Point of Beginning

The Man Who Changed the History of Ohio

A look behind the mystery setting the state's northern border.

August 9, 2013

At times in history, an unexpected event changes the course of destiny. A recent, highly regarded book titled “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, discusses this phenomenon. In the prologue, Taleb explains the title of his book with this story:

Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan [in Australia]might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.” 1

A “Black Swan” event occurred in the early history of Ohio. The evidence is in the Constitution for the new state of Ohio drafted by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1802. It contains a very strange phrase, which appears in Article VII, Section 6, titled “Boundaries of the State.” As the title suggests,

Ohio Map_2
The borders of Ohio might have looked much different if not for one man. (Credit: Photos.com/Kurt Schuett)

that section describes the east boundary with Pennsylvania, the south boundary as the Ohio River, and the west boundary as a due north line from the mouth of the Great Miami River. The north line, however, is defined as follows: “an east and west line and drawn through the southerly extreme of Lake Michigan, running east, after intersecting the due north line, aforesaid, from the mouth of the Great Miami until it shall intersect Lake Erie or the territorial line, and thence with the same, through Lake Erie, to the Pennsylvania line aforesaid; provided always, and it is hereby fully understood and declared by this convention, that if the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan should extend so far south, that a line drawn due east from it should not intersect Lake Erie, or if it should intersect the said Lake Erie, east of the mouth of the Miami [Maumee] River of the Lake, then in the case, with the assent of Congress of the United States, the northern boundary of this State shall be established by, and extended to a direct line running from the southern extremity of Lake Michigan to the most northerly cape of the Miami Bay 2  Why does this proviso appear in the constitution’s boundary description? It is not in the act passed by Congress to enable this part of the Northwestern Territory to become a state. What caused the delegates to modify the language set out in the enabling legislation?

The east-west line, which the enabling act establishes, was developed using a famous map known as the Mitchell Map. This same map was used by King George III in his royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonization west of the Appalachian Mountains. This map was also referred to by all of the nations involved in negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War. The Congress of the Confederation also used this map when they drafted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. “The Senate Judiciary Committee in 1836 reported that Mitchell’s map was ‘considered everywhere as a map which, in reference to the Northwestern Territory, had no superior for accuracy.’”

“Amateur historian Jacob Burnet,  wrote in 1847: ‘On a map in the Department of State, which was before the committee of Congress, who formed the Ordinance, for the government of the Territory there was a pencil line passing through the southern bend of the Lake [Michigan] to the Canada line;' this pencil drawn line was the Ordinance Line.”3 The line intersected Lake Erie well above Maumee Bay.  As Taleb has suggested, this line was a fact “completely confirmed by empirical evidence.”

Historian Annah May Soule, in “The Southern and Western Boundaries of Michigan,” her account of the conflict between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan published by the Michigan Political Science Association as part of their 1896 series “Studies in Michigan History,” tells this story: “While the Ohio convention was framing the Constitution for the new state an old hunter appeared on the scene, and learning of the prescribed boundaries, informed the state-makers that southern extreme of Lake Michigan lay much farther south than they supposed or the maps indicated.” 4 But it strains the imagination to accept this version of events at the Constitutional Convention.

Arthur Schlesinger, the eminent historian and author, thought so highly of Soule’s analysis of the controversy that he incorporated a portion, including the quote above, in his “History of the Boundary Dispute” that appears as Chapter III in “The Ohio-Michigan Boundary, Volume I of the Final Report of the Ohio Cooperative Topographic Survey,” edited by C. E. Sherman. 5

And two other commentators on this conflict come to the issue from different times and places but arrive at the same conclusion.

Jacob Burnet, as mentioned earlier, commented on the convention and the northern boundary line of Ohio. More than an “amateur historian,” Burnet actively participated in the early history of Ohio. A staunch Federalist, he was not elected to be a delegate to the constitutional convention, but he became known as the “Father of the Ohio Constitution” for his work as an associate judge on the Ohio Supreme Court. In his “Notes on the Early Settlement of the North-western Territory,” published in 1847, after stating what was quoted above regarding the east west pencil line (he had seen the map in question!), he wrote that this line “intersected the strait, between the river Raisin and the town of Detroit. That line was manifestly intended by the committee, and by Congress, to be the northern boundary of this State; and, on the principles on which courts of chancery construe contracts, accompanied with plats, that map, and the line marked on it, should have been taken, as conclusive evidence of the boundary, without reference to the actual position of the southern extreme of the Lake.”

Burnet continues with the following story: “When the Convention was in session, in 1802, it was the prevailing understanding, that the old maps were correct; and that the line, as defined in the Ordinance, would terminate at some point on the strait, far above the Maumee Bay; but, while that subject was under discussion, a man who had hunted many years on Lake Michigan, and was well acquainted with its position, happened to be in Chillicothe, and in conversation with some of the members, mentioned to them that the Lake extended much farther south than was generally supposed; and that a map he had seen placed its southern bend many miles north of its true position. His statement produced some apprehension, and excitement on the subject, and induced the Convention to change the line prescribed in the act of Congress.”

The second commentator, no less prominent than Jacob Burnett, is Todd Buchanan Galloway. Galloway was a lawyer, judge, secretary to Ohio Gov. Herrick and, astonishingly, the author of the song “Wiffenpoof.” His father, once a partner at law with Nathaniel Massie, became a U. S. Representative. Galloway, writing about his research for the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society in 1895, almost 50 years after Burnet told his story, wrote: “In that year [1802] the convention was held in Chillicothe to frame a constitution for the State, and under the prevailing and natural impression that the old maps were correct, the convention was about to locate the northern boundary in conformity with this opinion, believing the line would terminate far above the Maumee Bay. While in the midst of this discussion, there happened in the convention an old trapper who had hunted for years on Lake Michigan. He announced to them that he was thoroughly conversant with the country, and that they were mistaken, that Lake Michigan extended much farther south than was generally supposed.” 7 So, based on these and many other commentators, it was an old hunter who challenged the accuracy of the Mitchell map.

So, who is this “old hunter or trapper,”this person, not a delegate to the convention, who just happened to be in Chillicothe in November of 1802 and furnished the delegates information that changed the history of Ohio?

The territory around the southern tip of Lake Michigan was Potawatomi Indian territory. Few white men, not associated with the British, could hunt or trap in this Indian country and live to tell the story.

Without the proviso in Article VII, Section 6, Toledo and the Maumee Bay could have belonged to Michigan, so this information was critical.

As it turns out, there is a clue to this man's identity. In the book “Early History of the Maumee Valley,” Maj. B. F. Stickney says “there happened to be there a man by the name of Wells, who had been long a prisoner with the Indians residing in this region, who told the members that Lake Michigan would be found to be much farther south than was supposed.”8  

In April of 1812, President Madison appointed Benjamin Franklin Stickney, aged 36 and inexperienced with Indians, to Fort Wayne to replace John Johnson as Indian agent. William Wells, the legendary Indian fighter, had also been an Indian agent and translator stationed in Fort Wayne. In 1808, the United States, in recognition of his service in the Indian wars and as an Indian agent, granted Wells pre-emption rights to 320 acres, located near Fort Wayne, where he lived until his death at the massacre of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) on August 15, 1812. Wells was also a close friend of the great Miami war chief Little Turtle who lived close to Wells at Fort Wayne and died there in July of 1812.

Dr. William Heath in his historical novel, “Blacksnake’s Path: the True Adventures of William Wells, 9 brilliantly brings the story of Captain William Wells to life. This true American hero had lived and fought with the Miami Indians from his capture at age 13 until he returned to his family in Kentucky at age 22. That same year, 1792, he was enlisted to aid Gen. Rufus Putnam as a peace conference translator, and, when the negotiations failed, he became a captain in Gen. Anthony Wayne’s army leading a group of scouts and spies. As an Indian he fought under Little Turtle in the Indian victories against Gen. Harmar in 1790 and Gen. St. Clair in 1791. As a U.S. scout he aided Wayne in his victory at Fallen Timbers. Wells did not fight in the battle of Fallen Timbers because he was shot in the wrist on a spy mission several days before.

As it turns out, Rufus Putnam served as a delegate to the constitutional convention and traveled from his home in Marietta to Chillicothe in November of 1802. Was William Wells also in Chillicothe? Wells was certainly known to the pioneer surveyors Nathaniel Massie and Thomas Worthington. Delegates from Chillicothe and his council would have been listened to and believed by these men. At this time no proof exists of William Wells’ presence at the constitutional convention. But he is the most logical person to have brought this news to the delegates. 10

It is fitting that Blacksnake is the “Black Swan” of this tale.


1 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 12.

2 Daniel J. Ryan, “From Charter to Constitution,” Ohio archaeological and historical Society Publications, Volume V, (1897): 146-147. Underlined text is added by this author.

3 Stephen W. Badenhop, (2008) “Federal Failures: the Ohio-Michigan Boundary Dispute,” (Master’s thesis), Bowling Green State University, 12. The underline is added by this author.

4 Annah May Soule, “The Southern and Western Boundaries of Michigan,” Studies in Michigan History, Michigan Political Science Association, volume II, No. 2, (1896), 3.

5 Arthur Meier Schlesinger, “History of the Boundary Dispute,” ed. C. E. Sherman C. E., Chapter III, The Ohio-Michigan Boundary, Volume I of the Final Report of the Ohio Cooperative Topographic Survey, 1916.

6 Jacob Burnet, Notes on the Early Settlement of the North-western Territory, (D. Appleton & Co., 1847), 360.

7 Tod B. Galloway, “The Ohio-Michigan Boundary Line Dispute,” Ohio archaeological and historical Society Publications, Volume IV, (1896): 204.

8 H. L. Hosmer, Early History of the Maumee Valley, Toledo: Hosmer & Harris, 1858). 59.

9 William Heath, Blacksnake’s Path: The True adventures of William Wells (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2008)

10 This author wishes to thank Cameron Shriver, History Department, The Ohio State University; Mrs. Pat Medart, local historian and author, McKell Library, Ross County Historical Society, James Williams, author and Dr. William Heath, author, for their special assistance in my attempts to place William Wells in Chillicothe in 1802. History is truly a team sport.