Holy Toledo! – When the Ohio-Michigan rivalry spilled over from the Gridiron to the Battlefield

All college football fans know that the Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry is intense.  But in 1836 the states of Michigan and Ohio nearly went into actual battle over a boundary dispute. Each state called out several hundred armed militia and sent them to Toledo to fight over ownership of the city and surrounding area. Shots were fired.


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After the Revolutionary War, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This act defined the borders of the Northwest Territories and created the procedure for adding new states into the Union. It also banned slavery.

The first state to be created was Ohio.  The Northwest Ordinance defined the northern border of Ohio to be a straight line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan until it reached Lake Erie. Based on the maps at the time, it was thought that this border would place most of Lake Erie's western shore, including the future location of the port of Toledo, in Ohio.   However, in reality, that border definition would result in Toledo being in the future state of Michigan.   When Ohio became a state in 1803, wanting a port on Lake Erie, defined the border a couple of miles north of Toledo, ignoring the Northwest Ordinance.

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Years passed.

Michigan applied to become a state in 1835, and they want their original defined boundaries back, which included the important Lake Erie port of Toledo.

The ‘Toledo War’

With the territory now in dispute, both states mobilized their armed militia to seize control of the territory, about five to ten miles wide. The only 'battle' fought in this 'war' was a small skirmish known as the ‘Battle of Phillips Corner’. No one was hurt; it appears that the Michigan militia fired their muskets over the heads of the Ohioans and arrested a few surveyors, who were later released. There was also a battle of lawsuits as citizens of each state attempted to sue each other upon entry into the disputed territory. According to one account, the most serious injury in a subsequent border scuffle was a non-fatal stab with a penknife.

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President Jackson got involved and a compromise was offered. Michigan would give up the sliver of land known as the Toledo Strip and in return would get the land now known as the Upper Peninsula - at that time part of the Wisconsin territory. Michigan originally rejected the compromise, perceiving the land to be worthless. Eventually, Michigan gave in as the financial budgetary benefits of becoming  a state  outweighed other concerns. As to who came out ahead, who can tell? Michigan received a lot more land, rich with copper. Ohio ended up Corporal Klinger of M*A*S*H fame, feminist icon Gloria Steinem,  and comedian Danny Thomas, all from Toledo. And a major port on Lake Erie.

The 'War' Continues?

The Michigan–Ohio rivalry is now fought on the football field. Since their first match in 1897, the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University have played 114 times. Michigan has the overall lead in victories by a small margin, Ohio State has won the last six games, and thirteen of the last fourteen.

Showing the bitter nature of the competition, in 1968, Ohio State attempted a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown near the end of the game against Michigan when it already had a huge lead. Iconic Ohio coach, Woody Hayes was asked why he went for two points with a big lead and replied, "because I couldn't go for three". The next year, Bo Schembechler, who had played under coach Hayes, was hired by Michigan, starting a football competition known as the ten-year war. This 'war' ended when Hayes was fired for punching an opposing player during a Bowl game.

ESPN has ranked the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry as the greatest one in all sports. The College Football Hall of Fame had an exhibit on the rivalry dating it back to the Toledo War. Somehow, I doubt that a ‘war’ fought in 1835, with zero casualties, explains a rivalry that started in 1897. If nothing else, there are probably more football players injured (wounded) in a typical Ohio State-Michigan football game than were hurt in the Toledo War.