The Missouri/Iowa Honey War of 1839

In 1839, the state of Missouri and the territory of Iowa almost came to blows over a border conflict that involved a dispute over honeybee trees.

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The disputed border                                                     photo from WikiCommons

In 1816, the United States concluded a treaty with the Osage Native Americans in Missouri which ceded a large chunk of land to settlers and settled disputes that had been going on since before the War of 1812. Unfortunately, when a surveyor named Sullivan was hired to lay out the new borders, he made an elementary blunder—instead of following a heading from true north, he followed magnetic north by mistake. As a result, his border intercepted a set of rapids on the Mississippi River known as the “Des Moines Rapids”. But when Missouri became a state in 1821, the section of the state constitution which defined the borders was written by people who had never actually been there, and this border was mistakenly attributed as “westward of the rapids of the river Des Moines” (which did not actually exist).

The confusion became significant in 1837, when it became apparent that Iowa was about to be officially organized as a US Territory and would soon afterwards be asking for statehood. So another surveyor, hired by the Governor of Missouri, set out to clarify the border. But because he was sent to look for rapids on the Des Moines River (where there weren’t any) instead of the Des Moines Rapids on the Mississippi River (where he was actually supposed to be), he rather arbitrarily chose a spot that looked good, and set the border from there. This just caused even more confusion, so a year later Iowa asked the Federal Government to send yet another surveying expedition, which laid out yet another border—which Missouri refused to accept.

So, by 1839, there were several different putative “borders” between Iowa and Missouri, ranging from nine to eleven miles apart and with around 2600 square miles of land in between. Naturally, Missouri claimed the northernmost of these borders (which coincidentally gave Missouri the most land) and Iowa claimed the southernmost (which coincidentally gave Iowa the most land). Most importantly, both states also claimed the right to collect taxes in the disputed territory.

The situation came to a head in the spring of 1839 when a farmer from Missouri (whose name has unfortunately been lost to history) cut down three bee trees in the disputed zone (reportedly in what is now Lacey-Keosauqua State Park) and sold the valuable honey and beeswax—without paying any taxes on it. Authorities from Iowa first requested that Missouri return the offender for arrest, and when officials refused, an Iowa court promptly tried the offending Missourian in abstentia and issued a fine of $1.50 (a not insignificant sum in those days).

That, in turn, brought a hot-headed protest from Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, who asserted that the land belonged to Missouri. In response, Iowa territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued a proclamation ordering the arrest of anyone in the territory who claimed authority from Missouri: “I do likewise admonish all persons residing within the limits of this territory to desist from the acceptance of any office or trust from any State or Authority other than the United States or the Territory of Iowa.” Governor Boggs replied with a proclamation of his own: “I do moreover forewarn all persons residing within the limits of the territory embraced by the present boundaries of the State of Missouri as they have been established by the laws thereof, from taking upon themselves any office or public trust, or exercise any power to do any act appertaining to such office or trust, without a lawful appointment or deputation therefore from the proper authorities of this State.”

In August Governor Boggs ordered Uriah “Sandy” Gregory, the sheriff from Clark County, Missouri, to enter the disputed area and begin to collect taxes from all the residents there. Gregory was quickly surrounded by 1200 local residents who, as he put it in a dispatch to Boggs, “declare if I pretend to use any authority which I am invested by the State of Missouri, they will take me by fourse (sic) and put me in confinement.” The Iowans were as good as their word, and a posse of civilians led by Sheriff Henry Heffleman promptly “arrested” Sheriff Gregory, charged him with “usurpation of authority”, and confined him in the town jail in Muscatine.

Things began to get out of hand. By December, both sides had mobilized around 1,000 local militia who, armed mostly with old flintlocks, pitchforks, and whatever else they could scrounge up, moved to the edges of the disputed area and, fueled by large rations of whiskey, threatened each other. (The Iowans flew a banner that defiantly read, “Death to the invading Pukes!”)

In the midst of winter, though, both sides had neglected to provide themselves with blankets or food, and the Iowans were reduced to raiding the local general store and requisitioning whatever they wanted (the state government later paid compensation for the official thievery). The Missourians, meanwhile, disappointed that there wasn’t a fight, took two hunks of dead deer meat, labeled them “Governor Boggs” and “Governor Lucas”, shot them both with a few volleys, then buried them with military ceremony.

Fortunately, both Governors backed down before anybody began shooting at each other, and both militias were disbanded and sent home. The dispute was sent to the US Supreme Court, which issued a ruling in 1849 setting the boundary along the original 1816 line, roughly halfway through the disputed territory—but ordered that the area be re-surveyed to correct the mistakes that Sullivan had made. 

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2 thoughts on “The Missouri/Iowa Honey War of 1839”

  1. Neatly demonstrates how little politicians care about people. I have some sympathy for people living in the disputed areas, who now find themselves milked for taxes by two different governments.

    I would think a responsible and decent political leader would care first and foremost about them, and try to find a resolution to such a dispute. But no such luck.

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