Did you know that in the fall of 1839, the Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri came ever so close to a civil war – arguing over where the border line was between these two sovereign entities? Governor Lucas of Iowa and Governor Boggs of Missouri were two stubborn men, so when push came to shove, both sent militia regiments to the border after someone cut down an Iowa farmer’s trees filled with golden beehive honey. Quite the sticky situation, don’t you think?
You can read the full story here, but today, I’d like to introduce you to a brave Iowa pioneer from Lee County – a Colonel who stepped into the battle and helped bring a peaceful solution to a pretty intense situation. So, let’s start here…
On July 4, 1838 – Iowa, which had been part of Wisconsin Territory since 1836, officially became a separate U.S. Territory, and President Martin Van Buren looked to Ohio, hand-picking its former governor as Iowa’s first Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Robert Lucas was known as a man of action. Born in Virginia in 1781, Lucas’ character – despite his strong Quaker background – was somewhat warlike. Serving as a Lieutenant Colonel during the War of 1812, Iowa’s first governor was also a trained surveyor and was well-schooled in government and politics. You can read more here.
On Wednesday, August 15, 1838, Governor Lucas and his two traveling companions from Ohio – T.S. Parvin and Jesse Williams – arrived, by steamboat, in Burlington – then the capital city of Iowa Territory. Iowa, at this time (1838), had 22 surveyed counties and a population of 23,242 – with most living along the Mississippi River and the lower Des Moines River (see maps below).
Being the center of government, Burlington was Iowa’s leading city, but Dubuque – a mining community located in the far north – was a strong rival and close second. Davenport, Ft. Madison and Bloomington (Muscatine) were smaller, but growing rapidly. In addition, some inland villages in Henry, Jefferson, Van Buren, and Lee Counties – Mt. Pleasant, Fairfield, Keosauqua, and Ft. Madison – were thriving settlements as well, yet despite that growth, the unsettled frontier was still less than fifty miles from the Mississippi! Before embarking on an extensive tour of Iowa – visiting many of the cities mentioned above – Lucas called for Territorial elections, with the first session scheduled to start in Burlington in November – less than three months after the new governor’s arrival!
Elections were hastily held, and on November 12, 1838 – in the Old Zion Church of Burlington – 38 men from around the Territory gathered to make up Iowa’s First Legislative Assembly.
Iowans, in those days, were a mixture of Easterners and Southerners, with half of the governor’s new Legislative Assembly being born south of the Mason/Dixon Line – in places such as Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. So, arriving at a consensus on major decisions was quite difficult in these early days of Iowa. As a matter of fact – when Lucas’ strong personality met with some of these highly-opinionated frontiersmen – let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, at times.
A strong-willed leader, Governor Lucas was very clear on his vision for this new Territory called Iowa. After deciding that Burlington would not remain as the Territorial capital, and that a new city (Iowa City) would be built from scratch in the more centrally-located Johnson County, Lucas spelled out his three-pronged agenda…
- Establish a system of free public schools,
- Build territorial roads, and
- Organize a well-equipped militia to “defend ourselves against any force that could be brought against us.”
Which brings us, now, to the main subject for this post…
As Governor Lucas stood before Iowa’s First Legislative Assembly (1838/1839), I’m sure there were certain individuals who stood out for him as he looked around the meeting room at the Old Zion Church in Burlington. I’m guessing that the new Representative from Lee County – a man from the South – was one of those gentlemen.
William Patterson was born in Wythe County, Virginia on March 9, 1802, but moved with his family – at age 6 – to Adair County, Kentucky, where he received a “common school education”. In 1822, William was united in marriage with Eleanor Johnson – a native of Maryland – and from that date until 1829, he took charge of his father’s farm in Kentucky. In 1829, William & Eleanor moved their family of four children, farming first in Marion County, Missouri – home of Mark Twain’s own Hannibal (more on that later), and after three years (1832), settling in Sangamon County, Illinois.
When Iowa opened up to settlers in the mid-1830’s, Patterson, along with his two brothers-in-law – Green Casey and Alexander H. Walker – and a friend – Hawkins Taylor, bought land in Lee County (1836), and in the spring of 1837, moved here, becoming the founding fathers of West Point. Over time, these men improved their sites and sold lots, and according to historians, the name of the town came from a suggestion of the officers of the garrison at nearby Fort Des Moines, who also agreed to purchase a number of lots. In truth, William Patterson and his relatives and long-time friends became some of the most accomplished residents of Lee County, becoming so popular that he and Hawkins Taylor were elected to represent the county in the First Legislature Assembly of the Territory of Iowa in 1838. Which now, brings us back to Governor Robert Lucas and that first gathering of legislators in Burlington.
As we mentioned earlier, Governor Lucas, coming from a very strong military background in Ohio, believed that it was important for Iowa to have a strong militia in order to defend our rights. Based on the records we’ve found, Lee County’s William Patterson not only was chosen to represent his home county in the Territorial Legislature, but he also signed up – early on – for Lucas’ Iowa Militia – becoming a high-ranking Colonel in Iowa’s First Regiment – First Brigade – First Division.
As we discuss in another post, one of the first duties assigned Iowa’s voluntary militia was to march to Iowa’s southern border with Missouri and fight, if necessary, for a piece of land – mainly in Van Buren County – in a bloodless war that was nicknamed The Honey War. Read more details here. Which brings us now to our rare postal cover…
Throughout all of 1839, the tensions between Iowa’s Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (left) and Missouri’s Governor Lilburn W. Boggs (right) had been growing over the disagreement on the boundary line between the two entities. As we discuss elsewhere, by September 1839 – when Colonel Patterson writes his letter to Lucas – the war of words has increased to such a degree that very soon, Governor Lucas will inform the Iowa Legislative Assembly that he firmly believes the dispute will “ultimately lead to the effusion of blood”. So, let’s look at the contents of the good Colonel’s September 9th letter…
Records indicate that by late November/early December 1839, there were approximately 1,200 Iowa soldiers stationed near the Iowa/Missouri border – three regiments led by four generals, nine staff officers, forty field officers, and eighty-three company officers! Undoubtedly, the men Colonel Patterson is promoting here (see list below) in his September 9th letter are now stationed amongst these Iowa volunteers.
Before we go further with William Patterson’s Honey War story, allow me to take you on a brief rabbit trail that connects the good Colonel and his West Point – Lee County, Iowa connections with Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)…
You can read the full story here, but within three months of our Patterson letter to Governor Lucas, the fuse had been lit and a civil war between Iowa and Missouri seemed imminent.
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. The Iowa Legislature was hesitant at first, but then, calm heads prevailed, and the Assembly decided to draw up their own proposal – written by Col. Patterson – and send a committee of three representatives to Clark County in order to settle the issues at hand. The three Iowa legislators sent off to Missouri were…
Col. William Patterson of Lee County, and Lawson B. Hughes & Dr. Jesse D. Payne of Henry County.
So, in the Clark County Courthouse, on December 12th, 1839, the Iowa committee, led by Col. Patterson, 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! Read more here.
Once the threat of war was over, Colonel William Patterson completed a second term (1840) as one of Lee County’s Representatives to the House of Representatives, and was re-elected for the Fourth and Eighth Legislative Assemblies (1841-1843; 1845-1846) in Iowa City as well. He also served as a Councilor to the Fifth and Sixth Assemblies (1842-1845), and was a member of the final Constitutional Convention that convened in Iowa City in 1857.
One biographer reports this about Colonel Patterson’s life after his nine years in West Point…
In 1846, on taking up his residence in Keokuk, Colonel Patterson engaged in pork cutting and packing and also in merchandising. The latter business he continued for a number of years when he withdrew from it but kept on the pork packing enterprise until 1882. That business was known as Patterson & Timberman, bearing the name of his key business associate. The plant was located at the foot of 4th Street, while Patterson’s residence was on the northwest corner of 7th and Timea Streets. During that time, Patterson remained politically active, being elected Mayor of Keokuk three times – first in 1860, then in 1865, and again in 1866. He was postmaster for seven years, was President of the Northwestern Railroad that ran from Keokuk to Mt. Pleasant, and beginning in 1872, he served as President of the Keokuk National Bank.
Shortly after their spring arrival back in West Point (1837), William & Eleanor Patterson helped co-found the first Old School Presbyterian church in Iowa – June 1837. Construction of the church building, the first brick structure in West Point, commenced in 1838, and was eventually replaced in 1860-61. After moving to Keokuk in 1846, the Pattersons also helped start the city’s first Old School Presbyterian church (1851) with 15 members, and when their first building was constructed, it was built using stones from Patterson’s private sandstone quarry.
It would not be right to tell you about Colonel William Patterson and not mention his wife Eleanor Johnson Patterson, and their 11 children – not all of whom survived until adulthood. Seven of those children were born prior to the family’s arrival in West Point in 1837. On their 50th wedding anniversary in 1872, William and Eleanor celebrated in Keokuk with friends and relatives, including two great-grandchildren. Quite a day!
Sadly, Eleanor died, at age 77, on April 2, 1880, and William followed her in death, on October 23, 1889, at age 87. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk.
Iowa thanks you, Col. Patterson for your long service to our state. Thank you, as well, for your wonderful model of being a loyal peacemaker during turbulent times. Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Lucas Arrives In Iowa, Country Facts & Folklore, Andy Reddick, Van Buren County, IAGenWeb
Directory of Iowa Territorial Public Officials 1838-1846, History of Iowa, Vol III, IAGenWeb
Brief Biography Of William Patterson, Keokuk – Iowa Historians, Facebook
Mark Twain’s Ties to West Point, John Stuekerjuergen, Lee County IAGenWeb
Mark Twain – Lee County Connection, Ann Stroupe & Jim Ramsey, Lee County IAGenWeb
Representative William Patterson, The Iowa Legislature
Time Machine: The Honey War, when Iowa and Missouri almost came to blows over the border, D. Fannonlangton, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 2, 2021
An Iowa Pioneer, The Davenport Sunday Gazette, October 27 1889, p 1
Councilor Lawson B. Hughes, The Iowa Legislature
Councilor Jesse D. Payne, The Iowa Legislature
William Patterson, Story of Lee County – Volume 1, Dr. S.W. Moorhead, S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1914, p 357
An Iowa Pioneer, Sunday Democrat Gazette – Davenport, October 27, 1889, p 1
Eleanor Johnson Patterson, Find-A-Grave
William Patterson, Find-A-Grave
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