Monday, October 23, 2006

The Honey War: Part One

Much of my parent's farm is on the present day Iowa-Missouri border. In fact, tucked away in a fencerow of Bois D'arc trees, is a buried concrete pillar with a bronze emblem embedded in the top delineating the Iowa-Missouri border. These concrete markers were sunk in our border every ten miles and are quite rare these days due to "collectors" who have pillaged them. But the reason these markers existed was due to a long ago war that was "fought" on my parent's and other neighboring farms in what has come to be called "The Honey War."

In 1834, Van Buren County Iowa was part of the Michigan Territory, which had a southern boundary that was designated as "Missouri's northern boundary." Missouri which had become a state in 1820 had stated in it's constitution that the state boundaries were as follows, "Beginning in the middle of the Mississippi River, on the parallel of thirty-six degrees of north latitude; thence west, along that parallel of latitude, to the St. Francis River; thence up and following the course of that river, in the middle of the main channel thereof, to the parallel of latitude thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes; thence west along the same to a point where the said parallel is intersected by a meridian line passing through the middle of the mouth of the Kansas River, where the same empties into the Missouri River; thence from the point aforesaid, north, along the said meridian line, to the intersection of the parallel of latitude which passes through the rapids of the river Des Moines (emphasis mine), making the said line to correspond with the Indian boundary line; thence east from the point of intersection last aforesaid, along the said parallel of latitude, to the middle of the channel of the main fork of the said river Des Moines; thence down and along the middle of the main channel of the said river Des Moines, to the mouth of the same, where it empties into the Mississippi River; thence due east to the middle of the main channel of the Mississippi River; thence down and following the course of the Mississippi River, in the middle of the main channel thereof, to the place of beginning."

Then in 1836, this part of Iowa became part of Wisconsin Territory and then in 1838, the southwestern part west of the Mississippi River became known as Iowa Territory. So as Iowa inched closer to becoming a state, new focus was put on finding a more exact description of the border. Previously, a man by the name of J.C. Sullivan in 1816 had set out to delineate the space between the Osage Indians and the then Missouri Territory. He started on the western boundary and worked in an easterly direction but made a crucial mistake. He forgot or was unaware of magnetic declination, which in our area is approximately 4-1/2 degrees from true north and his "straight" line ended up about three miles north of where he should have been by the time he reached eastern Iowa.

Because Sullivan marked his "line" with mounds of dirt and slashing trees, these had all but disappeared by the late 30's when the border was being disputed. So in 1837, Missouri commissioned Joseph Brown to re-survey the land. Unknowingly, Brown also committed a big mistake when he started in the east. The Des Moines rapids referred to in the Missouri constitution actually refers to a rapid on the Mississippi river just above where the Des Moines River empties into it as was referred to by people who plied the Mississippi River in boats and by locals living nearby. Brown was neither a boatsman or a local and thus didn't know this before he began a journey up the Des Moines River to locate the rapids, going all the way to the present location of the county seat of Van Buren County, Keosauqua where a small riffle exists in low water. The new Brown line was conveniently 13 miles north of the Sullivan line, which added another 2600 square miles of land to Missouri. In 1838, the Missouri legislature declared that their northern boundary was the Brown line and ordered its officers to perform official duties in the strip of land between the two lines, which as we will later see included collecting taxes.

As a side note of interest, the southern boundary of Iowa isn't a straight line and a portion of Iowa east of the Des Moines River and west of the Mississippi River juts into present day Missouri. This portion of land was never in contention and the Brown and Sullivan lines only went from the western border to the Des Moines River. The reason is that this triangle of land between Sullivan's line and the two rivers was called the Half-Breed Tract and was set-aside for those of mixed race in 1824. That lasted for a decade before speculators rushed in and scooped up the land and nine years later after everything was sorted out, there was none left for any half-breeds. The Sullivan line is still used today to divide Lee County land administration between the two county seats at Keokuk and Fort Madison.

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