Posted on December 08 2016
Here in the United States of America, we’re all one big happy family, right? We all know the fifty states and just exactly where the borders lie. Nowadays that’s pretty true. But as the country was being assembled, there was plenty of political wrangling over border placement, and sometimes it got pretty heated. Back in the late 1700s, the Northwest Ordinance planned for five states to be demarcated within the the Northwest Territory. As part of this vision, it defined the southern border of the Michigan Territory by law as being a line extending east from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan until it reached Lake Erie. It seemed a good solid reference point, but in drawing out the new border, officials used what is known as the Mitchell map, made in the middle 1700s by one John Mitchell. In colonial times, it was the best cartography available. The best wasn’t quite accurate in the region of the Great Lakes, however, and showed Lake Michigan’s southern shore much farther north than it truly lies. Given that this land was rather sparsely settled in those days, the issue wasn’t terribly important initially.
In 1833, when Michigan applied to join the Union as a state, problems arose. By then, it was known that Lake Michigan extended a good deal farther south, and that a line extending east from it would intersect Lake Erie much lower on its southwestern shore. That mattered to the State of Ohio, which was not interested in losing either its ownership of some good Great Lakes shoreline access nor its city of Toledo, which would have fallen into Michigan’s hands by the old border definition. The area was settled and had future economic potential. Ohio officials sought to change the description of Michigan as running from that southern end of Lake Michigan northeast to Maumee Bay on Lake Erie. The thin and slightly wedge-shaped difference in the two definitions became known as the “Toledo Strip.” It was from five to eight miles wide and about 80 miles long as it ran along the top of Ohio. Michigan wanted to hang onto the old layout, which gave them those roughly 468 square miles of territory.
Because of its status as a state, Ohio politicians had greater clout, and they acted to influence Congress to deny Michigan the Toledo Strip. Michigan officials bristled at this maneuver and took their own action. In February 1835, they passed the Pains and Penalties Act, which gave them power to impose extremely high fines and jail time for anyone in the Toledo Strip who was found to be acting for the benefit of Ohio. More than just paper bluster, the Michigan governor organized a 1,000-man military force to see that the new law was followed. The Ohio governor did not back away in response but sent his own force of 600 troops. Tensions were high, and there was potential for violence. During the next several months there were confrontations both legal and physical, although they mostly involved saber rattling and demonstration. Eventually, however, as a Michigan sheriff attempted to arrest a man and his sons for voting in an Ohio election, a fight ensued that left the lawman with a minor stab wound. Thankfully, instead of escalating what was by then known as The Toledo War, the violence convinced cooler heads to sit down and decide to order both militias to return home. It took another year and a half, but Congress came up with a plan. If Michigan would relinquish their claim to the Toledo Strip, they could attain statehood, and have the rest of the Upper Peninsula (they already had the eastern end), which forms Lake Michigan’s northern shore. Michigan didn’t like the deal, but their coffers were strained by the costs of the conflict and they accepted.
As it turned out, Michigan came out very much further ahead when it was discovered that the Upper Peninsula was rich with iron and copper, and the state became the leading producer of those metals for the U.S. for many years. This is where Wisconsonians stand up and say, “Oh, fine, settle the dispute by giving away the north end of our state!” But Wisconsin was still a territory at the time, and didn’t get much say in the affair. So that is how a cartographic inaccuracy, hot tempers, political wrangling, and land swap deals made the state of Michigan a land of two peninsulas.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Michigan’s border with Indiana, surveyed in 1827, didn’t start at Lake Michigan’s southernmost point as the Northwest Ordinance had decreed, but about 10 miles north along the shore. It may also have extended a little too far east before turning south to meet Ohio’s border. Surveying is accurate business, but mistakes have been made, and a new survey is in the works. As late as 2015 the two states were haggling over the cost of the survey, and it won’t be done until after 2020. Maybe the US of A isn’t a land of settled borders after all.