Early Wars

War has touched Iowans’ lives frequently over time. Even before Iowa was a state, armed conflict was part of life in the Iowa territory. Throughout the years hostilities between groups with opposing viewpoints have resulted in open warfare. Lives were lost as confrontations resulted in violent exchanges. Sometimes actual bloodshed was avoided. As you will see, in one case, only a few bees lost their lives! But too often the violent actions of humans created more destruction than the loss of a few bees as people struggled to establish homes in the Iowa territory. 

Indian Conflicts

Even before European settlers arrived in the area that would become Iowa, native peoples at times entered into violent confrontations. In the early 1800s the Sauk and Meskwaki and the Ioway Indians lived in Iowa. The Sauk and Meskwaki lived in eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River. The Ioway lived in southeastern Iowa not far from the Sauk and Meskwaki. In 1821 a major battle took place between the two tribes when the Sauk and Meskwaki angered the Ioway by trying to acquire additional hunting grounds. 

In Iowa the federal government had constructed 22 forts as fortifications against possible Native American attacks. In 1809 Black Hawk, a Sauk chief, led an attack on Fort Madison killing several soldiers. This was an omen of future clashes between Black Hawk and the federal government. 

A treaty created by the federal government in 1804 called for the removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki from their land in western Illinois. In 1831 Black Hawk and his tribe were forced to move across the Mississippi River to the Iowa side. It was a very difficult move for Black Hawk and his followers. They suffered from hunger and cold. In the spring of 1832 they decided to go back to their lands in Illinois. When they got back to Illinois they clashed with the military over a three-month period. This became known as the Black Hawk War. In the end the Native Americans were defeated. 

The Honey War

Sounds like a peculiar name for a war. But the Honey War of 1839 turned out to be an unusual war. It was unusual because no human lives were lost! 

The war was the result of a dispute over the boundary between southern Iowa and northern Missouri. Iowans claimed the border was further south; the Missourians claimed it was further north. The difference between the two lines was about 2,600 acres of rich farm land. The people living in the disputed area thought they lived in Iowa. When the Missouri government tried to collect taxes from these settlers, the Missouri tax collector was arrested by Iowa authorities. 

The Missouri governor sent the militia to the border area. The Iowa governor called for Iowa volunteers to meet at the border. Each man supplied his own weapon, so they didn’t carry typical fighting gear. Reportedly one volunteer showed up ready to do battle with the aid of his family’s ancestral sword, and another brought a sausage stuffer as a weapon! And yet another was armed with a plow blade!

Everybody thought war between Iowa and Missouri was unavoidable. But before any shots were fired, the Missouri troops were dismissed and the Missouri government agreed to the northern boundary line. 

But that doesn’t explain the curious name. It turns out that at one point during the disagreement someone destroyed a tree oozing with bees and honey in the disputed area. It must have been a memorable event because the name stuck!

Iowans and the Mexican War

When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846 Iowans were affected. President James K. Polk issued a call for volunteers. The Iowa Territory put together 12 companies of men. In the end they never actually went to battle because other states supplied more than enough volunteers. But individual Iowans did attach themselves to units from other states and fought in the Mexican territory. A group of Mormons from Iowa joined the fight in California. 

Kansas Problems Bleed Into Iowa

Between 1854 and 1856 the new territory of Kansas was the scene of a number of violent events. The U.S. Congress had passed a law that gave the citizens of Kansas the right to determine if they would be a slave state or a free state. This caused pro-slavery and abolitionist people to travel to Kansas hoping to influence the outcome of the pro-slavery or anti-slavery issue. Newspapers referred to the troubles in Kansas as "Bleeding Kansas."

Iowans played a role in the events in Kansas. Anti-slavery groups who traveled to Kansas from the East traveled across Iowa. They followed routes designed by William Penn Clarke, an Iowa City abolitionist. These travelers met in southwestern Iowa where they received arms and training before moving into Kansas. Fremont County, Iowa, offered hideouts and a medical aid station for those who were returning from Kansas and the violence there. 

The Spirit Lake Massacre 

Not all conflicts on Iowa lands ended so harmlessly as the Honey War. In 1857 the tragedy that became known as the “Spirit Lake Massacre” took place. A band of Sioux Indians attacked settlers in the Iowa great lakes region near Spirit Lake. Thirty-two white settlers were killed. Some were taken hostage by the Native Americans. Fourteen-year-old Mary Gardner lived through the hostage ordeal and was ransomed back from the Sioux. Historians debate the actions surrounding the Spirit Lake Massacre. Some historians think the Sioux were seeking revenge for the killing of a chief and his family by a white man years earlier. 


  • Katharine House, “Boundries for Iowa,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 3 (February 1983): 4-10.;
  • Kallestad, Stephan. The Territorial Militia. The Iowa National Guard, www.iowanationalguard.com
  • Sage, Leland. A History of Iowa, Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1974.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.
  • Snook, David. (2002). The Mexican War. The Iowa National Guard Web site. www.iowanationalguard.com


This article explains several early wars in Iowa. Find out how these early conflicts influenced Iowa's history.

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