Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Border disputes have often erupted during the course of our nation’s history, but Iowa managed to engage itself in one long before reaching statehood, a conflict that became known as "The Honey War." The year was 1838, and Iowa had just become a separate territory. Earlier from 1834 to 1836, what is now Van Buren County was part of Des Moines County, Michigan Territory. Van Buren was formed as one of 16 counties of Wisconsin Territory in 1836 with Farmington designated as the county seat. Finally, in 1838, the southwestern part of Wisconsin Territory west of the Mississippi River became Iowa Territory, with Burlington named capital. At this time it was decided that Van Buren needed a more centrally located center of government, and some twenty vicinities (including proposed villages) competed for this honor. The unincorporated but already proposed and existing village of Keosauqua was the successful candidate from all of the contenders.

The area just south of Keosauqua immediately became a political battleground when people from Missouri levied and attempted to collect taxes from the residents they claimed were within their state boundaries. It seems that it was not exactly clear where Missouri ended and Iowa Territory began.

Controversy existed over the location of the Des Moines Rapids. According to the old Sullivan Line of 1816 made by surveyors, the state line was to "angle westward from the Des Moines Rapids," and was to extend from the Mississippi to the Missouri River, except for a small triangle of land between the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers known as the "Half-breed Tract" (reserved for those whose blood was from more than one race whether their skin be brown, red, white, or black.) Iowans claimed that the line extended from rapids on the Mississippi River near the present town of Montrose, known as the Des Moines Rapids. Missouri challenged this by pointing out ripples in the Des Moines River at Des Moines City, claiming this to be the boundary line. There were also ripples at Bonaparte and some several miles below Farmington that were considered by some to be the location described by surveyors.

The Governor of Missouri asked his agents in Kahoka to collect taxes from residents living north of the disputed border. This included people scattered through southern portions of the counties of Van Buren and what is now Davis. Some of the Iowans refused to pay, chasing away the revenuers with pitchforks and clubs. Before the collectors left the vicinity, however, they chopped down several bee trees in what is now Lacey-Keosauqua State Park and extracted the honey as partial payment for the taxes.

When Missouri’s governor was informed that these new citizens had refused to pay his taxes, he employed the state militia, sending them northward to the border. Meanwhile, the angered Iowans assembled a posse, captured and kidnapped the sheriff of Clark County, and incarcerated him in a Muscatine jail. Then they paid a visit on Territorial Governor Dodge in Burlington and advised him of the situation. Dodge sent his militia into Van Buren County to "counter" any attack made by Missouri, but also wisely contacted the Missouri governor. While the two militias stood on each side of the border making faces at each other, the two men settled their differences and agreed to allow the U.S. Congress to resolve the dispute.

An arbitrary line was drawn half way between the two disputed lines extending slightly southwestward until it reached the same longitude as the rapids at Montrose (the old Sullivan Line), then extending straight west to the Missouri River. The sheriff of Kahoka was released and allowed to return to Missouri. Tax officials were instructed to refrain from any attempt to collect taxes from their northern neighbors until Missouri could rightfully claim the land, and the governors called back their militiamen.

For obvious reasons, this problem was placed on a back burner until Iowa’s statehood in 1846 forced the issue into a matter of urgency. In a somewhat surprising move, Congress decided in favor of Iowa in 1848, and what had been previously drawn as an arbitrary line became the official state boundary. 

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick