Iowa History Project


Making of Iowa

Chapter XXV

A Little Border War

When Governor Lucas entered upon the duties of his office he found a serious dispute on his hands.  The issue at point was the northern boundary of Missouri - or the southern boundary of Iowa - and before the first executive of Iowa Territory had been in office two years Iowa and Missouri militia were opposing one another, ready to engage in battle.

When Missouri became a State in 1820 her constitution defined her northern boundary as the parallel of latitude that passed through the "rapids of the river Des Moines."  The land along this parallel was then in the possession of the Indians, but as soon as the Indian title expired Missouri took steps to establish her exact limits.

In 1836 Missouri appointed a commission to locate this boundary.  The United States and the Territory of Wisconsin were invited to have representatives on the commission, but failed to respond.  Missouri went ahead alone.  In 1837 her commission decided that the "rapids in the Des Moines River itself, and that the parallel of latitude indicated by the constitution must be the one passing through the great bend in the Des Moines River, near Keosauqua.

By common usage, for many years the term "Des Moines Rapids" had been taken to mean the rapids in the Mississippi, just above the mouth of the Des Moines.  All reports by travelers who ascended the Mississippi, and all description by rivermen, and even Indians, called these rapids the "Des Moines Rapids."

So here was ground for stubborn argument.  To increase the difficulties and confusion, the southern boundary of Wisconsin Territory was defined by Congress as the northern boundary of Missouri!

Thus Missouri claimed a strip of land some thirteen miles wide, now forming Iowa's southern border.  The people living in Southern Wisconsin and Northern Missouri were rough and impulsive, ready with the rifle, and awed but little by law.  When a Missouri sheriff tried to exercise his duties in what he considered Northern missouri, the settlers there asserted that he was out of his jurisdiction, and they refused to recognize his authority.  He was arrested.  Names were called and threats were made.

The dispute was fiercest on the border between Clarke County, Missouri, and what is now Van Buren County, Iowa.  The clerk of Clarke County attempted to levy taxes in Iowa, and was resisted.  He then appealed to Governor Boggs, of Missouri.  That executive ordered out 1,000 militia to uphold what he deemed the dignity of the State.

Governor Lucas, of Iowa Territory, already had passed through a similar contest, when he was Governor of Ohio, between Ohio and Michigan Territory, and had come out with flying colors.  Besides, he was a soldier, and prompt in his actions.  He at once called for Iowa militia to keep back what promised to be an invasion by Missouri.

The settlements in Iowa Territory at this time, the latter part of 1839, were scattered, and the militia was poorly organized.  But within a short time after the call to arms 500 Hawkeyes, under orders from Major-General Jesse 13.  Browne, were encamped in Van Buren County, and directly opposite were 1,000 Missourians, under General Allen.  The two forces were glaring at each other, anxious for a fracas.

Fortunately no fighting occurred.  Major-General Browne sent a peace commission into Clarke County.  When this commission arrived at Waterloo it was ascertained that the order for levying of taxes had been withdrawn, and that a committee had been dispatched to present to the Iowa Legislature, then in session at Burlington, proposals for friendly arbitration.

General Allen withdrew his troops.  The Iowa Legislature assented to a treaty of peace.  The valiant Iowa Militia was dismissed.

The boundary dispute was not yet settled, although war was averted.  Not until January 3, 1851, did the Supreme Court of the United States make a final decree.  Iowa won, for while the Supreme Court did not accept the claims of either side as to the rapids, an old Indian boundary line run by John Sullivan, government surveyor, in 1816, was selected by the court as the proper one.  This was run over again by a commission, to correct errors.  The eastern terminus came much below the point insisted on by Missouri, and Iowa was satisfied.

The question was decided just in time.  Missouri was a slave State, Iowa a free State, and a tract such as this, if in dispute, would cause most serious trouble.

The land claimed by both Iowa and Missouri was for the most part heavily wooded, and rich in bee trees.  On this account the quarrel has been termed the "Honey War."  Many jokes were made about the contest.  Frontier poets even wrote verse about it.  A Missouri wag composed quite a long poem, which had wide circulation through the settlements.  It began as follows:

Ye freemen of this happy land,

Which flows with milk and honey,

Arise!  To arms!  Your ponies mount!

Regard not blood or money.

Old Governor Lucas, tiger-like,

Is prowling round our borders,

But Governor Boggs is wide awake-

Just to listen to his orders:


Three bee trees stand about the line

Between our state and Lucas.

Be ready all these trees to fall

And bring things to a focus.

We'll show old Lucas how to brag,

And seize our precious honey!

He also claims, I understand,

Of us three bits in money.

This "Honey War" was full of amusing incidents, arising from the confusion.  Settlers living on the strip in dispute did not know whether they were Iowans or Missourians.

One day two old women of the tract were gossiping together about the ownership of the land.  Said one, shaking her head slowly:

"I dew hope it won't fall tew Missouri, fer Missouri's so sickly."

"Wall, I dunno," replied the other, puffing at her pipe.  "They alluz raise wheat in Missouri."

Just as though a change in government would change the climate!

Among the settlers of the strip were Samuel Riggs and Jonathan Riggs.  They were cousins.  Samuel was sheriff of Davis County, Iowa, and Jonathan was sheriff of Schuyler County, Missouri.  Both counties claimed the land.  Jonathan arrested Samuel for infriging on the laws of Missouri, and thereupon Samuel arrested Jonathan for holding office in Missouri while living in Iowa.  Samuel was so angry that he confined his cousin in jail for two months.

It can easily be seen what curious situations would arise from this dispute between Iowa and Missouri.

One of the results of the "Honey War" was the first review of the Iowa militia.  When the call was issued by Governor Lucas for troops to repel invasion by Missouri, the Iowa militia had hardly been formed, and was much inferior to the troops of Missouri.  Governor Lucas hurriedly appointed commissioned officers in the localities where companies were to be raised.  Couriers were sent out on horseback to various points to request all able-bodied men to meet at some locality for the purpose of enlistment.  Usually a blacksmith shop or a schoolhouse was selected as a convenient rallying place.

The recruits were ordered to bring with them what weapons they possessed or could procure.  Outlying districts did not even know why militia was wanted, but the response to Governor Lucas' appeal was earnest and loyal.

The troops were armed with rifles, shotguns, pistols, and other firearms of a variety of forms.  Some of the officers had trailing dragoon swords; some had straight dress swords; some had no swords.  No tow men were attired or armed alike.  The Iowa Territorial militia of the winter of 1839-40 was a strange sight.

About 1,200 men enlisted under Governor Lucas' proclamation, yet this militia never was paid for its services.  Neither were the persons who furnished supplies recompensed for their efforts.  Soon after the hostile demonstrations on the border had been quieted, a review of the Border War Army of Iowa Territory was ordered, to take place at Burlington.  The Governor wished to ascertain the condition and the numerical strength of the troops.  Many of the soldiers hoped the review was ordered so that a payroll might be made up, and were deluded into vain rejoicings.

The Territorial militia was very green, having had comparatively no drill.  The men were hastily instructed by Colonel Temple, the commanding officer, so that they might make as presentable an appearance as was possible, under the conditions.  In particular, they were impressed with the idea that to be military they must look stern.

The reviewing party consisted of the Governor, his aides, and Lieutenant Ruggles, of the regular army, the inspecting officer.  All were on horseback.  Governor Lucas wore a blue jeans coat, long, and buttoned closely about his body; his trousers were tucked into high, stout boots; his hat was by no means new.  Lieutenant Ruggles was gorgeous, for the army uniform of those days was brilliant with lace and glitter.

His frock coat was of the regulation blue, richly adorned with gold lace and gilt buttons.  The collar was a tall stock, which tightly enclosed his throat, as by a vice.  His boots had buff tops.  Huge epaulets were on his shoulders, and on his head a chapeau with two long plumes waving from it.  The settlers stared at him in admiration.

In marching in review, the militia traversed a field.  The ground was uneven, and covered with stumps, hazel brush and the limbs of trees.  Every few moments a soldier would stub his toe, and fall.  Then his companions, or an officer, would swear at him.  When the order, "Present arms," was given, the line showed a medley of rifles and shotguns.

The soldiers watched the handsome lieutenant much more closely than they did their maneuvers.



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