FreshPlans Visits the Steamboat Arabia


In 1856, the steamboat Arabia was heading up the Missouri River to St. Joseph and other pioneer towns with merchandise for the stores that sold provisions to people heading west to the gold fields of California, as well as the people living there in Missouri and Kansas.

She hit a tree trunk that had fallen into the river, called a “snag,” and she sank into the muddy bottom of the river.

That, by the way, is where we get the expression, “to hit a snag.”

All the people on board were saved, but the ship sank into the muddy bottom of the Mighty Mo and was lost for more than a century. In the 1980s, a group of treasure hunters realized that the changes in the course of the Missouri River meant that the Arabia was buried in a farmer’s field, just waiting to be dug up.

The treasure hunters found the right field, dug up the boat (it was a hard job!), and found an incredible collection of perfectly preserved artifacts from life in the 1800s. Since the goods were new items going to furnish stores, and since they were sealed by mud from contact with the air, they are in an incredible state of preservation. The treasure hunters changed their minds and opened a museum on the river in Kansas City.

pioneer school supplies

FreshPlans went to visit, and we saw these pioneer school supplies. Slates and slate pencils were used to practice readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic on the prairies. In this picture, you can also see the new-fangled pump-style inkwell. The children of this area were short on school supplies the year the Arabia went down!

pioneer hardware

All this hardware also went down. Students might recognize doorknobs and nails, but some of these items are hard to identify!

Steamboat Arabia goods

Not all the goods on the Arabia were serious. There were plenty of things like perfume, toys, jewelry, and hair accessories. There was also a lot of warm clothing for the winter, boots and shoes, and hats. The people of the area must have had to make do with what they had, and the kids’ shoes would surely have pinched by the time winter was over.

preservation of artifacts

At the Steamboat Arabia museum you can see the machinery and tools used to preserve artifacts and talk with the lab technicians.

oxidized artifacts

Displays show how the artifacts were affected by contact with oxygen and how they were preserved from that contact. Oxidation is a chemical reaction, and a very good science connection for this field trip or virtual field trip.

steamboat boiler

Steam power and paddle wheels are also excellent science connections. So is archaeology. Often students’ only image of archaeology is of deserts and ancient civilizations, but the dig for the Arabia was an archaeological dig of sorts, too.

The video shown at the museum uses the song “Shenandoah,” which contains the line “Away, you rolling rivers!” Some scholars believe this song dates from the Civil War era, and that’s how we’ve illustrated it, but it is also considered a shanty for rivermen. Listen and research, and see what you think.

More online resources:

  • A photo gallery that could be used for all kinds of visual literacy experiences. Have students examine the photos and list all the conclusions they can draw from their observations, or combine this collection with the Artsedge lesson Analyzing Photographs.
  • Watch a news report discussing the museum and have students compare what they learn from it with what they learn from other media, such as this newspaper article:

  • With older students, analyze the structure of the news report and have them write a TV news report for September 1856, when the Arabia sank.
  • The Treasure! exhibit has some information and ideas about treasure hunting.


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