Tuesday, November 16, 2004

States of Mind: Superior
and the Toledo War

Once you start prying under the history’s floorboards, all sorts of things start popping out. In researching the State of Jefferson, I found a bundle of other proto-states and sharded states, independence movements and stillborn political entities. These are not secessions in the traditional sense of forming new countries, but rather regional entities that want to pull away from its current government and then rejoin the union, usually pulling an end run on distant and unresponsive state governments.

These proto-states are tricky, glimmering creatures, existing as footnotes to American History, alternate lines of descent along the evolutionary tree of politics. I found a reference to a state of Shasta movement in the fifties in the same general region as the state of Jefferson (the motivating issue for the fifties rebellion was water rights, not transportation, but the online record is unclear), as well as a proposed state of Jefferson in East Texas, free of interference from Austin. Not to mention Kanawha, Sequoia, Greater Kansas, and Franklin.

And then there was the State of Superior, currently known as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Its statehood movement peaked in the mid ‘70s, with a couple bills that failed to pass, a book (Superior: A State for the North Country), a passel of bumper-stickers, and a proposed state slogan (“Ta heck with ya”). But in digging around on Superior, I found out that it was a part of Michigan in the first place because of a war between the states.

No, I mean the war between the states of Michigan and Ohio, in 1835.

An entire timeline is here, but here’s the short version. When the state of Ohio was founded, there was a question about its northwest boundary, near the current site of Toledo. The original Northwest Ordinance (which created the Northwest Territories in 1787) put Toledo and a wedge of land about eight miles wide outside and north of Ohio, but the Enabling Act of 1802 that created Ohio changed that language to allow Ohio’s claim to the land. The Michigan Territory, seeking its own statehood 30 years later, went back to the original claim and said that chunk of land (which had gone from swampy area to a growth area thanks to the proposed Wabash and Erie Canal) was rightfully theirs. Numerous surveys were run over the years, each supporting opposite sides of the dispute.

Michigan Territory wanted statehood and also wanted the original border (which would give them Toledo). Ohio passed legislation declaring the Toledo Strip theirs. Michigan passed legislation making the enforcement of Ohio’s control illegal in the strip. Both sides held elections in the disputed territories. A sheriff’s posse from Michigan moved on Toledo and arrested people guilty of supporting Ohio. A force of Michigan militia encountered an armed Ohio surveying party and arrested them, but not before shots rang out (The Battle of Phillips Corner). Both sides piled on the political invective – Ohio was supporting “tyranny”, while Michigan encouraged “savage barbarity”.

There was a modicum of pushing, shoving, and maneuvering between both sides for the rest of the year (though no more clear-cut “battles”). Michigan declared itself a state and elected a governor, senators, and representatives. The US government declined to admit Michigan unless it resolved the border matter. And by “resolved” it meant give up its claim on the Toledo Strip.

In exchange for renouncing its claim, Michigan got the Upper Peninsula, which was pulled back from the newly-formed Wisconsin Territory. No wonder there was a feeling of alienation among the natives of the UP. Not only were they a consolation prize, they were the consolation prize for Toledo. The remoteness of their location (frozen-in during the winter months until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957), contributed to both a sense of isolation and independence. But by the time enough power coalesced for a true independence movement, technology had linked up the UP with the rest of the country to the point of reducing the need for it. But much like Jefferson, Superior continues to have its own independent mindset.

And the Toledo War becomes another ghostly footnote in US History – spun today as more of an intramural disagreement than a real conflagration, or as nothing more than a disagreement between strong-willed Governors. In fact the write-ups go out of their way to stress ultimate harmlessness of the conflict (shots were fired, not one was hurt, well, one deputy was stabbed, but he recovered). But troops were rallied, shots were fired, people threatened and imprisoned, and emotions ran high. Wars have been fought for less.

And once someone gets away with something, they’re just encouraged to do it again. I understand that Ohio has been eying the West Virginia panhandle, just waiting for the chance.

More later,