Writers have all experienced it. A thought that seemed clear when committed to a page was misunderstood by the reader. Such was the case in 1839 when a border dispute between Missouri and Iowa erupted into one of the silliest conflicts in American history.
When Missouri became a state in 1820 its northern boundary was described in its constitution as the parallel of latitude that passed through the, “rapids of the River Des Moines.” No doubt that description was clear in the minds of those who drafted it. Unfortunately it was less clear to everyone else. By common usage the term, “Des Moines Rapids,” had been taken to mean the rapids in the Mississippi just above the mouth of the Des Moines.
In 1836 Missouri appointed a commission to locate the boundary. In 1837 it concluded that, “the rapids are in the Des Moines River itself and that the parallel of latitude indicated by the constitution must be the one passing through the great bend in the Des Moines River near Keosauqua.” That line effectively claimed a strip of land roughly thirteen miles wide that had historically been part of Iowa.
Tempers flared when Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs directed Clark County, MO, Sheriff Uriah Gregory to enter the disputed territory to collect taxes. The indignant Iowans turned him back with the threat of pitchfork impalement. During his hasty retreat to Missouri, he paused long enough to collect several bee trees in partial payment of taxes owed.
The sheriff reported to Governor Boggs that, “I am at a loss what to do the citizens of that territory two-thirds of which is hostile to the officer and declare if I pretend to use any authority which I am invested by the State of Missouri, they will take me by fourse and put me in confinement.”
Unimpressed, the governor ordered him to return. The Iowans made good on their promise to take the Missouri sheriff by force and they confined him for a time in Burlington. They let him roam about town at will. They just wouldn’t let him go home.
Tensions rose and the governors of both states ordered their militias to the border to defend against invasion. According to one account of the Iowans, “In the ranks were to be found men armed with blunderbusses, flintlocks, and quaint old ancestral swords that had probably adorned the walls for many generations. One private cared a plough coulter over his shoulder by means of a log chain, another had an old-fashioned sausage stuffer for a weapon, while a third shouldered a sheet iron sword about six feet long.”
Of the Missourians it was said, “The militia spent two nights bivouacked in the cold without tents or enough blankets. They did, however, have plenty of whiskey. One company brought six wagons of provisions, and five of them were reputed to be filled with booze. They wanted to shoot something so they split a haunch of venison, labeled one half, “Gov Boggs,” the other half, “Gov Lucas,” shot them full of holes and held a mock funeral.”
Fortunately for all involved no shots were ever fired in anger and not a drop of blood was spilled. In 1851 the Supreme Court of the United States ended what had come to be known as, “The Honey War,” by determining that a boundary originally set in 1816 was the proper one.