COLUMBUS, Ohio -Decades before Ohio State and Michigan were heated rivals on the football field, the two states shared a mutual dislike that once led to a violent encounter over their border. The tension almost led to a Civil War—The Toledo War, to be exact.
History enthusiasts who embrace the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry are well aware of “The Ten-Year War,” a series of hotly contested games between the Buckeyes and Wolverines that pitted coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler against one another at a time when a Big Ten championship, Rose Bowl trip and sometimes a national title were on the line.
That period stretched from 1969 to 1978 and is one of most significant chapters in the heated rivalry that debuted in 1897.
Long before Hayes and Schembechler were synonymous with The Ten-Year War, two men played a pivotal role in The Toledo War.
Michigan was guided by Stevens T. Mason, who was nicknamed “The Boy Governor” because he was elected governor at the age of 24, the youngest chief executive in any state's history.
Ohio was led by Gov. Robert Lucas.
In 1787, Congress drafted the Northwest Ordinance, which determined that 260,000 square miles of land would be carved into a group of new states.
The law defined the border between Ohio and Michigan as “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan” until it connected with Lake Erie. At the time, what were deemed the most accurate maps showed Lake Michigan’s southern tip as several miles north of its actual location. This placed the original border at the mouth of the Maumee River and the future city of Toledo instead of in southern Michigan.
When Ohio became a state in 1803, its constitution included a measure that it owned the land around the Maumee regardless of what future surveys might illustrate.
When the Michigan Territory was formed a few years later, their officials challenged Ohio’s constitution and argued that newer maps proved the region was theirs.
In 1801, two land surveys produced conflicting results. This created a 468-square-mile stretch of land called the “Toledo Strip” that was claimed by the state of Ohio and the Michigan Territory.
Ownership of the Maumee River and what would become Toledo was beneficial. The Erie Canal, which linked the Great Lakes to the east coast, was completed in 1825 and presented valuable trade opportunities.
Toledo was a growing village and the largest port on Lake Erie’s western side, and it was poised to emerge as a bustling commercial hub.
Representative of the Michigan Territory settled the area, built roads, held elections and collected taxes. In the early 1830s, to force the surrender of the Toledo Strip, an Ohio congressman helped block Michigan’s petition for statehood.
This is when Mason and Lucas entered the conflict.
Mason was elected governor in 1835, even though Michigan was not admitted as a state until Jan. 26, 1837. Upon election, Mason asserted his authority over the Toledo Strip.
“We are the weaker party, it is true, but we are on the side of justice,” he said. “We cannot fail to maintain our rights against the encroachments of a powerful neighboring state.”
In February 1835, Mason spearheaded the “Pains and Penalties Act,” which administered steep fines and harsh jail sentences to any Ohio official who attempted to show jurisdiction over the territory.
Lucas and the Ohio legislature passed a resolution that extended county borders into the Toledo Strip. Lucas created a new county and named it after himself. Lucas and Ohio lawmakers also hired a team of surveyors to re-mark the border line. Tensions continued to escalate, and Ohio and Michigan organized militias to guard the disputed land.
The federal government ordered Ohio and Michigan officials to cease action until a proper survey was conducted. That mandate was ignored. Michigan authorities went to work enforcing their Pains and Penalties Act.
A posse directed by a Michigan sheriff rode into Toledo on April 9, 1835, and arrested several Ohio state officials who were meeting at a tavern. According to newspaper reports, an Ohio flag was torn down, dragged through the streets and burned.
A few weeks later, Michigan militia members intercepted the Ohio border survey group in what became known as the Battle of Phillips Corners. The militia fired warning shots over the surveyors’ heads and arrested nine people.
Nobody was injured or killed in that battle, but blood was eventually shed in the Toledo War. One of Toledo’s early pioneers, Benjamin Stickney had two sons aptly named “One” and “Two.”
That July, Michigan sheriff Joseph Wood led a posse to a tavern, where he planned to arrest Two Stickney. A scuffle broke out, and what happened next depends on whether you believe the Ohio account or the Michigan version.
Stickney stabbed the sheriff. That is not debated. According to the Michigan account, Stickney cut Wood and left the sheriff near death with a ghastly wound. Ohio reports claim that Stickney pulled out a tiny knife used to sharpen a quill pen and stuck Wood in the side.
By that fall, it appeared that a civil war would erupt. Lucas announced a plan to conduct a court hearing in Toledo to establish Ohio’s rights to the land. Mason assembled 1,200 militia members and marched to the Toledo Strip. They arrived on Sept. 7 prepared to prevent the session from happening, but Ohio officials had already completed a midnight hearing and departed to avoid bloodshed.
By this point, President Andrew Jackson was anxious to reach a settlement on the dispute. He removed Mason as governor of the Michigan Territory for refusing to cooperate with the federal government's representatives. Jackson wanted Michigan established as a state because he believed its residents would vote Democrat. Jackson also wanted the support of Ohioans. He offered a compromise. Michigan would become a state if they would surrender the disputed land. As a bonus, Michigan would receive what is today the state’s Upper Peninsula.
Many Michiganders considered the trade-off a bad deal. The Detroit Free Press called the Upper Peninsula a barren wasteland of perpetual snows, but public opinion eventually shifted when it was learned that the region contained valuable deposits of copper and iron ore.
Michigan officials agreed, and they conceded the Toledo Strip to Ohio. Michigan became the country’s 26th state on Jan. 26, 1837.
The specific location of the border remained the subject of debate until 1915. A new government survey was completed, and the states’ governors celebrated by shaking hands across the border at a Lake Erie peninsula.
A new type of rivalry between the two states arrived when Ohio State and Michigan first clashed on the gridiron in 1897. They played annually and uninterrupted from 1918 to last year, when the game was cancelled after the Wolverines reportedly experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in the midst of an eight-game losing skid in “The Game” and a year after a 56-27 Ohio State victory.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer placed a “friendly wager” on Saturday’s 117th meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
If Michigan prevails, DeWine will send Whitmer ice cream from Graeter's and cream puffs from Schmidt’s, both in Columbus; chocolate-covered pretzels from Malley’s in Cleveland; and buckeye candies from Marsha’s Homemade Buckeyes in Perrysburg.
If Ohio State extends its winning streak to nine, Whitmer will ship DeWine a package of Michigan-made, cherry-themed treats from Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor.
Hostilities between the two states’ governors have undoubtedly calmed since the days of Lucas and Mason, but tensions remain between the coaches. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh told reporters that the Wolverines would beat Ohio State or die trying, to which Ohio State’s Ryan Day responded, “Rest in peace.”