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The Honey War

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Imperfect surveying led to the famed “Honey War” with Missouri in 1839.  This was a bloodless and sometimes humorous quarrel over the southern border of Iowa.  The dispute arose out of a careless surveyor who left an uncertain border between the two states.  A surveyor appointed by Missouri decided that the boundary between the states was too far south.  He set a new one farther north. This new line gave Missouri 2,616 additional square miles of land and deprived Iowa of the southern portions of its southernmost counties.  The Missouri legislature declared that this new line was the new border in February 1839.  Farmers in Van Buren County in southeast Iowa did not appreciate their sudden annexation to a slave state.  In August a Missouri sheriff from Clark County, Uriah Gregory, attempted to collect taxes in the disputed area.  Iowans refused to pay.  The sheriff returned in November with several hundred men—he was arrested for trespassing by the sheriff of Van Buren County.  The Missouri Governor then called out the militia.  Some impatient Missourians cut down some “bee trees,” giving the conflict its name.  Iowans headed south, many armed with pitchforks and clubs, to confront the invaders.  Iowan Aristarchus Cone wrote that some took shotguns, while others went armed with whiskey and broomsticks.  After one very cold night many deserted.  The crisis quickly passed and both sides backed down.  The issue was sent to Congress to negotiate.  Congress then gave the problem to the Supreme Court, which decided by 1851 to accept the original border.

“Excerpt from a book in progress, published with permission of the author, 17 February 2020.”