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One Sloppy Land Surveyor Almost Caused a War Between Missouri and Iowa

In 1839, the outcome of the “Honey War” hinged on the exact location of the Missouri-Iowa border.

The beginning of the Sullivan line.
The beginning of the Sullivan line. Americasroof/CC BY-SA 2.5

When Sheriff Uriah S. Gregory—those who knew him called him Sandy—made his way into disputed territory for the second time, he must have known it would not go well for him.

When he crossed from land that surely belonged to the state of Missouri onto land that might have belonged to the territory of Iowa, there wouldn’t have been much of anything to designate the difference, in the flat expanse of grass and trees. Whatever markers John C. Sullivan had left when he surveyed the line in 1816scratches on trees, small mounds of sod, the occasional wooden post—would have faded into the landscape in the 23 years since.

But Gregory knew he was heading into an area where he was not welcome. Missouri claimed this land all the way to the Booth line, another survey line drawn in 1836 about nine miles north, but the people who lived here considered themselves part of Iowa. The last time Gregory had crossed the Sullivan line, back in October, he had met a group of locals at a house raising, and when he had explained, carefully, that he had come to collect their taxes on behalf of the state of Missouri, they told him that it would be in his best interest—best for his personal safety—if he went back over the border.

Since then, the border conflict between Missouri and Iowa had tensed into what historians would call “the Honey War,” after some unknown Missourian went over the border and cut down three bee trees filled with honey. It was about to escalate even further.

The disputed land of the Honey War.
The disputed land of the Honey War. Kmusser/CC BY-SA 2.5

The trouble that would cause the Honey War began in 1816, with some less-than-perfect surveying work. John C. Sullivan had been tasked with drawing a border described in a treaty with the Osage. He started at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers and marked a line due north, for one hundred miles. That part went well.

When he started working his way east, though, Sullivan’s calculations went wrong. He forgot to account for the difference between magnetic north and polar north, and so as his line went east, it strayed gradually northwards, at a tilt. The errant line ended at the Des Moines river, which would become a point of contention later on. In 1821, when Missouri became a state, the official description used “the rapids of the river Des Moines” as a reference point for the eastern end of Sullivan’s line. The Des Moines river didn’t have any rapids of note; however, if Sullivan’s original line had kept going east, it would have intersected a set of significant rapids in the Mississippi River, which were named, confusingly enough, the “Des Moines rapids.”

At the time, these confusions were of little interest to white people: few settlers were interested in that land. About two decades later, though, Missourians and Iowa settlers both were very interested in this stretch of fertile land. In 1837, the governor of Missouri had the border re-surveyed, by John C. Brown. Brown planned to start from the opposite end of the border, the eastern-most point, located—he thought—at rapids in the Des Moines river.

Since that river didn’t really have rapids, Brown kept traveling north along the river until he found a rippling spot of river he liked the look of. “The decision to choose those particular ‘rapids’ was evidently based on nothing substantial,” writes David D. March in The History of Missouri. “They were not the first ‘rapids’ encountered as the men moved up the river…they were no more important than any of the other eleven along the river’s course.” Starting at the this spot, though, moved Missouri’s border about nine miles north of the Sullivan line on its eastern end and about 13 miles north on the western end. (Brown, unlike Sullivan, managed to mark out a straight border line.)

Not long after this second line was drawn, Iowa and the federal government organized a third survey of the same border. At the end of that work, the federal representative, Albert Miller Lea, unhelpfully reported that there were four lines that could legitimately be considered Missouri’s border—the Sullivan line, the straight line Sullivan was supposed to have drawn, the Brown line (the farthest north), or a line south of the Sullivan line that intersected the rapids on the Mississippi river.

Governor Boggs (left) and Governor Lucas (right)
Governor Boggs (left) and Governor Lucas (right) Public domain

That territory, then, was up for grabs. Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs claimed that his state had jurisdiction over the land up to the Brown line—the border most advantageous to Missouri. Iowa Territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued a counter-proclamation that claimed jurisdiction down the Sullivan line and called on local law enforcement to protect Iowa’s land.

This was what Sheriff Gregory was walking into. After his first, failed foray, he had written to Governor Boggs, who issued yet another proclamation urging Missouri law enforcement officials to do their duty and collect taxes up to the Brown line. In 1839, for the second time, Gregory went back into the disputed territory, but this time the Iowa settlers were waiting for him. He was quickly jailed by Sheriff Henry Heffleman and charged with “usurpation of authority.”

The governor of Missouri took this an excuse to rally the militia.

The resolved border, in a 1864 map.
The resolved border, in a 1864 map. S. A. Mitchell Jr./Public domain

Neither the Missouri militia nor the Iowa militia was very impressive, although all accounts agree that the Missouri militia was larger. They also agree that some of the Iowa recruits showed up with some very creative weaponry, including but not limited to pitchforks, swords left over from the War of 1812, flintlock rifles, a plow blade strung on a chain, a butter churn dasher, a sausage stuffer, and a six-foot sword, of sorts, cut from sheet iron. In the cold of winter, neither side was well-supplied, though, with food or shelter; the Missouri militia raided a store in LaGrange for food. (The state government later reimbursed the store owner.)

Even before the troops had massed along the border, though, more level-headed men were trying to calm tensions rather than, like their governors, inflame them. Various delegations were traveling back and forth across the border, and soon both sides agreed that they probably shouldn’t start an actual war over these lines. The Missouri militia was sent home; the Iowa militia discovered the armed conflict had been called off when they went to look for the Missouri militia and found their enemies gone.

The militia men themselves didn’t actually care that much about the issue at hand. They were just hoping to be paid for their services. But the Missouri militia men, at least, were annoyed enough by the whole ordeal that they acted out a strange pageant to express their disgruntlement. They took a quarter of venison they had shot earlier, divided it into two pieces, and hung both up from a tree. One half was supposed to represent Governor Boggs, the other Governor Lucas. The men “fired a few rounds at them, until we considered them dead! dead!!” reported one participant. The militia then gave the two pieces of venison a mock military burial. “They were interred by the honor of war,” the militiaman wrote. “We fired over their graves, and then returned the encampment.”

Marker showing the start of the Sullivan Line.
Marker showing the start of the Sullivan Line. Dbp653/CC BY-SA 3.0

Although the most tense part of the war had ended, it would take years for the disagreement over the actual border between the two states to be resolved. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court would decide that the original, crooked Sullivan line was the true border. The line was resurveyed one more time, and this time, the surveyors marked the border with more lasting stone monuments.

Sheriff Sandy Gregory had been moved farther away from the border when the militias started gathering. But after the militia disbanded, he was set free. For another few years, the legal issues from the incident continued to follow him, but the charges against him were eventually dropped. The state of Missouri paid him a handsome $250.75 for his troubles—enough, one hopes, to make up for the trouble his small but key role in this drama caused him.