1839 – The Iowa & Missouri Honey War.

Did you know that in the Fall of 1839, the good people of the Territory of Iowa came very close to going to war with the citizens of the State of Missouri?

The reason for a war? A growing dispute over the location of the border line between Iowa and Missouri.

In 1835, Lieutenant Albert M. Lea made an extensive journey into Iowa, drawing up a map that was published in 1836. On his map, he drew the Iowa/Missouri border on a line that’s very similar to what we have today. Read more here about Lea’s discoveries.

On the map below, you can see, by 1839, there were three different opinions on where the Iowa/Missouri border was – and it was this unresolved issue that was the cause of the big squabble…

1816 – The Sullivan Line.
1837 – The Missouri Line or Brown Line.
1838 – The Iowa Line.

In 1816, the United States Government commissioned John C. Sullivan to locate the northern border of Missouri Territory. Originally, this boundary was to distinguish a solid line between the United States and those lands still belonging to the Osage Nation (1806), but, over time, as the Osage people were forced westward, The Sullivan Line evolved into the dividing line that defined which U.S. states were slave states and which were free – which becomes an important point later in our story.

Missouri Territory 1812-1821. As it turned out, the Sullivan Line of 1816 had too many uncertainties and discrepancies, so when Missouri became a state in 1821, the legislators of the Show-Me State attempted to better define the line as running from East to West, starting at the East bank of the Missouri River and ending “at the Des Moines rapids” – which picked up on Sullivan’s rather vague description. Over the next 12 years (1821-1833), any uncertainties of what Sullivan meant were overlooked, but when settlers began coming into Iowa in 1833, it became obvious that Missourians – in 1821 – were defining “the Des Moines rapids” as a spot on the Des Moines River which was about ten miles further north than a similar spot on the Mississippi River called “the Des Moines rapids”! It was this uncertainty that left Missouri and Wisconsin Territory (of which Iowa was a part of until 1838) unable to reach an agreement as to where the border actually was. Which brings us, now, to option #2…

In 1837, Missouri hired a surveyor named J.C. Brown, who preferred the Missouri definition of “the Des Moines rapids”, so when he was done, The Brown Line claimed a large chunk of Wisconsin Territory (Iowa) farm land located anywhere from 9 to 13 miles north of the original Sullivan Line.

In 1838, as Iowa was breaking away from Wisconsin Territory – becoming its own U.S. Territory – the good people of Iowa decided that Missouri’s Brown Line was a complete farce, so after drawing up our own map – which generously drew The Iowa Line south of the Sullivan Line – the Federal Government decided to get involved.

Just as Iowa was preparing to become a Territory – in June 1838 – President Martin Van Buren was given authority by the U.S. Congress to appoint a team of three surveyors – giving them the assignment of re-surveying the land and to make their recommendations to Congress so a final decision on the border could be determined. Van Buren appointed Albert M. Lea to serve on behalf of the U.S. Government, Governor Robert Lucas appointed – on the behalf of Iowa – Dr. James Davis, but Missouri’s Governor – Lilburn Boggs – in an attempt to delay or disrupt the government project – stubbornly refused to name a third person to the team.

Tired of waiting, Lea and Davis proceeded with the project, working late into the fall and early winter (December 1838). Despite being slowed up by personal sickness and inclement weather conditions, the team finished up their final charts by January, and sent them off, with their recommendations, for Congress to consider. Here are their findings – which in all honesty – brought even more uncertainty to the situation…

Albert M. Lea – a man known for his exactness – and the man who actually gave Iowa its name – ended up his report – sent directly to the National Land Office – by pointing out that there were actually four different interpretations (see map above), rather than three, and that only two of those options (Lines #3 or #4) would be appropriate because Congress insisted that whatever line was chosen, it must run parallel with existing latitude lines – which #1 and #2 (Sullivan’s 1816 work) failed to do. So, basically, he left the final decision to Congress.

As for Dr. James Davis, who sent his report directly to Governor Lucas, the surveyor basically agreed with Lea that there were only two choices for Congress, but he strongly argued for Iowa’s viewpoint (Line #3 in Lea’s map), saying that the Sullivan’s 1816 phrase – “at the Des Moines rapids” – could only have one logical meaning, and that when Missouri redefined that phrase in 1821, and again in 1837 with The Brown Line, it was, basically, a simple land-grab by the Show-Me State. Below is a rare postal cover and letter that Davis wrote to Governor Lucas on January 10, 1838

(JP-059) This very rare postal cover and letter was written on January 10, 1839 by Dr. James Davis, surveyor, who was in Lafayette, Indiana at the time, where it was postmarked on January 12, 1839. The letter was sent to Governor Robert Lucas, Burlington, Iowa Territory, and we are guessing that the letter also contained Davis’ survey maps which were, most likely, sent on to Washington D.C. by Governor Lucas.
Lafayette Ia [Indiana] – Jan 10th 1839
His Excellency – Robert Lucas – Governor of the Ter. Iowa

Sir. I, this day, forward to you my report on the subject of the Southern boundary line of the Territory of Iowa. I should have transmitted it to your Excellency before this time, but was anxious to see Lt. Lea’s report before I finished my own, but find it will not do to wait any longer. I presume the subject will not come up in Congress until the latter part of the session, and hope the report will reach Washington in time. I have not yet received the first line
(letter) from Mr. Lea since I left him. He promised to write me from St. Louis and Baltimore and inform me what his report would be, but has failed to comply with his pledge or the mail has miscarried. I shall remain here (Lafayette, Indiana) until I know what Congress has done with the boundary subject. I can get communications from Washington to this place in 9 days.

Very respectfully – Your Obt. Servt. – James Davis
While, we can’t prove this theory, it’s possible that the Dr. James Davis – the author/surveyor of our letter – just might be I.B. Davis, (J.B.?) – who did the surveying work for the road from Bloomington to Iowa City in Johnson County in 1840. Could these two signatures (above) be the same man? Read more here.

So, as you can see, surveyors Albert M. Lea and Dr. James Davis did their job well, giving Congress their opinions. But, as we mentioned earlier, the Missouri Governor – Lilburn Boggs – refused to be a part of this work, and in February 1839 reported to Congress that he was not willing to wait for them to make a decision, and that Missouri would still abide by the 1837 Brown Line!

As a result of all this surveying delay, the settlers living in the southern portion of Van Buren County, Iowa (see map above) were basically living in a “no-man’s” land – with both Iowa and Missouri laying claim to this 9 to 13 mile-wide strip of rich farmland. Interestingly, many of those farmers were happy with the squabble because it meant they could avoid paying taxes to either of the governing bodies! As a result, these frontier communities along the unsettled border became known as the Hairy Nation – presumably for their uncivilized appearance and rowdy, independent nature.

So, beginning in February 1839, since the U.S. Government was so slow in responding to the squabble, the State of Missouri, believing that The Brown Line was the official boundary, began sending state and local officials into the Hairy Nation (Van Buren County, Iowa), assessing residents’ property for tax purposes. In truth, while no one likes to see the tax man knocking on their door, many of the citizens of Hairy Nation, particularly, did not want to be part of Missouri because it was a slave state, and most of the inhabitants had always lived in a free state. Many found the thought of living in a place where slavery was legal to be abhorrent, and by the spring of 1839, they were fed up with Missouri officials coming onto their land with tax bills in hand.

1839 – Iowa’s Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (left) and Missouri’s Governor Lilburn W. Boggs (right).

The residents of Hairy Nation (Van Buren County, Iowa), determined to not be taxed by the State of Missouri, decided to send an official complaint (see below) to Iowa’s Territorial Governor – Robert Lucas in nearby Burlington – dated July 8, 1839

On July 29, 1839, Governor Lucas issued a 3-page proclamation saying that the Iowa Territorial laws must be upheld against any encroachment, and that any Missouri official that tried to enter the area north of The Sullivan Line would be forced to leave and even arrested.

Missourians, of course, were angered by Lucas’ proclamation and local officials in Clark County (see map above) held meetings and agreed that they must uphold the dignity and honor of Missouri. Missouri’s Governor Lilburn W. Boggs – who was also perturbed by his counterpart’s actions – on August 23, 1839, issued his own long-winded 3-page counter proclamation. In it, he stated that while Missouri officials should not provoke Iowa, they had the right to enforce their jurisdiction over the “claimed” land.

On September 25, 1839 – roughly one month after Boggs’ statement, Governor Lucas put forth an even longer 9-page proclamation that denied the Missouri Governor’s claims and ordered Iowa officials to enforce their authority as far south as The Sullivan Line. So now, things started to get a bit sticky…

By early October, both sides were now emboldened by the two governor’s proclamations and neither was ready to back down. In mid-October 1839, Sheriff Uriah S. Gregory of Clark County, Missouri entered the disputed area and attempted to collect taxes from the residents. Sheriff Henry Heffleman of Van Buren County, Iowa caught him and warned him not to return, forcing him to leave. Sheriff Gregory returned to Clark County and reported to officials that he was “obstructed in the performance of his duty”. As Sheriff Gregory was reporting his side of the situation, Sheriff Heffleman was doing the same, penning a letter to Governor Lucas, asking for advice on how to handle the issue. Governor Lucas, who had dealt forcefully with a similar land squabble with the State of Michigan when he was Governor of Ohio (1832-1836), wrote back – telling him to use his best judgement while continuing to enforce Iowa law.

Shortly after the October incident between the two county sheriffs, citizens from both Van Buren and Clark Counties held several joint meetings in order to find some type of compromise. The Clark County residents proposed that the area be under joint jurisdiction until the Federal Government decided where the boundary was, but the Van Buren delegates rejected this offer. Sadly, these meetings ended with even more contention, and by November 5, 1839, when Governor Lucas spoke with Iowa Legislative Assembly in Burlington, he stated that he firmly believed the dispute would “ultimately lead to the effusion of blood”.

A militia man himself when back in Ohio, one of Lucas’ first moves as Governor of Iowa Territory (1838) was to initiate the formation of a strong militia – made up of volunteers from around the Territory. For months, Lucas had been forming several Iowa military units, building both a Military Road across the Territory and placing esteemed area leaders/legislators – such as Lee County’s William Patterson (see above) – to oversee the development of these troops.

If you recall, our state’s motto is: Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain. Governor Robert Lucas modeled that fortitude in 1839.

In other words, Governor Robert Lucas, who was known for his military mind, and a short fuse when it came to patience and compromise, was fully ready to go to war with Missouri, if need be, in order to defend the rights of Iowans.

Read about The Toledo War of 1835/36 that involved Governor Lucas in Ohio.

And then, it happened!

According to Iowa law enforcement officials, in early November 1839, a suspicious-looking person was seen in Van Buren County, cutting down several large trees that housed an Iowa farmer’s swarm of bees, taking the honeycomb as payment for past due taxes.

Reports say that at least three trees were cut down, and that officials saw the culprit slip back across the border before they could apprehend him. Obviously, Van Buren residents were angry, indeed, and when word of this incident got back to Clark County, Missouri, it was announced that the local sheriff caught the perpetrator and fined him for cutting down the trees – but, as it is with stories like this – since there was no conclusive evidence to point to the guilty party, the die had been cast, and there was no turning back, especially after another major incident occurred just a few days later…

Apparently, on November 19, 1839, Clark County’s Sheriff Gregory decided to venture back into Van Buren County, attempting to collect taxes from the Hairy Nation. Iowa’s Sheriff Heffleman, upon spotting Gregory, immediately arrested him the next day (November 20), holding him in custody in his own home in Farmington, and then, wrote this November 22nd explanation letter (below) to Governor Lucas…

Farmington, Nov. 22, 1839
To His Excellency, the Governor of the Territory of Iowa:
Sir. The Sheriff of Clark County, Missouri made his second appearance in the County of Van Buren, for the purpose of collecting taxes on the 19th inst. I was informed of his arrival, pursued him forthwith, and arrested him on the 20th. The Court of Inquiry was held on the 21st. He was found guilty, and refused to give bail for his appearance at the next District Court, and he still remains in my custody under guard, as we are destitute of a jail. I am at a top to know what to do with him for safe keeping, as one of the attorneys of this county informed me it was not in my power to take him out of this county. The public mission is that they intend to take him out of my custody. I now appeal to you for instructions what to do with him, and your commands shall be obeyed, if possible.
Very Respectfully – Yours in Haste, H. Heffleman – Sheriff of Van Buren County.

One day later – on November 23, 1839 – a special meeting was held in Clark County regarding the sheriff’s disappearance, and since many believed that Iowa farmers had kidnapped him and were holding him hostage, Governor Boggs sent out an order to Generals David Willock and O. H. Allen to mobilize the Missouri militia. When Governor Lucas heard about the “honey incident”, and received Sheriff Heffleman’s letter, he’d had enough, and he immediately put out a call for the Iowa Territorial militia to station three units along the Iowa border in Van Buren County. And boom – The Honey War had officially begun!

By early December 1839, at least 2,000 men had gathered to be a part of the Missouri militia. Though large in number, they were not well supplied, being short of food, blankets, tents, and even arms and ammunition. At one point, a group of men broke into a local store for supplies, the owner later being reimbursed by the government. Nevertheless, the men were ready for a fight, and were in an overall energetic mood as they pitched camp just outside of the disputed land. 

The situation was also heating up on the Iowa side. U.S. Deputy Marshal G. A. Hendry arrived in Van Buren County, and started taking control of matters there, sending special investigators into Missouri to see what was happening. Once he received word of the military operations going on, he immediately started preparing for the invasion. The Iowa militia, at the direction of Governor Lucas, gathered near the border, and numbered about 1,200 men led by four generals, nine staff officers, forty field officers, and eighty-three company officers! Apparently, the Iowans, a ragtag bunch at best, united under the motto “Death to the invading Pukes”, and one captain loaded up five wagons of whisky, stating that he was “determined to keep up the spirits of the men”.

So, the stage was set for battle. But, fortunately, there were a handful of leaders on both sides who still believed that a peaceful answer could be found. On December 4, the Clark County court sent a committee to the Iowa Legislative Assembly in Burlington in order to restore relations. The committee proposed that all military action be suspended, and that both sides should jointly exercise criminal control in the contested area until ownership could be settled.

A Missourian by the name of Thomas L. Anderson even went as far to say …

Send (these men) home to their families. Send them home to those who at this inclement season need them, and who are watching anxiously for them, and praying for their safe and speedy return. And in the name of the God of Mercy and Justice, gentlemen, let this monumental piece of absurdity, this phenomenal, but cruel, blundering have an end.

The Iowa Legislature was hesitant at first, but then, calm heads prevailed, and the Assembly decided to draw up their own proposal and send a committee of three – Representatives Col. William Patterson, L.B. Hughes, and Dr. J.D. Payne – to Clark County in order to settle the issues at hand.

So, in the Clark County Courthouse, on December 12th, 1839, the Iowa committee requested that both governors call off their militia, and allow the federal government to decide where the boundary was. According to county records, both sides gave speeches professing friendship and positive dealings, after which, discussion ensued, ending with the Clark County Court deciding to recall the Missouri militia. When the Iowa committee returned to Burlington, they reported the good news, of which Governor Lucas was reluctant to receive, but, fortunately, the Legislature agreed to the decision, the Iowa militia was “officially” dismissed, and the bloodless Honey War was over!

Back on the front lines, the Missouri militia was rather dismayed when they were told that they were no longer needed. They took out their anger at both Governors for stirring things up, and decided not to leave until their opinion was known. One regiment shot a deer and split it down the middle into two halves, naming one half “Gov. Lucas of Iowa” and the other “Gov. Boggs of Missouri”. They then suspended the deer’s carcass in a tree and shot it to pieces, after which they gathered what was left, burying it in a mock military funeral with full military honors. 

On the Iowa side, the militia, not aware of the December 12th meetings in Clark County, was a bit confused as to why the Missouri militia had not attacked. General Jesse B. Brown, acting on the directions of Marshal Hendry, sent a delegation consisting of three men – A.C. Dodge, James Churchman and J.A. Clark – across the border to find out the Missourians’ intentions. Upon returning, the men happily reported that the Missouri militia had dispersed and the “war” was over. The rest of the men were overjoyed with the news and quickly returned home. Their homecoming was a wild one with one eyewitness reporting that they had never seen “a wilder set of men and a greater carousal than there was in the City of Burlington”. 

As for the U.S. government’s decision about the border, it took ten years (1849) before the case finally made it through the lower courts and into the Supreme Court, where it was argued by Iowa’s first supreme court judge – Charles T. Mason, and then decided that the original Sullivan Line would be re-surveyed and cleaned up, with both states (Iowa became a state in 1846) bearing the costs.

Click here to read more about Judge Charles Mason and his involvement in settling this issue in 1849.

As agreed at the December 12th 1839 meeting in Clark County, both Iowa and Missouri followed the Supreme Court’s decision, resurveyed the land, and marked the line – every 10 miles – with 4-foot 6-inch tall cast iron markers with the name “Missouri” on the southern side and “Iowa” on the northern side, and the words “State Border” on the east and west sides. Once the survey was completed, and the markers in place (1851), both states officially recognized it as their true border – a boundary line that still holds to today.

Much has been written about this interesting piece in Iowa/Missouri history. In closing, let me give you a few examples. First – from December 1839, this poem written by the Missourian John I. Campbell – immediately following the infamous honey tree incident…

In 1849, once the Supreme Court had made its decision, here’s a fun quote from one of the residents living in the Hairy Nation…

I’m sure glad the Soopreem Court decided that I live in Ioway. I’m a farmer, and I never did want a farm in Missouri. The Missouri land ain’t near as good as ours.

Hear Jacob Grace sing his folk song “The Honey War” Read more here.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Sullivan Line, Wikipedia

Lucas Arrives In Iowa, Country Facts & Folklore, Andy Reddick, Van Buren County, IAGenWeb

Honey War, Wikipedia

The Honey War – Forgotten History, Matthew Jarrett

Message from the President of the United States, relating to the dispute between the State of Missouri and the Territory of Iowa, 26th Congress, 1st Session, Doc. No. 5, University of Oklahoma College of Law Digital Commons

A Study In Border Confrontation: The Iowa Missouri Boundary Dispute, Carroll J. Kraus, Annals of Iowa, Vol. 40, No. 2, Fall 1969, pp 81-107

Time Machine: The Honey War, when Iowa and Missouri almost came to blows over the border, D. Fannonlangton, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 2, 2021

Singing the History of the Honey War between Missouri and Iowa, Jacob Grace, EdgeEffects, October 12, 2019

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