December 28, 1846 – Iowa Joins the Union as the 29th State

Iowa is the only U.S. state with eastern and western borders formed entirely by rivers – the Mississippi River on the east, and the Missouri River and the Big Sioux River on the west.


Originally part of the Louisiana Territory, Iowa became part of the territory of Missouri, then Michigan, then Wisconsin before achieving its own territorial status in 1838. Settlement had started in earnest back in 1833, when treaties at the end of Black Hawk’s War liquidated Indian claims to the western bank of the Mississippi. (Besides giving impetus to the U.S. policy of “Indian removal,” the Black Hawk War is notable for several egregious Indian massacres, and for having provided military experience to Abraham Lincoln, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis.)


The Iowa Territory wasn’t securely fixed in 1838, however. In 1839, “The Honey War” was a bloodless territorial dispute between Iowa Territory and Missouri over their border.

The disagreement was over ownership of a 9.5 mile wide strip of land running the entire length of the border. It was caused variously by unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution on boundaries, a misunderstanding between magnetic north and polar north by a surveyor, and a misreading of Native American treaties, according to Atlas Obscura. The border conflict tensed into what historians would call “the Honey War,” after some unknown Missourian went over the border and cut down three bee trees filled with honey. It escalated even further, with militias from each side facing off with pitchforks, plow blades, and other improvised weapons. Delegations from each side managed to reach a settlement. The issue was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court in Iowa’s favor in a 9-0 decision in State of Missouri v. State of Iowa, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 660 (1849). The decision affirmed a nearly 30-mile jog in the nearly straight line border between extreme southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa that is now Iowa’s southernmost point.

The disputed land of the Honey War via Atlas Obscura

The clash over Iowa’s borders wasn’t over however. When Iowa applied for statehood in 1844, the members of the constitutional convention decided to ask for a boundary running northeast from the mouth of the Big Sioux River to the mouth of the Watonwan River in what is now Minnesota, and then down the St. Peter’s River to the Mississippi River. Congress decided Iowa could be admitted as a state, but only if the boundaries were changed, proposing a much narrower state. This did not sit well with the Iowans. They tried again in 1846, and got boundaries more to their liking. On December 28, 1846, President James K. Polk signed the bill which admitted Iowa as the twenty-ninth state in the Union.

As It Would Have Been Had the Constitution of 1844 Been Adopted with Boundaries Fixed by Congress

Although Iowa was admitted to the Union as a free state, it was not a welcoming place for blacks. In 1851 the assembly passed a law excluding free blacks from entering the state. A vote in 1857 to allow Negro suffrage was defeated by a five to one margin. However, by the 1880s Iowans had liberalized enough for George Washington Carver to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames. When he began in 1891, he was the first black student, and later taught as the first black faculty member. When he completed his B.S., his professors convinced him to continue at Iowa State for his master’s degree.

George Washington Carver in 1906

George Washington Carver in 1906

More consistently, Iowans have always loved State Fairs. The first Iowa State Fair was in 1854. Setting records with big animals is a popular part of the Fair. In 1929, “Baby Mine,” a 4 foot, 1,160 pound baby elephant was purchased for the Fair by contributions of some 15,000 Iowa children who sent in nearly $1,000 in nickels and dimes. (The newspapers, the Iowa State Fair Board and other contributors assumed the rest of the $3,600 cost.) 25,000 children showed up the first day of the Fair in 1929 to greet him.

More recently, in 2012 Iowans expressed pride for a new record-setting boar (“Reggie”), weighing in at 1,335 pounds, and a very large rabbit, “Punkin”, topping the scales at a record 22 pounds, 5.5 ounces. You can see the large entrants of animals setting records at the 2019 fair here.



Iowans also gain national attention every four years during presidential elections. New Hampshire has a state law that says it must be the first state to hold a primary in a presidential election. The law provides: “The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a Tuesday selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier, of each year when a president of the United States is to be elected or the year previous…”

But because Iowa holds a caucus rather than a primary, it has remained the first state to hold any kind of vote on candidates for both parties since 1976. As such, Iowa has been the focus of a great deal of attention from both candidates and the media that cover them.

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