Toledo in 2003 is many things: a major port, a manufacturing center, a cultural beacon, a recreation center, a family-oriented city.
But one thing Toledo is not is 200 years old. Nor are any of its neighboring towns in northwest Ohio.
As Bicentennial fever spreads throughout the Buckeye State — including here in northwest Ohio, where painted barns, a commemorative recording, and programs climaxing with a spectacular Tall Ships parade this summer help mark the anniversary — more thoughtful souls may pause to ponder this region's very distinctive history.
In the process, they may realize that the notion of the “Other Ohio” reaches far into the past, long before its founding fathers ever dreamed of creating the nation's 17th state.
After all, Toledo and northwest Ohio were shaped by natural forces far more powerful than anything humans can conjure up.
If the Ohio River sped settlement of the southern half of the state and finally defined its serpentine border, the Great Black Swamp not only delayed development of the northwestern counties but set the ground rules on how the region would grow.
A 120-mile long swath of deep black muck framing the Maumee River, the swamp reached as much as 40 miles north to south. It was a geological oddity: a prehistoric lake bottom that the dying Ice Age glacier had further gouged out.
Indian tribes that settled the region built their villages outside the swamp, then paddled in on the Maumee River to hunt and gather.
Ohio is one of five states that were eventually carved out of the Northwest Territory. Northwest Ohio was all but unknown to visionaries who gathered post-harvest in 1802 in Chillicothe to create Ohio's first constitution.
There were several events prior to 1802 that allowed Ohio to become a state — events whose bicentennial anniversaries past in recent years with little notice: the first Treaty of Paris in 1763 with France ceding its western lands to the English; the second Treaty of Paris in 1783 with England ceding its western lands to the new United States, and the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 establishing the Northwest Territory which Ohio grew out of.
Other, more local, bicentennials also have past with little fanfare: the 200th anniversaries of the founding of Fort Industry and Fort Defiance — both in 1794.
With statehood established, the entire state became a magnet for pioneers. Yet, crossing mountains and sailing temperamental Lake Erie were a breeze compared to traversing the swamp.
Railroad lines and log roads simply sank into the mud, taking down entire wagon trains.
“The farmers literally poured themselves into their land,” recounts Dr. Susan Arpad, a historian who, with her husband, Dr. Joseph J. Arpad, made a video titled The Story of the Great Black Swamp in conjunction with WBGU-TV.
“The pioneers cleared the land of trees, built log cabins, hunted wild animals, and their first economy was subsistence farming,” she continues.
As Ohio's state capital moved from Chillicothe to Zanesville to Chillicothe and then eventually to Columbus, ambitious speculators to the north were establishing toeholds along the banks of the Maumee, vying with each other to build what they all knew would ultimately be one major port. Toledo was created in the mid-1830s as a compromise between the more successful developments of Port Lawrence and Vistula. By then, other Black Swamp settlements had been established: Perrysburg in 1816; Bowling Green and Sandusky in 1820, and Sylvania in 1833, among others.
But before Toledo could be chartered, another significant event led Ohio and its new neighbor to the north, Michigan, the 26th state in the union, to the brink of civil war.
Surveyors John Fulton, working for Michigan, and William Harris, representing Ohio, both redrew the state boundary. Not surprisingly, their results favored the states that had hired them. Between their lines was a strip of land stretching from five miles wide at the Indiana border to eight miles wide at Lake Erie.
Jurisdictional disputes flared. Both states marshaled militia as Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas arrived on the scene on March 31, 1835, followed immediately by Michigan Gov. Stevens Thomson Mason. They awaited two special commissioners appointed by President Andrew Jackson to recommend a solution.
As described by Tana Mosier Porter in Toledo Profile, A Sesquicentennial History (1987, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library), the machinations of both states' officials is worthy of a History Channel re-enactment.
Part of the process included creating a new Ohio county named for the Buckeye state's governor. It included the contested strip of land as well as segments of Wood and Sandusky counties. While surveyors struggled through the spring and summer of 1835 to determine the exact boundary, Michigan sheriffs and posses led by Governor Mason mounted armed raids, taking hostages including Ohio officials and leading citizens.
To certify the new Ohio jurisdiction, Governor Lucas had to hold a session of Common Pleas Court in Lucas County on Sept. 7, a duty Michigan militia was intent on preventing.
Ms. Porter writes: “Since Governor Lucas could not use force to hold court, he decided to use strategy. Reasoning that Sept. 7 began at midnight and that the legislation had not specified an hour for the court to open, the officials agreed that one hour was as good as any others. Twenty volunteers were selected to act as guards, and the party left Maumee at one o'clock in the morning to hold court in Toledo. The Court of Common Pleas in and for the County of Lucas and State of Ohio opened for the first time at three o'clock on the morning of Sept. 7, 1835, in a frame school house between Washington and Monroe and Michigan and Erie Streets, just outside Toledo.”
Business at hand was the appointment of John Baldwin, Robert Gower, and Cyrus Holloway as county commissioners, and bonding the city clerk. With those official transactions, Lucas County was created. Within two years, Toledo had been incorporated as a city.
Only with the official creation of Lucas County and its seat, Toledo, could the state of Ohio finally rest easy on all fronts. And while all citizens this year join in celebrating the idealism and determination that created Ohio, those in the northwest part of the state have more bicentennials to anticipate.