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Robert E. Lee: and the Lake Erie Survey Expedition of 1835.

Twenty-six years before the outbreak of the American Civil War pitted North against South, a young Army lieutenant named Robert E. Lee was ordered to join a team of surveyors tasked with rectifying another but smaller border dispute between Michigan and Ohio--the Toledo War.

Long before Robert Edward Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, he arrived in the northern United States with a far more peaceful purpose. Assigned to the Army Chief Engineer's Office in Washington, D.C., Second Lieutenant Lee was given orders in the spring of 1835 to join a survey party charged with determining Michigan's disputed southern boundary.


The boundary dispute between the state of Ohio and Michigan Territory had very nearly come to blows. Known as the Toledo War, it involved rival claims to a narrow strip of land--the Toledo Strip--now located in northern Ohio, stretching from the Indiana line all the way to Lake Erie. Toledo was a prime location in the development of commerce in the mid-nineteenth century, mainly due to its proximity to Lake Erie and the mouth of the Maumee River.

Militias in Michigan and Ohio formed to press the rights of each government. However, much of the battle was fought politically, waged between the respective governors and their representatives in Washington. The only bloodshed occurred when Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph Wood tried to arrest Ohio partisan Benjamin Stickney in Toledo. After a brief altercation, Stickney's son, Two Stickney--unsurprisingly, the younger brother of One Stickney--stabbed Wood with a pen knife. Two Stickney fled, Wood recovered, and no further violence was recorded.

That was the contentious climate into which Lee and his party were dispatched. Under orders from General Charles Gratiot--namesake of the Michigan county, fort, and avenue--Lieutenant Lee was to serve as a topographer. The expedition was commanded by Lee's old friend Captain Andrew Talcott. Other expedition members included fellow topographer Lieutenant Washington Hood, Lieutenant William Smith, an unknown number of enlisted men, and a civilian employee of the U.S. War Department.

Despite the fact that his wife was going to have a baby, Lee was eager to leave home to join Talcott on the Midwestern expedition. The specific mission of the survey party was to provide new observations in response to the rivalry between the state of Ohio and Michigan Territory. After Lee arrived in Detroit, he received a disturbing letter from his wife, who had become quite ill and begged him to come home. Perhaps because he did not grasp the seriousness of her predicament, Lee responded to his wife by questioning her motivations and chiding her for putting her needs before his military duties. He informed her that he would fulfill his obligations and remain with the expedition.


Upon reaching Michigan in the summer of 1835, the reception of the survey party was mixed. Detroit was particularly welcoming since many residents hoped that the surveyor's measurements would bolster the territory's claim to Toledo and the remaining western strip. In a letter to his friend George W. Cullum in Washington, D.C., Lee wrote that, "Detroit is for us, though our young Gentlemen Say, for they have all been there, that they talk of nothing but Land Speculations--& that their Standing Toast, Sentiment & dream is 'a Corner Lot running back to An Alley.'"

Michiganders were not the only ones caught up in land fever. Lieutenant William Smith, a member of the survey party, became quite interested in speculating while in Detroit. Lee informed Cullum that "Our young friend Smith has caught the mania & has a couple of Thousand always in hand to plank upon Some Lucky hit."

Ohioans, on the other hand, feared losing the burgeoning commerce supplied by the mouth of the Maumee River and village of Toledo and were incredibly suspicious of the survey expedition. Lee told Cullum, "We hear that about Toledo they speak hardly of us."

The international boundary with Canada had to be considered in order for the party to accurately determine the Ohio-Michigan boundary. To that end, the survey party made observations from Point Pelee on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. A brief excursion to Pelee Island was also necessary to obtain triangulation. Lee was joined by Lieutenant Washington Hood and a few enlisted men on a brief trip to the Canadian island.

On Pelee Island, Lee and his men sought to ascend the top of the island's lighthouse, from which they could best run a survey line. Finding the door locked, they clambered through a rear window and, to their surprise, encountered a snake there. Lee and his companions killed the snake and left its body below as they ascended to the top of the lighthouse. The men returned to the foot of the lighthouse after recording their measurements, pilfering a pair of glass lampshades along the way.

Following their excursion to Pelee Island, Lee and his men then camped at Turtle Island, which was located in western Lake Erie and, like the Toledo Strip, was the site of a territorial dispute between Michigan and Ohio. Though he did not confess his acts of indiscretion to General Gratiot, Lee did so in a letter to George W. Cullum penned in July 1835. In addition to describing how he and his men stole two glass lampshades from the lighthouse, Lee remarked that they had killed a "d--d Canadian snake," which he amusingly described as the "keeper" of the lighthouse. His letter to Cullum read that "we discovered the keeper at the door. We were warm & excited, he irascible & full of venom. An altercation ensued which resulted in his death."

Still humorously, Lee asked Cullum to relay his apologies to Gratiot in the hopes that the general would in turn offer his regrets to the Canadian minister in Washington.


Writing to Cullum from Turtle Island, Lee explained the next leg of the expedition. He recorded that "Hood & myself are in high preparation for a trip up the Maumee river to make a survey from a little above its intersection with the due East Line..." Aware that tensions between Ohioans and Michiganders over the boundary dispute in Toledo ran high, he told Cullum "the Boat & men are all ready, it is a long pull & we then have to establish ourselves for the night, & among Ennemies [sic] too."

The work itself was slow going. Men, equipment, and boats had to be organized and prepared. Accuracy could not be compromised. Lee projected that, "We shall hardly get back before a week--as the Triangulation &c must be done with accuracy to transfer the Lat. & Long from this place, there."

The expedition eventually traveled all the way through southern Michigan and reached Michigan City, Indiana, before turning back east. Lee returned to Washington, D.C., in October 1835 to find his wife seriously ill. It was clear that she had not exaggerated her condition in her letter to her husband asking him to come home.

Ultimately, Lee was pleased with the results of the survey. He complimented Captain Talcott, who was in charge of the expedition, on the acceptance of the survey party's observations. In a letter to Talcott dated November 25, 1835, Lee acknowledged the captain's efforts as having resolved the concerns of the Michigan-Ohio border dispute in the "most proper manner, and it is a fine thing to afford a good bone to our politicians." Later, on February 13, 1836, Lee wrote Talcott again, saying that he must be gratified "to find such agreement in your results."

The survey expedition eventually formed the geographic basis for resolution. On December 14, 1836, the Michigan Territorial government agreed to a congressional compromise that required it to forfeit all claims to the disputed Toledo Strip. In exchange, Michigan was admitted into the Union as the twenty-sixth state and received approximately 9,000 square miles of land in what became its Upper Peninsula.

Though best known for his remarkable leadership of the Confederate Army in the war that divided the country, it is worth remembering that 26 years earlier, a much-younger Robert E. Lee also played a significant role in the Toledo War between Michigan and Ohio--two states with a heated dispute of their own.

by Timothy D. Lusch

Timothy D. Lusch is a writer and former secretary of the Monroe County Historical Commission. He blogs about books at

Caption: Previous page, foreground: Robert E. Lee as a young officer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo courtesy of Washington and Lee University.) Previous page, background: An 1836 map of Michigan--the last published before Michigan achieved statehood--depicts the Toledo Strip within Michigan's borders. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.) Above: The city of Toledo, which became a haven of commerce and development during the nineteenth century. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, 73694517.)

Caption: The original Pelee Island lighthouse, built in 1833. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Amardeshbd.)

Caption: George Washington Cullum (left) and Robert E. Lee were friends and frequent correspondents during their early service together in the Army Corps of Engineers. The Civil War saw them declare allegiances to opposing sides, with Cullum serving in the Union Army in the Western Theatre as an engineering officer and Lee commanding Confederate forces in the East. (Photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress, LC-B8155-1.)

Caption: A new map of Michigan in 1853 depicts the Toledo Strip wholly within Ohio's borders and the newly acquired Upper Peninsula within Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.)
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Author:Lusch, Timothy D.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Previous Article:Henry Ford and the Telegraph.
Next Article:Who Was the "Keeper" of the Pelee Island Lighthouse?

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