Ohio Boundary Champ Takes on Missouri and Minnesota

Ex-Governor Lucas [of Ohio] is one of the most deserving men in the party, and we doubt not will prove a good Governor of the new Territory [of Iowa]. He is far from being a brawling supporter of the administration. He is an old fashioned, honest, intelligent, western pioneer.


When Colonel of the regiment and something younger than he is now, Lucas seduced a young lady, who sued him for breach of marriage contract and got judgment against him, and when he had put all his property out of his hands so that nothing could be got, he was put to jail for the debt, and then issued his orders for his regiment to come and rescue him from the custody of the law.


Whether or not Robert Lucas was a wily scamp or an honest western pioneer—or matured from the one to become the other—this much is certain: he was a tough opponent. As governor of Ohio, he had led the state through its boundary dispute with the territory of Michigan and—despite the fact that Ohio claimed a boundary that violated what Congress had stipulated—Lucas won. When Lucas then became governor of the territory of Iowa, he inherited a nearly identical boundary dispute with Missouri—except that now his was the powerless territory challenging a formidable state. As if that contest were not enough, Lucas also sought a boundary with what would become Minnesota that triggered a conflict influencing the borders of seven future states.

Robert Lucas (1781-1853) (photo credit 21.1)

The foot Lucas first set in Iowa in 1838 was the wrong foot. He and the territory’s legislature were immediately at odds. “Strife has arisen between Gov. Lucas and the Iowa Territorial legislature on the question of power,” the Cleveland Herald informed his former constituents in Ohio. “The Governor insists that all laws and resolutions must be approved by him before they are of any force. The Legislative body contests this position … [and] all public business is delayed in consequence.”

Lucas was not one to back down. But neither were Iowa’s legislators. Six months after Lucas took office, an item in the New York Spectator revealed the progress these like-minded personalities had made: “The difficulties between [Iowa’s territorial legislature] and Governor Lucas have resulted in an application from the former to the President of the United States, praying for the removal of the latter from office.”

The brawl between Lucas and his territorial legislature subsided, however, when a bigger brawl presented itself in which they could join together: a boundary dispute with Missouri that was a mirror image of the dispute Lucas had faced with Michigan when he was governor of Ohio. What Iowa was disputing was Missouri’s interpretation of the boundary stipulated by Congress in 1820. It defined Missouri’s northern border as (fasten your seat belts) “the parallel of latitude which passes through the rapids of the River Des Moines, making the said line to correspond with the Indian boundary line; thence east from this point of intersection last aforesaid, along the same parallel of latitude to the middle of the channel of the main fork of the said River Des Moines.”

Sullivan Line, 1816

Helpfully for readers (though not for Iowans), a line along these lines already existed. It had been surveyed four years earlier by John C. Sullivan. One can only call it “a line along these lines” because the boundary stipulated by Congress contained uncertainties. The first uncertainty was that a line starting at the point on the “parallel of latitude which passes through the rapids of the River Des Moines” be made “to correspond with the Indian boundary line,” since the two were not necessarily the same. The second was the phrase “the rapids of the River Des Moines.” While it clearly seems to mean the rapids in the Des Moines River, the fact is that there are no rapids in the Des Moines River. At the time, however, there were rapids in the Mississippi River as it met the Des Moines River. This segment of the Mississippi had long been known by river men as “the Des Moines rapids.” Sullivan used these rapids in the Mississippi to determine his starting point at the western end, then surveyed eastward. As he proceeded, however, his line veered northward. Whether this deviation resulted from poor surveying or from making his line “correspond with the Indian boundary line” was yet another uncertainty, since no line in the vicinity had been stipulated in any American Indian treaty at or before 1816.

The Sullivan Line was not the line Governor Lucas challenged, but its uncertainties set the stage for the dispute. In 1836 Congress added to Missouri what is today the triangular region in its northwest corner. This region comprised all the land north of the Missouri River up to a westward extension of the state’s northern border. Missouri then appointed Joseph C. Brown to survey the northern border of this new region. Unlike Sullivan, he interpreted “the rapids in the River Des Moines” literally. Though hard-pressed to find anything resembling rapids in the Des Moines River, Brown ultimately decided that a point in the river known as “Big Bend” constituted the closest thing to rapids, and he used that point to determine the latitude of the border. He then marked off this updated border. Unlike Sullivan’s, Brown’s line was nice and straight. It was also considerably further north.

Brown Line, 1836

Two years later, Lucas arrived in Iowa and immediately challenged the boundary. His opening move was the same as that of his former boundary adversary, Michigan, in its failed challenge of Ohio. Lucas got Iowa’s legislature to pass a virtually identical resolution:

If any person shall exercise or attempt to exercise any official functions … by virtue of any commission or authority not derived from this Territory or under the Government of the United States. [he shall] be punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or imprisoned … not exceeding five years.… I do hereby enjoin … all sheriffs, constables, Justices of the Peace, and other peace officers … that they cause all persons … attempting to violate any of the provisions of the act … to be arrested.

But after enactment of the same kind of resolution, Lucas departed from Michigan’s approach. Where Michigan’s territorial governor, Stevens T. Mason, had remained confrontational, Lucas led the territory of Iowa in the opposite direction. “I know of no difficulty between the Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri,” he said to his legislature, then continued coyly, “Neither can the Territory of Iowa, as a territory, be party to a controversy. The territorial government being entirely under the control of the United States, the controversy about the southern boundary of the Territory of Iowa is between the State of Missouri and the General Government.”

Lucas may have sounded here like a wily lawyer, but he was not an attorney. He was not even highly educated. Wily, however, he was. One of nine sons of pioneer parents who had migrated from Virginia to what would soon become Ohio, his schooling had consisted of what he learned from his family, augmented by basic lessons in mathematics and surveying from a tutor. Clearly, however, as he entered adulthood, Lucas continued to learn from those he encountered. Clearly, also, he had a lot of learning to do—particularly with regard to authority.

In 1810 an Ohio court had ordered the twenty-nine-year-old Lucas to pay damages emanating from a breach of promise to a young woman. Lucas sought to outfox the authorities by divesting himself of his assets and publicly dared the sheriff to arrest him. The sheriff thought it best to resign. The official to whom the task then fell also resigned, as did a third. Now, however, the issue was larger than Lucas; it was about the rule of law. A new group of Ohioans sought and won the vacated positions and collectively hauled Lucas off to jail. Lucas, a colonel in the state’s militia, ordered his men to come rescue him. They didn’t. He then quickly paid and, as he later stated, learned his lesson.

That Lucas had learned to obey authority was demonstrated during the War of 1812. He led a unit that was part of an effort to invade Canada. After the commanding general ordered the troops to pull back, Lucas obeyed, though he strongly disagreed with the order. He wrote to a close friend, “Never was there a more patriotic army … that had it more completely in their power to have accomplished every object of their desire than the present—and it must now be sunk in disgrace for want of a General at their head.” Such a letter carried considerable risk, were it to fall into the wrong hands, but evidently not enough risk for young Lucas, who added, “Neither was there ever men of talents as there are, so shamefully opposed by imbecile or treacherous commander.”1

The Lucas Iowans now heard proclaiming, at age fifty-eight, “I know of no difficulty between the Territory of Iowa and the State of Missouri,” was a far smarter Lucas. But underneath he was the same. What he had learned over the years wasn’t simply how to cope with more powerful adversaries, but how to win.

How to win in this instance, however, involved considerable uncertainty. While the Articles of Confederation had stated that Congress was to issue decisions on boundary disputes, the Constitution (which replaced that document) said nothing on the subject. Today boundary disputes between states are routinely adjudicated by the Supreme Court, but by 1839 the court had heard only two such cases, neither providing much confidence about that approach.2 Lucas, in a message to his legislature, opted to butter up Congress:

Michigan contended that, as a Territory, she was a party to the controversy relative to the boundary between that Territory and the State of Ohio—she denied to Congress the right to act on the subject.… The Territory of Iowa, in the present controversy considers herself entirely under the control of the General Government and … considers that Congress is the only competent tribunal to decide the controversy with the State of Missouri.

Lucas went on to stroke Congress in this message by saying he believed it had supremacy over the Supreme Court in rulings on such disputes.

On the other hand, he also silently sought to lay the groundwork for approaching the Supreme Court, urging Iowa’s territorial legislature to seek statehood to redress “the unwarrantable and unjustifiable proceedings of the authorities of Missouri.”3 As a territory, Iowa could not take a dispute to the Supreme Court, since its boundaries, unlike those of a state, were not protected by the Constitution. Lucas, however, said nothing specifically about urging statehood to enable Iowa to approach the Supreme Court. If he privately shared such a strategy with Iowans, he failed to convince them. The legislature opted not to seek statehood, given that the territory was not yet sufficiently populated for the additional costs entailed.

This setback was not a problem for Lucas, since his first gambit was with Congress. One might wonder, however, what hope he had with this approach; Missouri had two senators and three representatives in that Congress, and the Iowa Territory had none. Lucas’s hope was best expressed in Missouri itself, a slave state in which one of its senators, arguing that Congress did not have authority to decide the issue, fretted that “if Congress had settlement of this affair, I feel confident that all the free states would range themselves on the side of Iowa—and perhaps some of the slave states, from a feeling of jealousy created by the magnitude of our state.”4

As it turned out, Lucas miscalculated. Though legislation was proposed stating that Congress had intended Missouri’s northern border to be in accordance with the Sullivan Line, the bill failed to pass.5

Iowa became a state in 1846. Immediately, it took its dispute with Missouri to the Supreme Court. Lucas, however, was no longer the governor. Having been appointed by President Martin Van Buren, a fellow Democrat, he was replaced when William Henry Harrison, from the Whig Party, entered the White House in 1841. Lucas, however, had laid the groundwork for the legal challenge by having previously disputed the boundary and, with his early statehood proposal, having signaled plan B. In 1848 the Supreme Court issued its ruling. Iowa’s Burlington Gazette reported that “the long existing difficulty between this State and Missouri is at last settled by the highest judicial tribunal known to the land—settled, too, we are happy to add, in favor of Iowa. The decision of the Supreme Court … establishes the old Indian boundary line, as it is called, as the boundary of Missouri.”

Most of those Iowans who had clamored for Lucas’s removal at the outset of his governorship had come to the see him differently by the time he was replaced. “No man has ever been more true to his trust—none more faithful to the interests of the people over whom he governed,” the Gazette now wrote. “The people of this Territory will be struck with astonishment to find that their old and trusted friend, Gov. Lucas, has been displaced.”

Though he had been replaced, he was not so easily displaced. Lucas and his family remained in Iowa, and in 1844 he was elected as a delegate to the territory’s statehood convention. Serving on its Committee on State Boundaries, Lucas continued an effort he had begun as governor regarding Iowa’s border with its future neighbor to the north, Minnesota. In this instance, however, the boundary champ got knocked out.

Lucas had described the boundaries he envisioned for Iowa when he first urged its legislature to seek statehood. The lines he proposed were those of present-day Iowa, with the exception of its northern border. Lucas had sought a northern border composed of waterways leading to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers (long-distance railroads still being two decades away). At the statehood convention, his committee again proposed such a border, but this time further north, being entirely framed by the Minnesota River (known then as the St. Peter River).

In Congress, Iowa’s proposed northern border encountered unexpected and stiff opposition. Ohio Congressman Samuel F. Vinton, an influential member of the House Public Lands Committee, noted that Iowa’s proposed boundaries resulted in a state similar in size to Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. He pointed out that those states’ borders were created for political reasons that violated Thomas Jefferson’s vision for equitable representation in the Senate (see “Thomas Jefferson” in this book). Regarding Iowa (and other future states), Vinton argued:

What has been the effect of this change? … The vast and fertile region between the Ohio, the Lakes, and the Mississippi has been thus reduced from twelve to fourteen States to five at the most … [that] can never have but ten votes in the Senate.… As an equitable compensation to the western country for this flagrant injustice, I would make a series of small States on the opposite bank of the [Mississippi] river.

Vinton then sought to move Iowa’s proposed northern border from the Minnesota River to the 43rd parallel. Iowa’s nonvoting delegate, Augustus Dodge, strenuously but unsuccessfully opposed the shift, calling the new boundary “an artificial line.”

Borders proposed by Lucas

Was it artificial? As ultimately passed, Iowa’s northern border was a line set at 43°30’, resulting in the state having just under three degrees of height. Over the ensuing decades, Congress would go on to create a tier of prairie states just west of Iowa, each of which had three degrees of height (Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota). Just west of those states, Congress created a tier of states in the less populous Rocky Mountain region, each of which had four degrees of height (Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana).

Congressman Vinton’s argument had been so powerful it not only affected Iowa’s northern border but also brought Jefferson’s underlying principle back into the equation for defining state lines. Iowa may have lost the boundary it sought, but it acquired the distinction of being the lynchpin in determining the next phase of the American map.

When Iowa became a state, Robert Lucas hoped to become its first elected governor. But he was now sixty-five years old, and a new generation had come of age. Iowa’s Democratic Party instead nominated forty-one-year-old Ansel Briggs, who went on to win the election. Lucas’s political career had come to its close, with one last exception. In 1852, the year before his death, he announced his departure from the Democratic Party, following its nomination of Franklin Pierce, a proslavery Northerner. The seventy-two-year-old Lucas, who had entered the Democratic Party as a young stalwart of Andrew Jackson, could no longer associate himself with the party when even its northern members veered further toward proslavery views for political purposes. Though Robert Lucas’s tactics were wily, his principles were not.

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