Border war clashes were not always between Missouri and Kansas. A dispute over the state boundary between Missouri and Iowa once almost caused a honey of a war. Only a matter of timing kept state militias from both states from expanding a legal dispute into perhaps something more.

In the late 1830s, Missouri claimed a strip of land nearly 13 miles into what many settlers considered Iowa territory. When Missouri tax collectors cut down valuable bee trees as payment for taxes settlers refused to pay, more than 1,200 Iowans lined up along the disputed border with pitchforks for revenge.

The 1839 border dispute between Iowa Territory and Missouri is known as “The Honey War” but wasn’t actually about honey. It involved conflicting survey lines that left the boundary there at best ambiguous, at worst contentious. Survey lines varied by almost ten miles at their greatest extent.

History marks what is known today as the Honey War of 1839 as Missouri’s most significant boundary dispute. There were no casualties, and bee trees might not seem worth fighting over by today’s standards. But our ancestors relied on honey because sugar was so scarce. Taking a supply of honey was almost a bad as stealing a horse.

Surveyor J.C. Sullivan had established the boundary to divide Missouri territory from Osage Indian lands decades before the dispute in 1816. He used posts to define what was known as the “Sullivan Line.” By the mid-1830s, however, many of these posts were no longer visible. Some sunk into the silt of the Des Moines river bed.

The Missouri legislature ordered government workers to resurvey the line. This eventually resulted in three border maps. Two of these were drawn relatively close to the old Sullivan line, but a third jutted northward — definitely into present-day Iowa. In 1838 J.C. Brown, who established the boundary, convinced the Missouri legislature that this northward line was the proper boundary. Missouri legislators were probably looking more at the potential tax base rather than at legalities.

Brown thought the Des Moines Rapids that Sullivan documented in his survey lines were rapids located in the Des Moines River. But these rapids were actually in the Mississippi River. There was some logic to the confusion. Setters had dubbed a stretch of the Mississippi as “Des Moines rapids” since the river dropped 23 feet over an 22-mile span. Brown merely assumed that the rapids named “Des Moines” must have been located in the Des Moines River.

Iowans objected to Missouri’s decision. When Iowans refused to pay taxes, Missouri sent agents into what later became Van Buren (Iowa) County and cut down bee trees as partial payment. They also threatened Iowans, warning that the Missouri governor had alerted the state militia to force settlers to pay. That prompted the Iowans to alert Iowa Governor Robert Lucas.

This artist’s sketch, drawn in 1838, shows Missouri far western division which would have been summoned in 1839 when militias in Iowa and Missouri squared off over where the state line should be between the two states. No one was killed in the so-called Honey War, though a Missouri sheriff was arrested and a Missouri settler sneaked across the border and chopped down three trees holding honeybee hives.

History records what didn’t occur. When Missouri mustered 600 militia men, their trip to Iowa was fruitless. There was not yet an Iowa militia organized to fight. Eventually when about 1,200 Iowans lined up with pitchforks, the Missouri militia had already gone home.

A war of rhetoric ensued between Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs and Iowa Gov. Lucas, who considered any military threat from Missouri as a declaration of war against the United States. When U.S. Marshals were contacted, both sides were urged to stand down until the U.S. Supreme Court could peaceably resolve the dispute.

Citizenry was notably less serious about the circumstances than their leaders, probably because of the whiskey consumed wherever groups of rivals met. One report said the Missourians came armed with six wagon loads of provisions, five of them full of booze. Itching to shoot something, they divided a haunch of venison, labeled one half Boggs and the other Lucas and shot them full of holes. Then they buried each with mock ceremony.

Corner monument north of Sheridan in Worth County, MO, marks the start of the Sullivan Line in the boundary dispute between Iowa and Missouri in 1839. The larger pink monument commemorates the Honey War. A plaque placed by Virginia Daughters Chapter, NSDAR, in 1989 reads: “This iron marker, remnant of the Honey War, was placed at this point in 1850 to identify the northwest corner of the Territory of Missouri as determined by the Sullivan Survey in 1816.”

In 1849 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the old Sullivan line was the true boundary between Missouri and Iowa. The Iowa History Project recounts that surveyors searched for several days before chipping into a decayed tree trunk to find the branded tree Sullivan established as the northeastern corner of Missouri.

Surveyors then drove iron pillars at 10-mile intervals along the line that headed west to the Des Moines River. A handful of pillars that have survived the past still dot the landscape as testament to a peaceful resolution.

— taken in part from the Missouri Ruralist, March 2008,
in an article written by Katherine Heine