IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
THE IOWA-MISSOURI BOUNDARY WAR
When Governor Lucas arrived at Burlington in 1838, he found that he had many problems to solve. One of these was a serious dispute as to the location of the boundary between the Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri. A strip of land from nine to thirteen miles wide along the border was claimed both by Missouri and Iowa.
Governor Lucas had been through a similar dispute with Michigan when he was governor of Ohio. He insisted that the quarrel was not between Missouri and Iowa, but between Missouri and the United States, since Iowa was still a territory. If the Missourians started a war about the location of the boundary, they would be fighting the United States, he declared.
The trouble had its beginning long before any settlers came to Iowa. In 1816, J. C. Sullivan had been employed by the United States government to survey and mark the boundaries of the Osage Indian lands in Missouri. When Missouri became a state in 1821, that part of the Sullivan line which extended due west from the Des Moines River to a point near the present northwestern corner of Missouri was regarded as the northern boundary of the new state. In 1824 an extension of this line from the Des Moines River to the Mississippi was regarded as the northern boundary of the Half-Breed Tract.
No question was raised about the boundary until after settlers began to move into northeastern Missouri and southeastern Iowa in the late thirties. By this time the marks of the old Indian boundary or Sullivan line could scarcely be found, and the settlers in this region did not know whether they lived in Iowa or Missouri.
In 1837 the legislature of Missouri ordered the line to be resurveyed. The constitution of Missouri defined the northern boundary as the parallel of latitude which passed through the "rapids of the river Des Moines." J. C. Brown, who was employed to survey the line, apparently did not know that the Des Moines Rapids were in the Mississippi River. He looked for them in the Des Moines River and found a riffle at the Great Bend near the present town of Keosauqua. There he began his survey running the line due west. This line was several miles north of the Sullivan line, which for many years had been considered the boundary.
Then the trouble began. When Missouri officers tried to collect taxes in the region that is now the southern part of Davis and Van Buren Counties, the settlers refused to pay. They appealed to Governor Lucas and he defended their action. Then Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri came to the rescue of the Missouri officers who had tried to collect taxes. The quarrel grew hotter and hotter.
In the region under dispute were several bee trees which the settlers valued because of the honey stored in the hollow trunks. When a Missourian chopped down three of these trees it made the Iowans very angry. An Iowa officer tried to arrest the man who chopped down the trees but he escaped into Missouri. On account of this bee-tree incident the quarrel has sometimes been called the Honey War.
Shortly after the bee trees had been chopped down, the sheriff of Van Buren County, Iowa, arrested the sheriff of Clark County, Missouri, when he tried to collect taxes in the disputed area. This made the Missourians very angry. The militia of of Lewis and Clark Counties in Missouri began to assemble, and soon a thousand or more men were in camp at Waterloo, Missouri, ready to invade Iowa.
As soon as Governor Lucas learned of these preparations for war, he sent a United States marshal into Van Buren County to take charge of affairs. Then he ordered the officers of the territorial militia to call out their men. Although it was in the middle of winter, 1839, more than a thousand Iowans answered the call to arms. They started for the seat of war from as afar north as the Turkey River, but not more than five hundred reached the main camp at Farmington, a few miles north of Waterloo. Before the others arrived the war was ended.
It was a queer looking army that gathered to repel the threatened invasion of the Missouri militia. Each man wore whatever he had for a uniform, and never perhaps did an army have such a curious assortment of weapons. There were rifles, muskets, shotguns, pistols, long swords, and short swords. While the two armies were being assembled, cooler headed men on both sides were busy trying to see if war could not be avoided. The best thing to do seemed to be to let the Supreme Court of the United States decide the case.
When the commander of the Iowa troops at Farmington sent a peace delegation to Waterloo, they found that the Missouri troops had already gone home. There was nothing left for the Iowa soldiers to do but to go home also.
In 1849 the Supreme Court decided that the old Sullivan line was the true boundary, and the surveyors were ordered to remark the line. They searched for several days to find the blazed tree that marked the original northwestern corner of Missouri. They found the mark by chopping into a decayed tree trunk. Then the surveyors ran the line west to the Missouri River and east to the Des Moines River from that point. Large iron pillars were put at the corners, and at intervals all along the boundary iron or wooden posts were placed to mark the line. When their work was completed and accepted by the Supreme Court, the Iowa-Missouri boundary dispute came to an end.
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