Michigan plays Ohio State tomorrow, for the 106th time. The Buckeyes have already wrapped up the Rose Bowl, while the Wolverines are fighting to secure a bowl bid. But ESPN viewers still consider this rivalry the greatest in American sports. What most sports fans don’t know is, this one goes back before football even existed.
In 1833, Michigan was still a territory, while Ohio had already been a state for three decades. When Michigan started making its pitch for statehood, the surveyors had to figure out exactly where Michigan ended, and Ohio began. They soon discovered they’d gotten it wrong the first time: Toledo should have belonged to Michigan all along.
No big deal, you say? Well, don’t forget: at that time, the main thoroughfare between the Northeast and the Midwest was the Erie Canal – and Toledo was a major stop.
When Michigan claimed it for its own, Ohio blocked Michigan’s bid for statehood. Former president John Adams, who had returned to Congress, wrote, “Never in the course of my life have I known a controversy of which all the right was so clearly on one side and all the power so overwhelmingly on the other.”
So, Michigan was right – but weak. What recourse did the Wolverines, as they were called, really have?
And thus began the War of Toledo. More than half a million dollars were raised for troops on both sides. They marched into the city, and then… nothing happened, except for a few bar fights. That’s when Monroe County Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood decided to travel south to do him some arrestin’.
This is where things get a little murky. Some say Wood rode to Perrysburg to arrest Benjamin Franklin Stickney for the treasonous act of voting in an Ohio election. Others say he traveled to a Toledo tavern to arrest one of Stickney’s sons – creatively named, I’m not kidding, One Stickney, and Two Stickney. Well, that’s one way to keep track of your kids, I suppose – and to bolster stereotypes.
One thing all historians agree on: when Wood stepped forward to arrest one of the Stickneys, Two Stickney stuck him – right in the thigh, with a pen knife. And that marked the only casualty of the great Toledo War.
President Andrew Jackson, tired of the silliness, offered Michigan a deal: If you guys give Toledo back to Ohio, we’ll give you statehood. And we’ll even throw in the Upper Peninsula to boot. They took it, but one Michigan politician complained: “I wonder why they didn’t give us a slice of the moon? It would have been more valuable.”
Their attitude toward the UP changed a few decades later when they discovered iron and copper – but their attitude toward Ohio did not.
The differences between them deepened during the migration to both states. Michigan was settled by upstate New York industrialists. Ohio was settled by Virginia farmers – two very distinct groups of people, which only adds to the differences between the schools. Ah, the conceit of small differences.
How do you handle such hostility? With a good old-fashioned football game, that’s how. Michigan started playing Ohio State in 1897, but it didn’t count for much. Michigan won or tied all of the first 14 games, and Ohio State wasn’t even in the Big Ten anyway.
But things started getting interesting in 1907, the year Michigan left the Big Ten over a rules dispute. Ohio State took Michigan’s place in 1912, so when Michigan returned to the league in 1918, the rivalry was for real.
Since then, the Wolverines have beaten Ohio State 45 times, and the Buckeyes have returned the favor 42 times – about as close as you can get.
No matter who wins tomorrow, there will be blood, sweat and tears – but it still beats taking a pen knife in your thigh.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.