Episode 9 - America's Other Civil War

Updated: Feb 6, 2020


In 1816, Missouri filed it’s first petition to Congress for statehood. In order to be changed from a territory to an actual state, the borders needed to be defined. Surveyor John C. Sullivan was order by the United States Surveyor to go survey the northern border of Missouri. According to a treaty with the Osage tribe, the northern border ran parallel across the state starting at a point 100 miles norther of the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers to the Des Moines River. John started his survey at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, just like the treaty stated, and marked a line due North and was able to find the starting point of the Missouri border easy-peasy. However, when he started making his way East, things started to get a little messy.

So when you’re using a map and compass to either figure out where you are going or making a map, you have to take in account that there are three norths. True North, grid North, and magnetic North. Every day the Earth rotates about its axis once and the ends of the axes are the True North and South poles. True North on a map is the direction of a line of longitude which converges on the North Pole. Grid North refers to the direction northwards along the gridlines of an ordnance survey map. The variation between grid north and true north is slightest along the central meridian of the map and the variation is greatest towards the edges of the map. Magnetic North is the North that compass needles point to or the geomagnetic North pole. The position of the geomagnetic North pole varies constantly and is continually moving northwestward due to adjustments in the magnetic field in the core of the Earth. The difference between magnetic North and true North is the angle of inclination on a horizontal plane referred to as magnetic variation of declination. Each region has a unique declination and once you know the number of degrees in that region’s declination, those degrees can be added or subtracted to get true North.

Sullivan did not take declination into account when he surveyed the Missouri border, so as Sullivan worked his way East, his marked border line strayed gradually northwards instead of true East. This in turn created two boundaries to be created, one that was marked on the ground and one that was marked on maps. Another problem with Sullivan’s marked border was how he marked the border. He would just build up mounds of earth for markers instead of stones or trees. So after a few years, the rain and wind had destroyed the markers and made the exact location of the border uncertain.

Missouri was admitted to the union in 1821 and the northern border was officially described as the parallel of latitude which passed through the rapids of the Des Moines (De Moyn) River. Now, the Des Moines River doesn’t really have any rapids of significance, it’s a pretty easy going river. However, if Sullivan’s survey line had gone true East instead of sloping towards the North, it would have intersected a set of actual rapids in the Mississippi River, which were named the Des Moines rapids. It was all very confusing, but it didn’t really matter much to anyone. There were very few white settlers there and they all kind of minded their own business.

In 1837, the governor of Missouri, Governor Libburn W. Boggs appointed Joseph C. Brown to re-survey the northern border of Missouri, more than likely because settlers found that land fertile and many were beginning to lay down roots there. Brown wanted to start his survey at the rapids of the Des Moines River, so he went out in search of them. Brown found some ripples near the town of Keosauqua and figured that those were probably the rapids that Sullivan mentioned in his survey, so Brown began his survey line there. They were not the first ‘rapids’ that Brown found nor were they anything special compared to the other eleven so called rapids along the river. Whatever his reason for choosing these rapids, that’s where

he started. Brown, unlike Sullivan, was able to survey a straight line across the top of Missouri, but his line ended up being around 9 miles north of the Sullivan line on its eastern end and 13 miles north of the Sullivan line on the western end.

On June 12, 1838, Iowa became a United States Territory and Congress passed an act to survey the boundary between Iowa and Missouri. Federal representative Albert Miller Lea and Dr. James Davis began this third survey in September of 1838 by finding the Des Moines rapids that were on the Mississippi River. From there they attempted to follow Sullivan’s line, but sickness and bad weather forced them to stop before they were able to finish their survey. Lea reported back to the Commissioner of the General Land Office that he couldn’t find the rapids that Brown mentioned in his survey. Lea told the commissioner that there were four different lines that could be considered as Missouri’s northern border:

The Sullivan line, the correct East-West line that Sullivan was supposed to follow, the Brown line, or a line South of the Sullivan line that intersected the Des Moines rapids on the Mississippi River. Lea felt that the Sullivan line would an acceptable border for both Missouri and Iowa, but refused to state his preference to the commissioner. Since there was still no definitive decision, Missouri simply declared that the border was the Brown line, which was the most northern of the four choices and gave Missouri the most land.

In July of 1839, Missouri officials began to enter the disputed borderlands to assess the property their for tax purposes. This upset many of the settlers there that felt that they were Iowans, so they sent word of their disapproval to the Iowa governor, Governor Robert Lucas. Governor Lucas claimed that Iowa had jurisdiction all the way down to the Sullivan line and issued a proclamation calling for Missouri to stop encroaching into Iowa territory. Governor Boggs then issued his own proclamation declaring that Missouri had the right to use full power to enforce it’s jurisdiction in the area. Then Governor Lucas issued another proclamation the declared that Missouri’s claim of the disputed land was bologna and ordered Iowa Territorial officials to enforce Iowa’s laws all the way to the Sullivan line. Governor Lucas warned his legislative assembly that “This dispute may ultimately lead to the effusion of blood.”

In the fall of 1839, Sherriff Uriah Gregory (his friends called him Sandy) of Clark County, Missouri went into the borderland to levy and collect taxes from the settlers there. When he approached a group of citizens at a house raising near Farmington, he tried to explain his reasoning for being there. That group of people then told Sherriff Sandy that it would in his best interest if he went back over the border to Missouri and so that’s what Sherriff Sandy did. A few Missourians then entered the borderland to cut down three or four hollow trees used by wild bees to store their honey. The honey was widely used by settlers there as sweetener and it was a big deal to steal all that honey. The man that was held responsible for cutting down the trees was fined in absentia $1.50 by the Iowa court and the border dispute became named The Honey War.

Governor Boggs issued another proclamation that basically said that law enforcement needed to do their jobs and collect taxes, including land that was south of the Brown line. So that November, Sheriff Sandy went back to the borderlands to collect taxes. This time there were Iowa settlers waiting for him. The local sheriff, Sheriff Henry Heffleman charged Sheriff Sand with usurpation of authority and threw him in a jail in Muscatine. Word got back to Missouri that one of their sheriff’s had been kidnapped by the local farmers up there and Governor Boggs called up the Missouri militia to rescue him. The number of militia

men that assembled varies from 600 to 2500.

Hearing about the Missouri militia that was headed to Iowa in order to rescue their sheriff, Governor Lucas called on the Iowa militia to ready themselves for war. The Iowa legislative assembly passed a resolution that basically stated that both Governor Boggs and Governor Lucas should disband their militias and work out a compromise. Governor Lucas vetoed the resolution and issued the following statement “It is the United States, and not the territory of Iowa, that is the party involved in this dispute with Missouri.” Governor Lucas ordered General David Willoch and General O.H. Allen to form an Iowa Territorial Militia on November 23, 1839. The numbers of this militia vary greatly too, with some places saying 300 to some saying 1200. The Iowa militia headquarted themselves at Farmington and were headed by a United States Deputy Marshall. Sheriff Sandy was moved further into Iowa, away from the border, to make it harder for the Missouri militia to rescue him. It was winter, and money was scarce so many of the men joined the Iowa militia because they believed that the government would pay them for their service, but they never received a dime. They weren’t even provided with any supplies, so no tents, blankets, ammunition, or food. Each militia member had to provide their own weapon, which included blunderbusses (a firearm with a short, large caliber barrel which is flared at the muzzle), flintlocks (a firearm that uses a flint striking ignition mechanism), a plow coulter (the blade attached to the plow) connected to a log chain, a homemade six foot sword cut from sheet metal, pitchforks, a sausage stuffer, some swords from the War of 1812, and a dasher from a butter churn.

Because there were no supplies and it was December, Governor Lucas worried about morale and decided to camp with the troops to show that they were all in it together. One Iowa commander brought in five wagons of whiskey to keep his troops in good spirits, while another Iowa commander was a butthead and he would ride behind his men with an Indian spear and let it be known that the first man to attempt desertion would get the spear in his back. But morale remained high, despite that one commander, and the battle cry of the Iowa Militia was “Death to the Invading Pukes.”

The Missouri militia was also battling the cold winter weather with no supplies. A group of Missouri militia men broke into a store in La Grange and stole food, blankets, and other supplies. Despite the hard conditions, the Missouri men also had high morale and were ready to kick some Iowa booty.

Since the two governors were obviously not interested in compromise, the legislative assemblies of each state were trying to compromise with each other. On December 12, 1839 the assemblies reach an agreement where both governors would suspend hostilities and the states would allow the United States Congress to decide on the border issue. The Missouri militia was then called back home to Missouri. Upset at how the Honey War had ended and that they weren’t going to be paid, they took a quarter of a deer that they had shot earlier, divided it into two pieces and both pieces up in a tree. One piece of meat was labeled Governor Lucas and the other piece of deer was labeled Governor Boggs. The Missouri men then riddled both pieces of deer with bullets. One participant said “We fired a few rounds at them, until we considered them dead! Dead!!” The militia then took the deer meat out of the tree and gave them mock military funerals with full honors. Another militia man said “They were interred by the honor of war. We fired over their graves and then returned the encampment.” And then they all went home back to Missouri.

Word that the Honey War was over had still not reach the Iowa militia, so they sent a guy out to find out why the Missourians had not attacked yet. The guy came back with word that the war was over and that the Missouri militia had been disbanded. So the Iowa militia figured there was nothing else to do and they disbanded as well and went back home to their families. Sheriff Sandy was then set free from Iowa and allowed to go home. The state of Missouri paid him $250.75 for his troubles which would be almost $6,000 today.

Even though both states had agreed to let Congress determine the border, Governor Boggs refused to cooperate stating that Congress could “not alter the constitutional limits of this state.” The states continued to fight over the placement of the border for six year in Congress. A delegate from Iowa stated that it was not only land and taxes that was at stake in using the Brown Line, but it would also place several thousand people that opposed slavery into a state that had laws permitting slavery. The states eventually took their dispute all the way to the Supreme Court in 1847, after Iowa had achieved statehood in 1847. On April 6, 1849, the Supreme Court released their decision, stating:

And this court doth therefore see proper to decree, and doth accordingly order, adjudge, and decree, that the true and proper northern boundary of the state of Iowa, is the line run and marked in 1816, by John C. Sullivan, as the Indian boundary, from the northwest corner made by said Sullivan, extending eastwardly, as he run and marked the said line, to the middle of the Des Moines River, and that a line due west from said northwest corner to the middle of the Missouri River is the proper dividing line between the said state west of the foresaid corner; and that the states of Missouri and Iowa are bound to conform their jurisdiction up to said line on their respective sides thereof, from the River Des Moines to the River Missouri.

Joseph C. Brown of Missouri and Henry B. Hendershot of Iowa were appointed to work together to resurvey the Sullivan line and to plant cast iron pillars that were 4’ 6” tall with a base of twelve inches along the border. The word Missouri was on the south side of the pillar, the word Iowa on the north side, and the words State Line were on east and west sides. The pillars were placed every ten miles along the border and the cost of the survey and pillars would be split equally between Missouri and Iowa. The supreme court then received word that Joseph C. Brown had died, so Robert W. Wells was appointed to take his place. The final pillar was put into place in 1851, 35 years after Sullivan’s first survey. An Iowa settler said of the border decision “I’m sure glad the Supreme Court decided that I live in Iowa. I’m a farmer, and I never did want a farm in Missouri. The Missouri land ain’t near as good as ours.”


“The Honey War” by Craig Hill

“One Sloppy Land Surveyor Almost Caused a War Between Missouri and Iowa” by Sarah Laskow

“What Are The Differences Between True North, Grid North, and Magnetic North?” by John Miaschi

“The History of Missouri” by David D. March

“The Honey War” by Erik McKinley Erickson

“Iowa Through Time” by Cyrenus Cole

“The Heritage of Missouri: A History” by Duane Meyer

“A New History of Missouri” by Frederick Arthur Culmer

“Iowa Inside Out” by Herbert V. Hake

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