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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Honey War

By Tom Morrow

When Robert Lucas assumed the duties as Iowa’s territorial governor in the 1830s, he found a serious border dispute brewing. The issue: the boundary between Iowa and Missouri. Iowa’s first governor had been in office less than two years when the two states’ militias were faced off, ready to go to war..

When Missouri became a State in 1820, her northern boundary was the latitude passing through the “rapids of the river Des Moines.” At the time, the land along that boundary was in the possession of Native American tribes, but when they were removed some years later, Missouri took steps to establish exact limits.

In 1836, Missouri declared the “rapids in the Des Moines River and the parallel of latitude indicated that which ran through the great bend in the Des Moines River near Keosauqua, Iowa.”

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. Travelers, settlers, river men, and even the Indians called them the “Des Moines Rapids.” To add more confusion, the southern boundary of Iowa was defined by the U.S. Congress as “the northern boundary of Missouri.”

Missouri claimed a strip of land some 13 miles wide, which today forms Iowa’s southern border. The people living in Southern Iowa and Northern Missouri were of hearty pioneer stock and paid little attention to law, but when a Missouri sheriff tried to collect taxes on honey trees in what he considered being in his Clarke County, Iowa settlers claimed he was out of his jurisdiction and arrested him.

When the attempt to levy taxes was rebuffed, the Missouri governor ordered 1,000 militia to uphold what he deemed “the dignity of the State.”

Governor Lucas, of Iowa Territory, himself a soldier, had successfully settled a similar contest when he was governor of Ohio. Ohio and Michigan, quarreled over a piece of land known as the “Toledo Strip.” He was quick to react in this matter. In the Iowa-Missouri stand-off, Lucas called for his militia to repel an invasion by Missouri.

The settlements in Iowa Territory of 1839, were scattered with a poorly organized militia. But within a short time the call to arms brought 500 Hawkeyes bearing down on the Missourians. The two forces were glaring at each other, anxious for a fight.

Fortunately no one was hurt. The Iowans sent a peace commission into Missouri. The result: Clarke County’s levying of taxes was withdrawn. A committee was dispatched to present the Iowa Territorial Legislature in Burlington with a proposal for friendly arbitration. Hawkeye troops were withdrawn and the Iowa Legislature agreed to a peace treaty.

But, although war was averted, the dispute wasn’t settled. It wasn’t until Jan. 3, 1851, did the U.S. Supreme Court make a final ruling. Iowa won. The Supreme Court did not accept the claims of either side as to the rapids. It was an old Indian boundary line run by a government surveyor in 1816, that was selected as the proper one. The eastern terminus of the boundary came farther south below the point insisted by Missouri, which satisfied Iowa.

The question was decided just in time because Missouri was a slave State and Iowa was “free” of slavery. A boundary such as the one between the two states was vital.

Because the land claimed by both Iowa and Missouri was, for the most part, heavily wooded and rich in bee trees. The quarrel became known as the “Honey War.” Many jokes were made between Iowans and Missourians about the contest; frontier poets wrote about it and stories were circulated for years about the time when Iowa and Missouri nearly went to war over a little bit ‘o honey.

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