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Surveying the Toledo War

During the development of Michigan, there was a controversy over the border between Ohio, which was already a state, and Michigan. Conflicting surveys, confusion in congress, and political gains caused this border to be changed to above the mouth of the Maumee River, and the Toledo Strip. This is known as the Toledo War and these two states fought over this boundary for centuries.

Reasons for Disputes

During a period of American history when Americans expanded to all parts of the United States, “The Old Northwest” experienced a great increase in population. In preparation for this expansion, Congress established the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This document provided a method for admitting new states into the Union. Ohio used this to gain statehood, followed by the creation of the Indiana and Michigan territories. The horizontal border between Michigan and Indiana and Ohio was “a line drawn East from the southern end of Lake Michigan to Lake Erie,” (Farmer, 1826).

After the recent success of the Erie Canal, Ohio thought the Maumee had a lot of potential because of the idea that canals could connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. If this happened, the Atlantic Ocean would connect to the Great Lakes, then the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, then the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This would create a water transportation cycle that would connect Western North America with ease and convenience. Also, Toledo was rich in natural resources. This would prove to be extremely valuable after Toledo was industrialized, and these resources, like natural gas, provided what was needed to become the manufacturing force they are today. Toledo got its name, “The Glass City,” through their performance in glass manufacturing and the auto industry, later. Lastly, the land itself was valuable due to its arability. Thus, the mouth of the Maumee held great value.

Original Surveys

Mitchell’s map of eastern North America in 1779 (from the LIbrary of Congress).

John Mitchell was the trailblazer for The Old Northwest. Mitchell’s project was to map out the eastern half of The New World. In 1779, he produced the map shown. This map was the first of its kind for The Old Northwest, so naturally many people used this as a reference. As it was reproduced, its reputation increased. Many surveyors also used this map for themselves, as “Mitchell’s map was most widely pirated and may be said to have produced a brood of bastard maps which helped to impress and perpetuate the cartographic errors, as well as excellences, of their progenitor,” (Board of Geological and Biological Survey, 1916).

However, the problem with this was that there was a slight error in Mitchell’s map. The Great Lakes’ relative position was unknown to many people, so it was estimated at the time. This can be seen clearly in Mitchell’s map, as Michigan looks distorted. Again, Mitchell’s map was greatly known, so this error spread throughout America in the late 18th century.

This was also the map that the Northwest Ordinance was set to. When Congress set these bounds in 1787, they used Mitchell’s map as a reference. So, when Congress set the boundaries, the west to east horizontal line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan did intersect Lake Erie above the mouth of the Maumee River. However, later, after Mitchell’s map was adjusted, Congress did not want the original definition of the boundary to change too because that was their original intentions.

Michigan’s Statehood Application

Wayne County was the county in the Michigan Territory that was affected most by the Toledo Strip dispute because of the way the border was defined by the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

“Beginning at the mouth of the Miami River of the Lakes, and running thence up to the middle thereof, to the mouth of the great Auglaize River; thence running due north, until it intersects a parallel of latitude to be drawn from the outlet of Lake Huron, which forms the river St. Clair; thence running northeast, the course that me by found will lead in a direct line to White Rock in Lake Huron; thence due east until it intersects the boundary line between the United States and Upper Canada, in said lake; thence southwardly following the same boundary line down said lake, through the river St. Clair; Lake St. Clair, and the river Detroit into Lake Erie, to a point due east of the aforesaid Miami River; thence west to the place of the beginning.” (Board of Geological and Biological Survey, 1916).

The treaty allowed the border of Wayne County to fall below the mouth of the Maumee River. This was brought to the attention of Congress during the induction of Ohio to the Union. However, Congress ignored this and did not specify the boundary one way or the other, which created confusion and conflict for years to come.

Map of Michigan Territory Boundaries and county Lines in 1836 (from the Library of Congress).

As the conflict between Ohio and the territory of Michigan began to escalate, Congress sent out a surveyor in 1812. However, due to the war of 1812, the survey was delayed. So, Ohio sent out their own surveyor in 1817. William Harris was instructed to find a border “according to the Ohio Constitution,” meaning a border that favored Ohio. Michigan immediately protested and Congress followed this survey with John Fulton, who was the original surveyor that was sent out in 1812. Fulton found that the border favored Michigan.

Later, when Michigan started to apply for statehood around 1833, someone found a flaw in Fulton’s border, so Congress sent out another survey crew. This survey party was led by Andrew Talcott, and he found that the border was similar to Fulton’s, even with the flaw.

However, President Jackson wanted to satisfy Ohio. He was up for reelection so he wanted to make both sides happy and offered a compromise to Michigan. This compromise ignored Congress’ surveys and gave Ohio the Toledo Strip, gave Michigan the western three quarters of the now Upper Peninsula, and offered Michigan statehood.

This threw the Upper Peninsula into confusion. The natives wanted to be their own territory, the Huron Territory, and the Indiana and Wisconsin territories had already claimed some of the land. Unfortunately, at the time, much was unknown about the Upper Peninsula to the Michigan territory: its large amounts of timber, iron ore, and copper. So, the offer was rejected.

This resulted in conflicts between Ohio and Michigan. Naturally, both Michigan and Ohio wanted this land. As time went on, tensions between Ohio and Michigan grew. From both perspectives, the land was rightfully theirs, so these tensions grew into petty actions. Some included many petitions to Congress, Michigan officers arresting Ohioan citizens for being in the Toledo Strip, and each side bringing a militia force to their borders. There was even an instance when the Michigan Militia arrested part of an Ohioan surveying crew who were remarking the Harris line. Led by the Michigan Mayor of the time, they scared and threatened off the rest of the survey party (Schaetzl, 2019).

However, the conflicts were short-lived as the Michigan territory fell into a financial crisis from their militia force. Thus, Michigan was forced into accepting President Jackson’s offer, and concede the Toledo Strip to Ohio. This meant that Michigan officially a became state (in 1837).

Post Statehood and Lake Erie

Still, quarrels over the true border continued. These petty disagreements continued until Congress decided to get in-depth charts of the Great Lakes and sent survey crews out. This happened significantly after the Toledo War, in 1915.

A survey crew, led by MacDiarmid on a steamboat called the Surveyor, surveyed the western part of Lake Erie. Specifically, they obtained details of the Maumee Bay, Maumee River, and more data in the area. They detailed the points of the line on the border between Ohio and Michigan.

After completion, the confusion over the boundary should have ended, and Michigan and Ohio should have concluded their disagreements.

Lake Erie’s disputed area in 1971 (from Michigan State University).

However, the confusion and conflicts actually did not stop there. The border dispute extended into the later 20th century into Lake Erie. This was due to potential natural resources in Lake Erie. Michigan took Ohio to the Supreme Court from 1971 to 1973 to make their case that Michigan owned a larger portion of Lake Erie. The way the Toledo Strip dispute was resolved made Michigan believe that Ohio essentially took a chunk out of Michigan’s lower border, but everything else would remain the same. This would mean that the horizontal line would continue through Lake Erie until the American and Canadian border, giving Michigan not only much more water territory, but also a couple of islands in Lake Erie. This disputed area is shown in the figure. However, the Supreme Court ruled differently.

“In 1836 the north cape of Maumee Bay was located at the point in that bay where a line drawn North 87° 49’ 44” East from Post 71 on the land boundary line between the States of Ohio and Michigan intersects a line drawn South 45° West from the center of the existing circular concrete seawall on Turtle Island, both bearings being measured from a true meridian,” (Putzel, 1974).


The original map of eastern America had a slight flaw in it. The flaw was a essentially an error in the angle of east and west from the relative positions of the Great Lakes. This flaw, coupled with its reputation, created a misconception that plagued Michigan and Ohio for many years. Both Ohio and Michigan wanted the area from the misconception, called the Toledo Strip, because of its economic potential. Both Michigan and Ohio fought for this land every step of the way, from when Ohio became a state, to the late 20th century when there was a Supreme Court case over the boundaries in Lake Erie. If Mitchell’s error in his original map had been caught earlier, Michigan’s boundaries would be much different today.

Primary Sources

  1. Jackson, Maj. T. H.; Corps of Engineers. “Report of the Chief of Engineers U.S. Army 1916; In 3 Parts; Part 3.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. June 30, 1916.
  2. U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. “The Northwest Ordinance.” Our Documents. July 13, 1787.
  3. Putzel, Henry Jr. “United States Reports; Volume 410; Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court at October Term, 1972; January 22 Through (In Part) March 21, 1973.” United States Government Printing Office Washington. 1974.
  4. Mitchell, John. “A New Map of North America.” Library of Congress. 1779.
  5. Strong, Ezra Baldwin; Fillmore, Millard. “The States of Ohio, Indiana & Illinois and Michigan Territory: From the Latest Authorities.” Library of Congress. 1836.
  6. Farmer, John; V. Balch; S. Stiles (Firm). “Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory of Michigan on a Scale of 8 Miles to an Inch.” Library of Congress. 1826.

Secondary Sources

  1. Schaetzl, Randall. “The ‘Toledo War.’” Michigan State University. November 15, 2019.
  2. Wanger, Eugene. “Collecting the Toledo War.” Central Michigan University. 1998.
  3. McCormick, John. “Michigan: A Territory’s Growth to Statehood.” Union To Disunion. November 15, 2019.
  4. Michigan State University. “The Evolution of Michigan’s Legal Boundaries.” Michigan State University. November 15, 2019.
  5. Board of Geological and Biological Survey, 1916; Allen, R.C. “Biennial Report of the Director 1914-1916 and Report on Retracement and Permanent Monumenting of the Michigan-Ohio Boundary; Part III; Basis of the Ohio-Michigan Boundary Dispute.” Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co. 1916.

Further Reading