The Michigan-Wisconsin Border Dispute Through History

Oct 7, 2020

Today people living in Wisconsin’s Northwoods and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula look to each other as neighbors who share common interests. No one questions the boundary between the two regions, but in the past the border between the two states was a serious concern. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

When the territories of the continental United States were carved out into states and governments formed, it would seem a foregone conclusion that first territorial then state boundary markers would be clearly drawn so that there would be no confusion. Such was not the case, and Michigan had multiple border issues largely due to the errors in two early maps.

The Mitchell Map of 1755 was used extensively during the early Republic, notably during the drafting of the Northwest Ordinance. The map, however, was riddled with inaccuracies. By placing the foot of Lake Michigan at 42 degrees and 20 minutes latitude instead of 41 degrees and 37 minutes, the Mitchell Map inadvertently led to the Toledo War between Michigan and Ohio and the subsequent awarding of the U.P. to Michigan as a consolation prize for losing the political conflict.

But these inaccuracies caused other problems as well. When Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, two of the five territories created lay north of the foot of Lake Michigan. These were Michigan and Wisconsin, and the preamble to the Northwest Ordinance was quite clear in stating that its articles should “forever remain unalterable unless by common consent.”

When Illinois became a state in 1818, its delegates were aware that the foot of Lake Michigan lay further south than what the Mitchell Map said, but they argued for a northern boundary that followed the Mitchell Map. This gave the state the city of Chicago and a strip of land running 61 miles north from the foot of the lake. For a time, Illinois claimed that the town of Beloit in Wisconsin, was theirs, but Wisconsin said that if Illinois pressed its claims, then it would use the “unalterable” clause to claim Chicago. That put an end to the dispute.

The Michigan-Wisconsin quarrel was a little trickier to resolve. Everyone knew that surveyors who marked the original boundary between Wisconsin and the U.P. had made a mistake when they chose the wrong fork of the Montreal River and drew the state border line incorrectly. It did not help that a Senate subcommittee used the 1838 Judson Map to draw the border. The Judson Map showed the Montreal River originating in Lac Vieux Desert. As a result, Wisconsin received more land than it should have.

The trouble came early in the twentieth century when the Wisconsin legislature rejected a petition asking the U.P. to secede from Michigan and join Wisconsin. Rabble rousers in the U.P. then petitioned to break away and form a new state with the Wisconsin Northwoods called Superior. This brought the Michigan legislature’s attention to the border, where they subsequently claimed a wedge of land from Hurley to Lake Brule consisting of 235,000 acres with an additional 129 islands in the Menominee River.

In 1926 the two states sued each other in the U.S. Supreme Court over ownership of this land. Even though Michigan was technically correct in its claims, in November the Supreme Court sided with Wisconsin. It was simply a case of unchallenged occupancy for so many years.