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Iowa History Daily: November 5 - Honey War Heats Up

Iowa History Daily: On November 5, 1839, Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas addressed the Legislature about a bloodless territorial dispute with Missouri known as the “Honey War.”. A dispute which went to the United States Supreme Court, the conflict eventually set the southern border of Iowa familiar today.

The dispute centered on a 9.5 mile-wide strip running west from the Des Moines River along the border between Iowa and Missouri. Confusion arose due to unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution relating to the northern boundary, problems with the Louisiana Purchase survey, and issues related to treaties with the areas Indigenous peoples. American surveyor John C. Sullivan set out to survey a line 100 miles north of where the Kansas River emptied into the Missouri and straight east to the Des Moines River. The plan meant to terminate the line at the Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi River, the eventual location of First Fort Des Moines at Montrose.

Sullivan’s survey consisted of markers placed along the line, establishing the northwestern border of Missouri with a marker near Sheridan. Passing just south of Farmington, Iowa, in Van Buren County, Sullivan took no special notice of any rapids and continued on to the Mississippi. Confusion over the Des Moines River and the Des Moines Rapids precipitated the confusion over the border. In 1837, Missouri ordered the line resurveyed. The surveyor, J.C. Brown looked hard for rapids in the Des Moines River due to the confusion, and identified some at Keosauqua, roughly 9.5 miles further north than the Sullivan survey’s line.

As the dispute heated up, Missouri claimed not only the Keosauqua line, but Iowaclaimed the southern border of the territory extended fifteen miles into Missouri at the location near where the Des Moines empties into the Mississippi at Keokuk. Basing their claims on the Keosauqua-based line, tax collectors from Missouri arrived in the eventual area of Van Buren and Davis counties and sought to collect from residents. According to local legend, the future Iowans chased off the tax collectors with pitchforks. Not to be denied, however, the Missouri agents cut down three trees in the area of today’s Lacey-Keosauqua State Park containing honey bee hives.

As tensions ratcheted up, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs sent out eleven members of the 14th Division, Missouri State Militia from Palmyra to protect the government tax agents. In response, a group of Iowans captured Clark County, Missouri’s sheriff and locked him in the Muscatine City Jail. Territorial Governor of Iowa Robert Lucas also called out his troops before the two governors agreed to allow the federal government to sort out the mess. In 1846, when Iowa gained statehood, Congress stipulated the modern line as the boundary, and three years later the United States Supreme Court upheld the line. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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