Border warfare, Midwestern style
We take the shape, size and boundaries of the state of Iowa for granted today. That wasn’t always the case.
The Mississippi and Missouri rivers were established very early as the east and most of the west borders of the state. The northern boundary was set after a little discussion in Congress.
But Iowa’s southern border, the one shared with Missouri, had a more colorful birthing.
It was finally decided after years of squabbling between the state of Missouri and the territory (later the state) of Iowa, sometimes so heated that sheriffs and even militias of the two entities stood toe-to-toe, ready to duke it out in defense of their respective claims.
After the Sauk and Meskwaki, under war chief Black Hawk of the Sauks, were defeated by U.S. troops in the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, the tribes sold their rights to their lands in portions of what is now eastern and southeastern Iowa.
Iowa became part of Wisconsin Territory.
White settlers immediately swarmed across the Mississippi River, and their growing number convinced Wisconsin Territory officials that drawing a true boundary between the Iowa district and Missouri was imperative.
But exactly where was the border between the state of Missouri, created by Congress in 1821, and Wisconsin Territory?
The nub of the problem, similar to that of other boundary disputes in American history, lay in the wording of a treaty, in this case between Indians and the United States.
In 1816, a survey of the region, taken to define the line of separation between the tribes and the American nation, described the northern extent of settled jurisdiction west of the Mississippi River as an east-west line whose eastern terminus was “the rapids of the Des Moines River.”
That wording could be interpreted in two ways: first, as the rapids of the Mississippi where the Des Moines River joined it, or as the rapids IN the Des Moines River about 14 miles north of the confluence.
When Missouri took up the issue in 1839, that state, led by Gov. Lilburn Boggs, took the latter position, which would add valuable land to that state’s area.
By the late 1830s, Iowa Territory had been carved out of the larger Wisconsin Territory, and Iowa leaders, particularly territorial Gov. Robert Lucas, argued strongly for the point downstream where the two rivers met, thereby handing the disputed land to Iowa.
Both governors had reputations as fighters.
Boggs in 1838 had called out his militia for the removal or extermination of Mormons who had established their movement’s headquarters in northwest Missouri. Lucas, as former governor of Ohio, had called out that state’s militia in a dispute with Michigan Territory over a territorial dispute about the area around Toledo.
When the sheriff of Clark County, the Missouri county adjoining the disputed region, rode in to try to collect property taxes from residents, the argument heated up.
The sheriff of the newly organized Van Buren County in Iowa Territory promptly arrested his Missouri counterpart, tried him in a local court and clapped him in jail in Farmington, Iowa.
The situation grew more touchy when a Missourian came onto the disputed land and cut down four dead trees that housed bee hives, a resource that local Iowans had called their own.
The arrest of the Clark County sheriff, and the bee hive incident — giving the dispute the name The Honey War — spurred both governors to military action.
Gov. Boggs called out the Missouri militia, and 800 of those troops mustered along the Missouri side of the disputed area. Lucas did the same for Iowa, and 600 Iowans faced off on the Iowa side, armed with muskets, pitchforks, hoes, spears, scythes, clubs and an old-fashioned sausage stuffer.
Local residents on both sides saved the day.
They jointly petitioned their respective governors to call off the troops, and both governors were soon replaced. But the disputed border remained an issue. After Iowans several times rejected referendums for statehood in the early 1840s, they finally narrowly approved it, and Congress created the state of Iowa in 1846.
The definition of “the rapids of the Des Moines River” finally made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1847, which ruled unanimously in early 1849 in Iowa’s favor — the rapids in question were indeed those where the Des Moines River joined the Mississippi, not upstream to the north on the Des Moines.
A new survey in 1851 finally drew the official border line between the two states, and the Honey War was settled peacefully, without resort to bloodshed.
Would that all such disputes, national and international, could have such a resolution.