Born on October 27, 1811, Stevens Thomason Mason began life in Loudoun County, Virginia on the family estate, “Raspberry Plain,” with a political silver spoon in his mouth. Thomason Mason, his great-grandfather, was the chief justice of Virginia’s Supreme Court. His great-great-uncle, Armistead Thomson Mason served as a US Senator from Virginia. Other relatives were found in state House of Representatives from Kentucky, in addition to being her representatives in the US House. Governors of both Louisiana and Missouri were also listed in his pedigree, as was a Postmaster General.
Moving his family from Virginia in 1812, Stevens’ father, John Thomas Mason, sought to find his fortune in Kentucky. Though he brought little money with him, John did bring a William and Mary degree, a large library and a strong determination to succeed. By 1815, John had bought a 300-acre estate, which he named “Serenity Hall.”
After their arrival, President James Monroe appointed John a US marshal in the territory. His connections to an influential family, however, were of little help in preventing John’s business ventures from becoming utter failures and placing his family on the cusp of total ruin. Though a successful lawyer, John was highly inept at business and fell prey to a number of worthless schemes. Son Stevens now traded his school books for a grocer’s apron in an effort to help his father support the family.
In 1830, John was appointed as Secretary of the Michigan Territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs by President Andrew Jackson. Leaving the genteel atmosphere of Kentucky, Detroit was quite a shock to the Mason family. A bumptious backwoods town, Detroit boasted a population composed of rough, unfashionable people and a open sewer winding its way through the town. Stevens, now a young adult, had developed a larger degree of political savvy than John and was instrumental in protecting his father from a number of schemes which were launched by various anti-Jackson forces. In doing so, Stevens learned various subtleties of public administration. His actions soon caught the eye of Territorial Governor Lewis Cass.
When John was sent to Mexico on a mission by President Jackson, Stevens was appointed his father’s replacement on July 12, 1831; even though at the time the young Mason was a mere 19 years old and not yet old enough to vote. At this same time, Governor Cass was tapped by President Jackson for the post of Secretary of War and George Bryan Porter now moved into the position of governor. For various and sundry reasons, Porter was frequently absent from his post, so now third in line on the political totem pole, Stevens found himself acting as governor on various occasions, which earned him the nickname, the “Boy Governor.” During this time, Mason saw the state through a major cholera epidemic and helped to raise forces for the Black Hawk War. This also presented Stevens the opportunity to have a large influence in petitioning Michigan for statehood.
After coming of legal age in 1832, Mason cast his first official ballot on October 23rd. Though Austin E. Wing, the candidate who received Mason’s vote, lost the election, the campaign served to bring Mason to the front page of America’s newspapers. The Ann Arbor Emigrant referred to Wing as “a protégé of the Boy Governor”, an epithet which remained with him as long as he held office in Michigan. Angered by the title, Mason later crossed paths with the editor of the paper on a Detroit street and set about giving the individual a severe beating. A rival of the Emigrant, the Ann Arbor Argus, ran the story which stated, “. . . stripling, the Boy Governor, if you please, was man enough to give him a sound cuffing.”
In 1832, Michigan’s first statehood petition was submitted, but not acted upon. When that happened, Mason commissioned a territorial census. This was completed in 1834, with the results showing the lower peninsula of the territory contained a population of 86,000 individuals; more than enough to meet the 60,000+ requirement set forth in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Between 1835 and 1836, a battle erupted between Michigan and Ohio known as the “Toledo War”. This conflict was virtually bloodless and consisted of a boundary dispute between the state of Ohio and territory of Michigan, with the roots of the quarrel found in the poor understanding of the Great Lakes geographical features. This led to both governments laying claim to a region 468 square miles in size, referred to as the Toledo Strip. When Michigan included this land area in its petition for statehood, it gave Ohio’s congressional delegation the ammunition it needed to stall Michigan’s admission into the Union. Legislation was passed by both sides during 1835 in an effort to force the hand of the cross-boundary rival; however, neither Governor Robert Lucas of Ohio nor “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason were willing to fold. This led to militias being raised and criminal penalties inflicted upon citizens who gave in to the opposing side’s authority. The Maumee River near Toledo served as the “Mason-Dixon” line of the conflict, with only one military confrontation occurring, composed mostly of shots being fired in the air with no casualties resulting.
Mason’s actions during the Toledo War resulted in President Jackson removing Mason from office, due to the fact he did not want to alienate political support in Ohio. Though the president may have considered Mason to be a liability at the time, the residents of Michigan considered Mason a vital asset and when the state’s constitution was approved in October 1835, Stevens Mason was elected Governor. During his first term, Governor Mason developed a series of programs, including the creation of an educational system, established the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an internal improvement program, in addition to passing a banking law.
As the summer of 1836 unfolded, Congress offered a compromise to the conflict. If Michigan would relinquish its claim to the Toledo Strip, in exchange it would be given the western two-thirds of the Upper Peninsula (Michigan already held claim to the eastern third). Given the fact the Upper Peninsula was at that time Indian Territory, Michigan residents felt they had been given the short end of the stick and soundly rejected the idea during the state convention in September. By December, Michigan was not only in the throes of a dire financial crisis, it was also coming under pressure by Congress and President Jackson to accept the compromise. Governor Mason agreed. In doing so, the Toledo War was resolved. What may have seemed like a “pig-in-a-poke” for Michigan at the time later proved to be a tremendous windfall with respect to natural resources. The Upper Peninsula was later discovered to be rich in copper and iron deposits, along with plentiful timber. These resources alone more than offset the financial losses Michigan experienced with the loss of the Toledo Strip. On January 26, 1837, Michigan officially became the 26th state.
Re-elected as governor in 1837, Mason made a trip to New York in an effort to finance internal improvements within Michigan due to a weakened economy resulting from the Panic of 1837. While there, he met Julia Phelps, who became his wife on November 1, 1838. The couple would go on to have three children. Mason left politics the following year and in 1841, moved to New York City. Here he attempted to establish a law practice, but found it difficult to build a clientele.
During the winter of 1842, Mason contracted pneumonia and died on the night of January 4, 1843. He was 31 years old. He was originally buried in the New York Marble Cemetery; but his remains were moved by his sister Emily (92 years old at the time) to Detroit on June 4, 1905. The funeral served was conducted by Reverend David M. Cooper, who had known Governor Mason 70 years earlier. His remains were then interred at Capitol Park, with a bronze statue of his likeness erected over the supposed location of the grave on a granite pedestal.
On September 3, 2009, it was announced the park was to be reconfigured, so the statue and remains would be relocated. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, when crews began to excavate the site in June 2010, no grave was found. A four day search commenced, ending with the Boy Governor’s remains being discovered on June 29th, a few yards south of where they were originally thought to be. Prior to burial, Mason’s remains traveled to Lansing and lay in state in the Capitol Building, adding his name to a list of only two other Michigan governors to lay in state in the Capitol. On October 27, 2010, Mason’s 199th birthday, he was reburied for the fourth time with the Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul officiating.