Above: Council Bluffs, Iowa stereoview, street scene shows an arch, two welcome signs and a hanging boot sign (on left blocking the welcome sign).
Welcome to 2012. This year will marks:
the 156th year the Steamboat Arabia Sank,
the 20th year the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened (November 2011) and
the 20th year my first visit to the Steamboat Arabia Museum.
If you haven't checked out Arabia Steamboat Museum's facebook page- More boots have been cleaned and perserved and only 24,000 more to go! I take my hat off to the staff and their great patience and care they take ensuring these artifacts will be around for the future generations.
Last year, I completed my book proposal, and now, I will begin writing up the draft. Ellen Dunlap, who is President of the American Antiquarian Society, has generously offered to meet to discuss my proposal and it greatly pleases me that so many people have helped me along the way.
Above- CDV, backstamp W. Mitchell's National Art Gallery, No. 77 Felix Street, St. Joseph. Idenified in pencil as Col. McDonald. Possibly the McDonald who was a partner to Saxton & Donnell. Notice the diamond ring on the pinky and the artist's attempt to reflect McDonald's personality with the devilish details.
Here in 888 words is my proposal in a nutshell. Doesn't this open your eyes to how the Arabia Steamboat Museum represents 1850s America?
The Arabia Steamboat Museum exhibits the best and largest random sample of pre–Civil War Americana in existence, all of it from the Arabia, a commercial side-wheeler, that operated on the inland waterways for three years and sank in the Missouri River in 1856. Since the opening of the museum in 1991, over two million people have visited it. These include tourists, historians, academics, collectors, school children, Civil War reenactors, and archaeologists.
The museum exhibits include:
• Most of the two hundred tons of 1856 merchandise found in the steamboat’s hull, arranged according to the type of ware, for example, hardware, clothing, dishes, and boots
• Parts of the steamboat, i.e.,for example, hull, boiler, stacks, and a reproduction working paddle wheel
• A video about the personal experiences of those who discovered and excavated the steamboat
The museum does an excellent job telling the story of the excavation by twentieth century treasure hunters and scratches the surface of the boat’s context and historical importance. This might be enough for casual visitors, but a growing majority wants to know more. They see this collection as a unique gateway into America’s past, and as mysterious as King Tut’s tomb. John Falk’s book The Museum Experience points out, “Visitors go to an aquarium expecting to see live fish in tanks and read information about them”; ergo, visitors go to a nineteenth-century steamboat museum expecting to see the steamboat’s artifacts and gain an understanding about the businessmen who were involved. The proposed book, The Arabia Steamboat Museum: Exploring American Businessmen through Ephemera, will document the stories hidden within this collection and satisfy those who hunger for the deeper history.
My personal experience with the collection began in 1992, when, on my first visit to the museum, I saw a wooden crate of shoes and after reading the names and towns that were painted on the side of the crate I wanted to know who these merchants were. As I looked at other artifacts, I began to ask a wider scope of questions:
• Who were the businessmen who consigned all these goods?
• What were their experiences selling goods in the towns where they set up their shops?
• Why did they need these items for the winter of 1856?
• What events happened aboard the steamboat Arabia during this hectic time before the Civil War?
The curator at that time was Greg Hawley. We discussed a joint project and agreed that I should begin researching Arabia’s deeper stories, even if finding any paper trail would be difficult. However despite this obstacle, I accepted the challenge to answer my own questions and chose to see Arabia as a stage and focus on the businessmen who owned her, worked aboard her, consigned their goods to her, contracted with her proprietors and agents, and walked her decks, or waved to her from the shore.
I found that commercial boats, like Arabia, worked on a packet line with a hierarchy consisting of a managing office, captains, clerks. In Arabia’s case, she was part of three lines, the first packet line shipped the U.S. mail, then second, the U.S. military’s troops and their provisions and last for St. Louis steamboat commission firms. This went on for three years until she sank near Parkville, Missouri September 5, 1856, with undelivered freight for sixteen landings extending over six hundred miles along the Missouri River. These lost crates resulted in fifty-one stores in Nebraska Territory, Missouri, and Iowa being deprived of their merchandise for the winter of 1856. It took a week for the St. Louis wholesalers to learn in the Daily Missouri Democrat that the freight they sold lay at the bottom of the Missouri River.
The majority of the cargo represented the lifeblood for two new towns in Nebraska Territory, that were Florence and St. John’s City, and the rest was for other businessmen who tried to make a living while serving a variety of consumers. It was these businessmen that I wanted to know more about and in that way, I felt they held the key to understanding what this cargo was all about. These men, either aboard the boat or waiting in their towns, were real people, representing all economic levels and business strategies. I would find, some of these men became witnesses to the repercussions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 when the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were in the initial stage of organization, a few cut out a decent living, others became the casualties of the depression known as the Panic of 1857 and several participated in the Civil War.
At the end of my twenty years of research, I had answered my questions and I learned the essential truth, what these mid-nineteenth century businessmen were striving to accomplish with the merchandise that now makes up the artifacts in the Arabia Steamboat Museum and how much shipping was affected by current events, much like today. Moreover, I was able to generalize their experiences to the general population of 1850s businesses. Last, I learned the foundations of credit reporting history and how these indicators for a good credit report still apply today. They were much like people in the twenty-first century, just trying to make a living during the hectic times, when changing markets, land speculation and borrowing on credit ruined many.