Michigan History in Washington DC

I spent the last week in Washington DC for a work event. Although I had to spend a lot of time working, I still managed to see a good portion of the city and its many museums (and finished off my Year of Museums – more on that later!). I tried to keep an eye out for Michigan history represented in our nation’s capitol, and I ended up with a few examples:

1) Upper Peninsula copper at the National Museum of Natural History

If you go through the NMNH’s Hall of Geology, Rocks, and Minerals, you will learn all about how rocks and minerals are formed, how they are categorized, and where they are found. The displays on copper include this large piece of solid copper found in a mine in Ontonagan, near the Keweenaw in the Upper Peninsula.  It’s great to see the resources of the UP get some acknowledgement. I also learned, in researching this blog post, that the museum has the semi-famous Ontonagon Boulder (3000 pound piece of float copper), but it is not on display. Too bad, I would love to see it!

Michigan Copper

Michigan Copper


2) Auto Industry

Of course, there are many items from Michigan’s most well-known industry around the city – especially from Ford! The National Postal Museum shows off a 1931 Ford Model A Mail Truck, one of the first custom built automobile bodies for the postal service. And when you walk in the front doors at the National Museum of American History, you come face to face with a beautiful light blue 1965 Ford Mustang, an example of the car’s first year of production. Less noticeable is a small painting of the Ford River Rouge plant, tucked away in the National Gallery of Art. Titled “Classic Landscape,” the 1931 painting by Charles Sheeler  is one of five he created on the same subject.  I recognized the factory instantly when I spotted the painting. It really stood out among the more traditional topics of portraits, landscapes and water lilies.

1931 Ford Model A Mail Car, Sheeler's Classic Landscape, 1965 Ford Mustang

1931 Ford Model A Mail Truck, Sheeler’s Classic Landscape, 1965 Ford Mustang


3) Lewis Cass and Gerald R. Ford at the U.S. Capitol

I didn’t actually make it to the capitol building on this trip, but I know that throughout the building are two statues from each state. Michigan is represented by Lewis Cass and Gerald Ford. Ford is actually a recent replacement for Zachariah Chandler, whose statue was removed to Lansing in 2011. I can understand why they wanted to include our only president, but I do wish they had replaced Cass instead. Chandler, who served as Mayor of Detroit, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior, worked tirelessly to end slavery and promote civil rights for freedmen after the Civil War, as well as cleaned up corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Cass held similar positions, although about 50 years earlier – Governor of Michigan Territory, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of War. Yet his opinions on the rights of minorities were vastly different: he promoted popular sovereignty in regards to slavery in the territories and was instrumental in creating and implementing the Indian removal policy. Less Cass, more Chandler, I say!

Left to right: Lewis Cass, Gerald Ford, Zachariah Chandler (Photos from the Architect of the Capitol website)

Left to right: Lewis Cass, Gerald Ford, Zachariah Chandler
(Photos from the Architect of the Capitol website)


4) News headlines at the Newseum

The Newseum is a high tech museum of news just off the National Mall. Its News History Gallery, the largest of its many exhibits, features newspapers and other methods of conveying the news from the past 500 years. I took a look at the historic front pages it has on display, and found at least one relating to Michigan – this copy of the Detroit News from the Detroit Riots in 1967. A sad event, but one that is an important part of the both the city’s and the nation’s history.

The Detroit News

The Detroit News

I’m sure I missed plenty of other examples of Michigan history in DC. If you know of any, let me know in the comments – I’ll be sure to add them to my next visit!


The Frostbitten Convention; or, How Michigan Ended the Toledo War and Became a State

177 years ago today, on December 14th, 1836, Michiganders signed a compromise that lost them the city of Toledo, gained them the Upper Peninsula and allowed them to become the 26th state in the union. The compromise was accepted at what became known as the Frostbitten Convention due to both the cold spell sweeping the area and also due to the frosty feelings of many towards the signers  of the questionably legal document – a document that many saw as an acceptance of defeat. Defeat by our enemy to the south, Ohio.

Marker commemorating the event in Ann Arbor (source)

Marker commemorating the convention in Ann Arbor

You may or may not have heard of the Toledo War – a “war” fought between Michigan and Ohio concerning the Toledo Strip, a narrow strip of land at the northern end of Ohio claimed by both states. Toledo and the surrounding area, which included the Maumee river and access to Lake Erie, were considered valuable to both sides due to the existing waterways and potential for canals, a major mode of transportation. The origins of the dual claims root back to the creation of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which stated that if states were eventually formed out of the territory, their border would be drawn by an east-west line extending from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Only trouble was, nobody was sure exactly how far south Lake Michigan went, and in fact thought it was much farther north than it actually was (cartography wasn’t so good in those days).

When Ohio petitioned for statehood in 1803, it assumed it would include the Toledo area, but then discovered that Lake Michigan went further south than they thought, which would cause them to lose Toledo and possibly even their access to Lake Erie. Their solution was to add a provision into their constitution protecting their claim to the land, no matter the boundary of Lake Michigan. Congress accepted the constitution but essentially ignored the provision. Two years later, in 1805, Congress created the Michigan Territory, using the same boundaries designated in the Northwest Ordinance. Although residents of the area pushed for a resolution to the issue for years, it was not resolved until 30 years later when Michigan petitioned for its own statehood – including the Toledo strip.

Michigan asked Congress for statehood, Ohio objected and stalled the measure, and both became determined to stick to their guns. Literally. In 1835, both Ohio and Michigan (led by hot-heated “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason) raised militias and sent troops to the Maumee River to basically taunt each other. There were two conflicts of what is now called the Toledo War – although neither  caused any casualties. The first, known as the Battle of Phillips Corner, is a bit of a misnomer. In April 1835, Ohio surveyors out trying to mark their claim of the border were forced to retreat by members of the Michigan militia. Although a few shots were fired into the air, nobody was hurt. The second incident occurred over the summer. Monroe County Sheriff Joseph Wood set out to arrest Toledo Justice of the Peace Benjamin Stickney, but he and his sons resisted. Although all were eventually subdued and arrested, Wood was stabbed in the scuffle by Stickney’s son, Two Stickney (yes, his name was Two. Guess what his older brother’s name was?) with a pen knife. Wood survived the injury, but the incident caused tensions to rise, especially after Ohio refused to extradite Two to Michigan for trial.

It is also remembered in Ohio (source)

It is also remembered in Ohio

Meanwhile, President Andrew Jackson realized that Ohio, with its growing influence in Congress and political position as a swing state (yes, even then), was more valuable to him than Michigan. In an attempt to end the conflict and keep Ohio happy, he urged Congress to propose a compromise in the summer of 1836 – if Michigan would give up Toledo, it would be granted statehood and gain the western Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin (Michigan already had the eastern portion). Because the UP was mostly still Indian territory, Michigan voters saw this as a raw deal and rejected it at a state convention in September in Ann Arbor.

Throughout that fall, Congress and President Jackson continued to pressure Michigan to accept the deal. Additionally, Michigan was in bad financial straits due to high militia expenses and needed the support statehood would give. The United States Treasury was posed at the time to distribute a $400,000 surplus to the states – but not territories. So they called another convention in Ann Arbor in December, which later became known as the Frostbitten Convention, and voted the compromise into law.

The convention was very controversial – it was not approved by legislation (neither the territorial legislature or the U.S. Congress), the delegates were chosen by caucuses rather than elections, and some counties (including Monroe, right on the border with Toledo) refused to participate – all of which caused many to say it was illegal. Many Michiganders rejected the results. Congress, however, agreed that the convention was questionably legal, but chose to accept the results anyway. Michigan officially became a state on January 26th, 1837.

And that is how on a cold, dark day in December, 177 year ago, we realized we had been beaten and gave up the Toledo strip in exchange for statehood. But hey, I think it turned out to be a pretty good deal. Although many wrote off the U.P. as useless wilderness at the time, it turned out to have vast stores of copper and iron that became a major industry in the state. Also, it’s just breathtakingly beautiful and Toledo is…….not. So I’m going to go ahead and call this a win, and celebrate the Frostbitten Convention with a steaming mug of hot chocolate while I watch the snow outside. I hope you do the same!

Mitten History Goes South

South to Ohio, that is. I spent last weekend in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, which is about 30 minutes southeast of Columbus. My husband and I went to college in Ohio and so we have quite a few friends all over the state. We got together with 9 other friends to spend the weekend in a cabin and catch up, as well as do some hiking at Hocking Hills State Park. I know Ohio is out of the scope of this blog, but I just can’t pass up the chance to talk about some cool history!

The Hocking Hills region is known for its unusual topography. The area is full of gorges, waterfalls and caves, all formed out of Blackhand sandstone. There are many different trails and sights to see, but the most popular, and the one that we visited, is known as Old Man’s Cave. I found it amusing that all my Ohio friends talked about “heading over to Old Man’s Cave” without seeming to realize how strange it sounds, but then again, I would never think twice about the name Miner’s Castle (at Pictured Rocks in the U.P.) which probably sounds just as weird!

Old Man’s Cave was beautiful. This is no tiny hole in a wall of rock – it is a massive overhang inside a gorge that is full of twists and turns and places to hide (and climb). But of course, what I was most interested in was the history. A place called Old Man’s Cave has got to have an interesting story behind it, right? The one historical marker I pounced on found stated that the cave was named after Richard Rowe, “a recluse who made the cave his home in the 1800s.” The marker went on to talk about the geology and climate of the area, leaving me curious about this Richard Rowe and how and why he made his home in the cave. So of course, after I got home, I looked it up.


As it turns out, there simply isn’t a lot known for sure about Richard Rowe. There are number of different stories about Rowe and the cave, but many of them seem to have details added in to make it more interesting. The basic facts, that run through all the stories, is that Richard Rowe migrated to the Hocking Hills area in the late 18th century from Tennessee, and that he spent at least some time living in the cave around 1796. Most sources claim he came to the area with his father and brother with the intention of starting a fur trade post, and then eventually settled in the area. After that, the stories often give conflicting information, or things that are obviously embellished. His brother may have worked on a freighter, or possibly married a Shawnee woman, and may have lived in the Ozarks or the Black Hills. Many versions of the story state that Rowe traveled the rivers in the area and “observed the events of the War of 1812,” whatever that means. Most stories claim he is buried somewhere in the cave, but nobody knows where.

A portion of Old Man's Cave

A portion of Old Man’s Cave

My favorite version tells a ridiculously detailed story of how Rowe went out hunting in the winter and wanted to get a drink from a frozen stream. He used the butt of his rifle to crack the ice, as he always did, but for some reason this time the action caused the rifle to go off, shooting him in the chin and killing him. His body was found a few days later by other trappers, who buried him in the cave. Great story, but….how would they know exactly how he died if he was alone at the time?!

Oh, and in keeping with the season, Old Man’s Cave might be haunted.

The stories of Old Man’s Cave might be not be entirely true, but hey, that’s what keeps history interesting. The cave, and Hocking Hills in general, are definitely worth checking out, if you ever find yourself in south-central Ohio. (Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll get back to Michigan content soon!)


Panorama of the gorge below the cave