As I continued my research of my family, my great-great-grandmother’s history puzzled me. The family historian listed her city of origin as Athens, Iowa. Except there is no such place. A site listed as the Battle of Athens State Historic Site, near the northern boundary of Missouri is the only location that came close.
At first glance I assumed the family records contained a mistake. I read another account by a prospector who had traveled with the family across the plains. His book also listed my great-great-grandmother’s place of origin as Athens, Iowa. Two authors from the same era making the same error? Not likely. I dug deeper. What I found was an early boundary dispute.
When the Iowa-Missouri state border was first surveyed in 1816 by John Sullivan, he declared the northern Missouri border to be in alignment with the latitude running through the rapids on the Des Moines river. But no one knew exactly where the rapids were. He’d also made a mistake, not adjusting his compass to allow for the rise from the west side of the state (on the Missouri river) to the east side (Mississippi river), a difference of four miles which included an area of about 2600 acres.
And Athens, Iowa.
When settlers arrived in 1833, established farms, and created towns, they wanted to know where the boundary truly was. With the government promise of a dam and lock system on the Des Moines river, Athens became a thriving port. Mills were built, businesses arrived, and commerce brought more settlers, most of them anti-slavery.
Missouri, on the other hand, remained a slave state.
As more and more runaway slaves sought their freedom in the North, the Iowa-Missouri border became a line of contention. Slaves who made it to Iowa were declared free, and could easily pass on into Kansas on their way to Canada. But in the disputed boundary area, trouble brewed. As my great-great-grandmother waited for her hero to return from the west and claim his bride, her hometown became more and more embroiled in the growing tension between the North and the South.
This is a continuation of the storykeepers series I began last October, see listings.