War Was NEVER So Sweet

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

that hasn't proved a pest (like starlings, English sparrows and gypsy moths).

Settlers imported the first honeybees in 1638. Once bees escaped to the forests, they quickly adapted and spread, and by 1820 when Missouri became a state, the wild bee tree was a prize for a settler with a sweet tooth. It also was the reason for the weirdest near-war in the state's history, the abortive Honey War of 1839.

The Honey War today is remembered only by a few historians. It didn't last long and it didn't amount to much, but as wars go it was the best of all possible worlds. It provided entertainment for everyone and no one got hurt.

There's a metal marker on the northeast Missouri farm of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Longnecker. It's about three feet high. Time and the Des Moines River silt are burying it. Mrs. Longnecker's late father, Albert Evans, who rented the farm around World War One, remembered the post as being his height.

Perhaps in another century, the rich dirt will bury the last monument to the silliest war in American history, the Honey War. In 1839, Missouri and Iowa mobilized their ragtag militias, ready to start shooting over who owned a wild river bottom full of bee trees.

The dispute got its name when a Missourian, whose name apparently has been lost by historians, cut three bee trees in an area claimed both by Missouri and Iowa. The trees were valuable both for the honey, which sold for up to $.37 a gallon, and for beeswax, which was used in various ways (the finest candles were of beeswax).

Iowa tried the bee tree thief in absentia and fined him $1.50.

That inflamed Missourians, who have never been reluctant to bash heads over real or imagined wrongs. Missouri had been a state since 1821. Iowa Territory was about to become one, so the legal boundary between the two was an immediate issue.

In 1837, Joseph Brown, a Missouri surveyor, set a boundary line which no one paid much attention to. In 1838, Maj. Albert Lea, a federal surveyor, laid out four possible boundary lines, all representing different interpretations of historical data.

The contested area between Lea's southernmost possibility and the northernmost was about 2,600 square miles, ranging from nine to 11 miles wide from the Des Moines River west to the Missouri River.

Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs, a contentious type, proclaimed in August 1839, that Brown's 1837 boundary,

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