Treasure of the Arabia |

Treasure of the Arabia

Candy MoultonHundreds of pieces of China dishware came from the cargo hold of the Arabia.

It is nothing short of incredible, the power of mud to preserve. In 1856 the Arabia steamed away from St. Louis bound for ports along the Missouri River where the 200 tons of cargo she carried would be distributed for use in frontier communities.

On Sept. 6, 1856, the Kansas City Enterprise reported, “The steamer Arabia bound for Council Bluffs struck a snag about a mile below Parkville and sunk to the boiler deck – Boat and cargo a total loss.” The sinking occurred the previous day.

The muddy waters of the Missouri had obscured the snag that bored into the hull of the Arabia, causing the vessel to quickly flood and sink. Although the crew and passengers – around 130 people in all – survived, the boat laden with merchandise quickly floundered and submerged. There may have been minimal recovery of goods, but the vast majority of the cargo soon lay in the mud bottom of the Missouri.

The constant wash of water and mud completely covered the Arabia. Over the decades, the river shifted and moved, changing course as all active waterways tend to do.

Treasure hunters began searching for the Arabia. They looked where the river now flows, to the north, to the south, eventually to the west. And in a farmer’s field a half-mile from the present river’s edge, in 1988, they found the Arabia, lying buried in mud and soil 45 feet below the surface. The discovery was not just an affirmation of where the steamboat lay, but became an intense archaeological and historical investigation.

The discovery of the Arabia came at the hands of five men: Jerry Mackey, Bob Hawley and his sons, Dave and Greg, and David Luttrell. Their wives were not too interested in their quest for treasure … at least not until they pulled the first outstanding piece of china from the hulk.

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As the treasure hunters recovered the first plunder from the black, muddy soil they were astounded. Fine English china had survived the snag and although mud-crusted was perfectly preserved. Beautiful pitchers and patters, cups, plates, saucers, bowls and more were lifted into the daylight for the first time in 132 years.

The 4-month-long excavation took place during the winter months, when the Missouri and the water table in the surrounding countryside were at their lowest stages. Day-after-day, week-after-week the workers slogged in the mud pulling cases and crates from their grave. Inside were tools for farmers, farriers, blacksmiths, and other laborers; dishes, tin pots and pans, lanterns, bottles, jars and containers filled with olives, pickles, and much more; cloth and clothing items for men, women, and children, jewelry, boots, hats, belts, buckles, tens of thousands of buttons, beads, sewing needles, scissors, irons, and spools that once held thread.

Bottles and jars of food and medicines were uncovered along with chains barrels, and woodworking tools. Inside the hulk were chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes, plus tallow candles and even French perfume.

This astounding collection of goods – the most extensive ever found from the period – is now being restored and much of it is on display at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City. With so many tons of good, though, it takes time for preservation efforts and they are ongoing. At the Museum you can see that process. The day I visited the preservationist was working with a pair of boots, now 150 years old.

The privately held collection is well presented at the museum with a film describing the effort to find the Arabia, and display cases holding some of the now-restored cargo. To give a sense of the size of the vessel, the museum includes a replica of it. One particularly impressive exhibit item is the actual snag that took down the Arabia. Another is a remnant of the hull.

The entire steamboat itself was not fully excavated, but instead allowed to remain deep in the mud of the Missouri.

There are other Missouri River steamboats known to have hit snags or other obstacles and sunk in the river between St. Louis and Jefferson City. They include the Thomas Jefferson (1819), Big Hatchee (1845), Boreas No. 2 (1846), Julia (1849), Excel (1856), Kate Howard (1859), Feliz X. Aubrey (1860) and more that sank in later years. And certainly vessels went down upstream from Jefferson City, as occurred with the Arabia.

The array of goods that were part of the Arabia cargo will amaze you, not only because of its diversity, but more so because it remained so well preserved thanks to river mud.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is open throughout the year (closed some holidays). Please visit for more information.