Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Planning an Invasion—at Waterloo!

Near the tiny village of Waterloo in northeast Missouri, a camp assembled during the winter of 1839 to plan an invasion into Iowa Territory.  About a thousand men, representing the militia of Lewis and Clark Counties, were prepared to defend Missouri’s honor.

The counties on the north were bordered by Iowa Territory, but the problem of defining the border had been an issue for more than twenty years.  A narrow strip of land 9 to 13 miles wide was claimed by both the State of Missouri and Iowa Territory.

J. C. Sullivan’s crew had surveyed a line for the United States in 1816, to mark the boundaries of the Osage Indian nation.  About half-way through, they discovered a direction error which they tried to correct rather than starting over.    The error made the northern line concave rather than straight.

When Missouri became a state in 1821, the Sullivan Line was used to mark its northern boundary, and in 1824, an extension of this line from the Des Moines River to the Mississippi marked the northern boundary of the Half-Breed Tract.

After the Black Hawk War when it was opened for settlement, pioneers streamed into the Black Hawk Strip, west of the Mississippi River and north of Missouri.   It was so difficult to find the boundary markers that settlers didn’t know whether they were living in Missouri or U.S. Territory.

The legislature of Missouri ordered the line resurveyed in 1837.  J. C. Brown, employed to survey the line, went by the wording in the Missouri constitution, which defined the northern boundary as “the parallel of latitude that passes through the rapids of the river Des Moines.”

Historians and navigators knew that the Des Moines Rapids was located in the Mississippi River north of the mouth of the Des Moines River.  Brown was not aware of this, and searched the Des Moines River.  What he found were some ripples at the village of Van Buren, located in the big bend of the river about 40 miles above the mouth.  From here, his survey ran a line due west.  The line was several miles north of the Sullivan Line, which was considered to be the boundary.

When Wisconsin Territory was formed in 1836, the portion west of the Mississippi was made up of two counties.  In 1837, Van Buren was one of the counties formed out of the southern county of Des Moines.  In the first court held in Farmington in April, 1837 charges were drawn up against Missouri agents for improperly exercising authority within the Territory.

In 1838 Missouri officers tried to collect taxes from citizens in the region in the southern part of what are now Davis and Van Buren Counties, and the settlers refused to pay, chasing off the collectors with pitchforks and muskets.  Before leaving the territory, a Missourian chopped down three bee trees in what is now Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, and secured the honey stored in the hollow trunks.

Honey was a valuable commodity to the settlers and stealing honey was an offense almost like stealing a man’s horse.  An Iowa officer tried to arrest the man who chopped down the trees, but he escaped into Missouri.  The property owner sued in court and a fine was set of $1.50 for restitution, but the culprit was never apprehended.

Instead, the sheriff of Van Buren County arrested the sheriff of Clark County when he tried to collect taxes in the disputed area.  This angered the Missourians, which is why the militia of Clark and Lewis Counties began to assemble.  Governor Boggs defended the action of his Missouri officers.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Territory became Iowa Territory in 1838.  When Governor Lucas heard of the border dispute he had inherited, he relied on past experience he had with Michigan when he was Governor of Ohio.  He sent a U.S. Marshal into Van Buren County to take charge while he ordered officers of the territorial militia to call out their men.  He vowed “Death to the invading pukes!” and said that if necessary, he would mount a horse and lead the militia himself against the invading Missouri army.

More than 1,000 Iowans answered the call to arms, but no more than 500 reached the main camp at Farmington, a few miles north of Waterloo.  There were also a few stationed near Mt. Sterling and at the Junction of present day Highways 1 and 2 south of Keosauqua.  Each man wore whatever he could find as a uniform, and they had a curious assortment of rifles, muskets, shotguns, pistols, long swords and short swords.  While the two armies assembled, cooler heads prevailed.

The commander of the Iowa troops at Farmington sent a peace delegation to Waterloo and found that the Missouri troops had already gone home.  They had assembled quickly before any of the Iowa militia reached the border, and when they found no resistance, they broke camp.  There was nothing for the Iowans to do but go home also.  Had they met their Waterloo?

Missouri agreed to suspend attempts to collect taxes, and both governors agreed to let Congress handle the matter.  But the issue was put on a back burner until Iowa’s statehood brought the problem into full focus again.  Since Missouri had not complained about the border for nearly twenty years and many court documents had been filed using the old Sullivan Line, it was decided that the line should stand.  Missouri appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld Congress and the lower court in 1849.

Surveyors were ordered to remark the line as it had been originally made by Sullivan.  The crew searched for the old markers, and ran the line using large iron pillars posted at the corners, with iron or wooded posts placed at intervals along the line.  Their work when completed was accepted by the Supreme Court and the Iowa-Missouri boundary dispute officially came to an end in 1851.

Map makers drew from the notes of surveyors and explorers, and often had difficulty deciphering the information.  An old map showing the lines of dispute, found on file in the Missouri State Archives, is an interesting one.   Instead of placing the village of Van Buren at the ripples in question, the tiny settlement appears on the wrong side of the river, approximately where Ely’s Ford is located. 

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