Booze, Bees and Border Disputes: The Honey War of 1839

The disputed region between Missouri and Iowa (Wikipedia)

Like many conflicts, the Honey War was sparked by one side’s dick move. To resolve a lingering spat with Iowa over Missouri’s northern boundary, the Show-Me State decided to resurvey its borders in 1837. Smelling an opportunity, Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs approved a plan that would claim a 13-mile strip of Iowa Territory as Missouri property.

Iowans were outraged. When Missourian officials went north to collect taxes, they were met by a pitchfork-waving mob which took one official hostage and chased the rest back to Missouri. The hounded officials chopped down three honey bee trees on their way out. Because honey was a valued commodity on the frontier, the honey inside the trees would serve as partial payment.

This incident only further escalated the conflict. Governor Boggs sent the Missouri militia to occupy the disputed region. In response, Iowan Governor Lucas declared martial law in the region and raised his own militia. 

Regardless of side, the militiamen were a ragtag bunch. Their uniforms were the clothes they wore, and their armory ran the gamut from muskets to swords to sausage stuffers*. As their respective governors argued back and forth, the militias could only hunker down, wait and drink. Firearms, whiskey and boredom made an interesting combination; one trigger-happy (and drunk) company passed the time by using a piece of venison for target practice.

After a month of this rather-relaxed standoff, both sides decided that this nonsense had to stop. Missouri and Iowa withdrew their troops and appealed to the federal government for a solution. In 1849 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Iowa and restored the original border line, a border that continues to this day.

*According to an observer from Davenport, Iowa, “…men armed with blunderbusses [basically antique shotguns], flintlocks, and quaint old ancestral swords that had probably adorned the walls for many generations. One private carried 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.”


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