Singing the History of the Honey War between Missouri and Iowa

A snow covered monument to the Honey War.

“What can you tell me about the Honey War?” my friend Danny asked me one day in college.
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Really?” Danny seemed surprised. “We just heard about it in class. Apparently in the 1800s Missouri and Iowa almost went to war with each other! Aren’t you from northern Missouri?”

To me, history usually feels like it happened “somewhere else.” And yet, here was a significant historical event in my own backyard, and I’d never heard of it. This brief conflict between Missouri and Iowa was the most dramatic point of a decades-long dispute that was escalated in 1839 by the governors of both Iowa Territory and Missouri, involved over one thousand fighting militiamen, and was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1849. However, the only casualties of the conflict were a few hollow trees full of honey. These trees (according to legend) were chopped down by an angry tax collector, sparking the entire conflict and providing its name: The Honey War.

The Honey War is a vivid historical example of how conflicts arise from attempts to place boundaries on the landscape and claim ownership of natural resources. In Missouri and Iowa’s frontier days, honey was one of the few resources that was compact and portable enough to be taken to market and sold. Thus, the alleged cutting of honey trees symbolized the power of a state to control a community’s resources. While locals initially found the Honey War a laughing matter, it foreshadowed deeper and darker conflicts to come. In the 1830s and 40s Missouri was a slave state; Iowa Territory was not. Iowa Territory was managed—like all U.S. Territories—by the federal government, but Missouri was a state testing its ability oppose the federal government.


In the years since Danny first told me about the Honey War, I tried several times to write an essay about it—but I was always disappointed with the results. The tense atmosphere of the last-minute town meetings, the frostbitten cold of the soldiers’ fingers, the men’s drunken conversations around December bonfires, and the emotional progression from amusement to anger to fear to relief that encapsulated the entire conflict always seemed to get wrung out of the story.

Iowa is outlined in green and Missouri is outlined in Red.

An 1861 map of the states of Iowa and Missouri. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

At some point I picked up a guitar and, without much thought, sang a line that would eventually become the first line of the song: “Did you serve in that Honey War, well buddy I was there.” For weeks, this single, simple line was all I had. But I could tell there was a full song behind it. As I began researching the Honey War in greater detail—relying particularly on Derek Everett’s 2008 essay “To Shed Our Blood for Our Beloved Territory”—lyrics began falling into place. This song would be my opportunity to tell the story from the inside, to breathe life back into the events, to make listeners feel a bit like they too were present for the Honey War.

I think my fascination with the Honey War comes from the fact that it’s the story of a “near miss”—a violent encounter that was successfully averted. Since learning so recently about this near miss in my own local history, I can’t help wondering how many similar stories have escaped public consciousness. Perhaps if we spent more time studying the successes of everyday citizens in averting violent conflicts, we would think differently not only about our past but also about our future.

The marker fills the frame of the photo.

Snow accumulates on top of the granite marker commemorating the Honey War. Photo by Jacob Grace, 2018.


Listen to the song and follow along with the annotated lyrics below.

The story of the Honey War is so connected to landscape that I wanted to try performing the song in a location that had significance to the story. The events of the Honey War all took place near the eastern boundaries of Missouri and Iowa, but the roadside markers near my home in northwest Missouri were some of the only physical remnants of the event that still exist on the landscape. The fact that it began snowing on the day I recorded the song, hearkening back to the snowy final days of the Honey War, was a lucky coincidence.


Did you serve in that Honey War, well buddy so did I,
Camped out along the border where they sent us all to die.
A war between the states way back in 1839,
When Missouri and Iowa Territory didn’t know where to draw the line. (1)

Along the border, taxes were a matter of debate.
We’d tell each tax collector we lived in the other state. (2)
All across the Hairy Nation (3) we thought we were living free,
Until we heard that tax collector cut down our honey trees. (4)

And we were
Tipping our hats and saying, “How do you do?”
Did you hear about those honey trees, well I did too.
I’d never laughed so hard, it’s funny
Just what some people do.
I’d never laughed so hard, it’s funny
Just what some people do. (5)

But for Iowa Governor Robert Lucas the dispute was black and white.
He’d just finished licking Michigan and he was looking for a fight. (6)
Missouri Governor Liliburn Boggs was not one to mess around.
He’d just kicked out the Mormons and he always stood his ground. (7)

They both issued proclamations that the nation had their back, (8)
And mobilized militias to prepare for an attack.
They ordered tax collectors to collect or repossess,
And those poor tax collectors had to go and do their best.

And we were
Tipping our hats and saying “How do you do?”
Did you hear about this Honey War, well I did too.
I’d never laughed so hard, those governors
Must not have much to do.
I’d never laughed so hard, those governors
Must not have much to do.

Iowa sheriff Henry Heffleman was riding on his route.
He met Missouri’s sheriff Gregory and they chewed each other out.
When Gregory later returned, for his mission could not fail,
Heffleman he captured him and hauled him off to jail.

We locals met in Monticello to try to set things right.
All of us being neighbors we hoped to avoid a fight.
But we could not agree and things all went from bad to worse.
Tempers flared, we traded threats and parted with a curse.

And we were
Shaking our heads and saying, “How do you do?”
We’re really gonna have a Honey War, you think so too?
Sure doesn’t seem so funny now
I wonder just what we’re gonna do.
Sure doesn’t seem so funny now
I wonder just what we’re gonna do.

Eight hundred Missourians mobilized at Waterloo.
We drank a lot of whiskey as the winter winds they blew.
Armed with beat up muskets and a spare pitchfork or two, (9)
We had to loot a store when our camp ran out of food.

December winds were blowing as we marched up to the border,
Waitin’ on Govn’r Liliburn to give the final order.
At a last-minute meeting in Palmyra, things were dire.
Tom Anderson stood up and his eyes were blazing fire. (10)

Send them home to their families.
Send them home in this inclement season.
Send them home to those praying for them.
Send them home to those that need them.

And in the name of the God of Mercy and Justice, gentlemen,
Let this monumental piece of absurdity, this cruel blundering have an end. (11)

They signed some things with Iowa to put the war on hold,
And sent their fastest messenger to our camp out in the cold.
We were freezing on the border when we heard the war was through,
So we drank up all our whiskey just to celebrate the news.
Someone shot a deer and hung two halves from evergreens.
We named ‘em Boggs and Lucas and shot ‘em both to smithereens. (12)

For Headstrong Bob (13) and Liliburn, the fun and games were through.
We’d kick both out of office within a year or two.
We broke camp and headed home in time for Christmas Day,
Thinkin’ when we saw those Iowans we’d have so much to say.

When we’d be
Tipping our hats and saying “How do you do?”
Did you serve in that Honey War, well I did too. (14)
We would’ve shot each other to pieces
If they had wanted us to.
We would have shot each other to pieces
If they had wanted us to.

The Iowan army wondered why the battle hadn’t started.
A scouting party came back, said our army had departed. (15)
So they all went home too, and left the Honey War a draw,
But coming home unharmed is the sweetest victory of all.


(1). The trouble began with an 1816 boundary survey that decided the boundary between the two states was at “the rapids of the river Des Moines.”1 However there were a number of rapids in the Des Moines River, and most authorities assumed that the surveyors hadn’t meant rapids in the Des Moines River at all but a well-known series of rapids in the Mississippi River where it was joined by the Des Moines. This series of rapids was over ten miles long. In the following decades, Missouri and Iowa each resurveyed the boundary, but they could not reach an agreement as to whose survey line was legitimate. Top

The Des Moines River fills the foreground and winds into the background.

The Des Moines River near Ottumwa, Iowa. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

(2). Residents along the border used the boundary confusion to their advantage by refusing to pay taxes in either the state of Missouri or Iowa Territory. Top

(3). These frontier communities along the border were known as the Hairy Nation, presumably for their uncivilized appearance and behavior. Top

(4). Though unverified, this event was immortalized by a comic poem published in 1839, which mocked both governors and called for a peaceful end to the hostilities. Top

(5). One thing that struck me about the Honey War was the rapidly changing public sentiment about it. I chose to use the choruses to emphasize this, creating a “man on the street” conversation in order to break up the chronology of the verses and focus on how people were responding to the events around them. Top

A boundary map shows the Sullivan Line dividing the states of Iowa and Missouri.

A map of the disputed lands during the Honey War between Missouri and Iowa, based on the text of the court decision settling the dispute. Image from Wikimedia Commons, 2007.

(6). Robert Lucas served as the chief executive of Ohio from 1832-1836. Lucas succeeded in retaining, through military force, a strip of land near Toledo, Ohio in what would later have many parallels to the events of the Honey War. Top

(7). Amidst the ongoing hostilities between Latter-day Saints and other Missouri residents, Governor Liliburn Boggs in 1838 ordered that all Latter-day Saints be expelled from the state or killed, ultimately causing the Latter-day Saints to relocate to Nauvoo, Illinois. Top

(8). Lucas assumed that Iowa Territory, as a federal territory, would receive the full support of the federal government in defending its boundary. Boggs believed his cause was justified by Missouri’s rights as a state recognized by the U.S. Constitution. Top

(9). This line actually comes from a description of the Iowa militia, but the Missouri militia was likely no better equipped. Top

(10). Thomas L. Anderson, a resident of Marion County, pleaded: “Send them home to their families. Send them home to those who at this inclement season need them, and who are watching anxiously for them, and praying for their safe and speedy return. And in the name of the God of Mercy and Justice, gentlemen, let this monumental piece of absurdity, this phenomenal but cruel blundering have an end.”2 Top

(11). I wanted to break the repetition of verses and choruses at this point to focus on a single moment in time. The emotionally charged words of a single Missouri resident serve as a turning point in the song. Top

(12). In the words of a militiaman: “About the time we got our fires burning, we received information that we would be turned home. . . . However, being determined to have our sport, we retired a short distance outside of the old Colonel’s blazed encampment, taking with us a quarter of venison that we had the good luck to kill on the way, which we severed in two pieces, and hung up, in representation of the two Governors, and fired a few rounds at them, until we considered them dead! dead!!”3 Top

(13). A nickname used for Robert Lucas at the time. Top

(14). The first line truly set the stage for the entire song. At some point I realized that this line was also my ending—a chance to turn the linear narrative into a circular one. In a way, the entire song is just backstory to set up this final embodied experience of the Honey War and to wonder what it must have been like for two militiamen from opposite sides of the border to meet each other afterwards. Top

(15). The Iowan militia did not receive the news as quickly as the Missouri militia and therefore had to send out a delegation to see why they were unopposed. They finally received word that the Missouri militia was gone, and the war was over.4 Top

Featured image: On a quiet gravel road north of Sheridan, Missouri, an iron boundary marker stands at the original northwest corner of the state of Missouri. The south side of the marker reads “Missouri” and the north side reads “Iowa.” The east-facing side of the marker reads simply “State Line.” It is this state line that was the subject of dispute that led to the Honey War. A stone and commemorative plaque has been placed to the west of the marker, which reads, “This iron marker, remnant of the Honey War, was placed at this point in 1850 to identify the northwest corner of the territory of Missouri as determined by the Sullivan Survey in 1816.” Photo by Jacob Grace, 2018.

Jacob Grace grew up on a farm in northern Missouri and is currently pursuing Master’s Degrees in Agroecology and Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his free time, he writes and performs music under the name “Chuck Monax.”  Website. Contact.

  1. Derek R. Everett, “To Shed Our Blood for Our Beloved Territory: The Iowa-Missouri Borderland,” The Annals of Iowa 67, no. 4 (2008): 273. 

  2. Derek R. Everett, “To Shed Our Blood for Our Beloved Territory: The Iowa-Missouri Borderland,” The Annals of Iowa 67, no. 4 (2008): 288. 

  3. Missouri Whig and General Advisor Dec. 21, 1839, quoted in Derek R. Everett, “To Shed Our Blood for Our Beloved Territory: The Iowa-Missouri Borderland,” The Annals of Iowa 67, no. 4 (2008): 289-90. 

  4. Craig Hill, “The Honey War,” Pioneer America 14, no 2 (1982), pp. 81-88. 

8 Responses

  1. Judy Miranda says:

    Great article! Loved the detail, background & music. I look forward to more articles.

  2. Derek R Everett says:

    What a fantastic tribute to the feud between the Pukes and Hawkeyes! I’m honored that my article helped you compose this wonderful song, and more than impressed that you made your way to the old northwest corner of Missouri to sing it on an appropriately wintry day–the veterans of the Honey War would have been proud.

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