terror, while others are menaced by the authorities of Michigan.… And for what? Is it for crime? No, but for faithfully discharging [one’s] duty as a good citizen of Ohio.… The authorities of Michigan countenanced prosecutions against the citizens of Ohio … with a degree of reckless vengeance scarcely paralleled in the history of civilized nations.

Governor Mason, for his part, declaimed:

Outrages of a most unjustifiable and unparalleled character have been committed by a number of persons at Toledo upon officers of the [Michigan] Territory.… A regular organization exists among these individuals for the purpose of resisting the execution of the laws of Michigan. If [Ohio] … is permitted to dragoon us into a partial surrender of our jurisdiction … the territorial government is at once annihilated. Criminals committing the highest offences are left at large.… All law is at an end.

Once again, President Jackson sought to defuse the situation. Twelve days after Mason’s remarks, Jackson, abandoning any pretense of neutrality, fired him. In his place, Jackson dispatched John S. Horner. Like Mason, Horner came from Virginia and had never held political office. Once again, the people of Michigan were not pleased. The Detroit Free Press wrote in October 1836:

We have no hesitation in pronouncing what is almost the undivided sense of this community, that Mr. John S. Horner is utterly unqualified and unfit for the station in which he has been placed. We trust, however, that the forbearance of the people of Michigan will continue to be exercised for the few remaining days of their territorial existence. On the first Monday in next month, they become a state; they will then have their own executive, legislature, and other public officers. They will then take care of their own rights and interests, protect their territorial possessions, punish the transgressors of their laws and repel invasion.

Indeed, on the first Monday of the next month (November 2, 1835), voters in Michigan elected Stevens T. Mason governor of the state of Michigan—a state not recognized as such by the United States. Territorial Governor Horner and the new state government treated each other equally: he didn’t recognize them, and they didn’t recognize him.

Congress, at this point, finally took action. It approved statehood for Michigan with one big if: “Be it enacted that the constitution and State Government which the people of Michigan have formed for themselves be … accepted, ratified, and … declared to be one of the United States,” the legislation stated, “provided always—and this admission is upon the express condition—that the said State shall consist of … the following boundaries.” The boundaries that followed conformed to Ohio’s stipulated border—but they also included a peninsula extending eastward from what would later become Wisconsin. Michigan could take the deal, or hold out and remain a territory. If it held out, however, its boundary claim would now have an added hurdle: an act of Congress.

For Ohio, the issue was finished. Governor Lucas closed the book on the conflict, telling his legislature:

It is with peculiar pleasure that I announce to you the irrevocable establishment of the northern boundary line of Ohio, in accordance with what we have ever considered our incontrovertible right.… The assent of Congress has … removed all grounds for contention, and put a final quietus to the clamorous pretensions of the authorities of Michigan.

In Michigan, Governor Mason said to his legislature:

No one can feel more deeply than myself the humiliation of the sacrifice we are called upon to make.… Were I to consult the first impulse prompted by the feeling which every citizen of Michigan must acknowledge, I might be led into a determination to resist the legislation of Congress. But as a public officer called upon to discard excited feelings … I should violate my duty did I recommend to my fellow citizens to embark in a controversy offering so little hope of gain.

Accordingly, in September 1836, Michigan reconvened its constitutional convention. But the delegates rejected the offer from Congress. The “state” of Michigan seemed headed for a state of limbo. It didn’t take long, however, for a sufficient number of Michigan’s residents to recognize that they had painted themselves into a corner. In December a new constitutional convention accepted the terms demanded by Congress. Six weeks after that, Michigan entered the union.

As passions subsided, so too did the esteem in which Stevens T. Mason had been held. The legislature had voted to raise funds for roads and canals through the sale of bonds, for which Mason had entered into agreements with brokers just as the Panic of 1837 sent the nation into an economic depression. Funds had been committed based on the bonds, but with the sale of the bonds stalled by the depression, Governor Mason was held aloft as Michigan’s leading scapegoat in the 1840 election and was not reelected.11

Months later, Mason moved with his wife to her hometown, New York City, where he practiced law. His career was cut short when he died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-one. But Stevens T. Mason was not to be forgotten. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the people of Michigan dusted off his reputation. His speech to the legislature when Michigan faced its ultimatum from Congress now conveyed its full meaning:

To preserve unstained the institutions of our country is one of the first duties of every citizen. Will we hazard these stakes now, or will we present to the world an example of compromise of opinion and feeling, dictated by a spirit of patriotic forbearance, even when injustice demands it? The federal government was the great work of a spirit of compromise, and it is only by the exercise of the same spirit by the states that it is to be perpetuated.

In 1905 Mason’s remains were moved to Capitol Park in Detroit, where a statue was erected of Michigan’s first elected governor.

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