It was a common occurrence in the days long before interstates, when rivers were among the main routes to transport people and cargo and steamboats were the vehicle of choice.
In 1856, the Arabia was traveling the Missouri river when it hit a snag–literally. A snag, I learned at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, is a fallen tree just under the river’s surface. Snags could pierce hulls and sink boats. Three of every four steamboats lost to the Missouri river were snagged, and steamboats tended not to last very long.
A mule was the only casualty of the accident that sank the Arabia. The passengers fled to the upper cabins, which remained above water long enough for all of them to be ferried to safety by a life boat.
But there was a tremendous economic loss. All 200 tons of cargo sank to the bottom. The misfortune of the passengers, many of whom were hoping to start a new life out West, and the merchants who were going to sell all that stuff is a resource for historical novelists and anyone else with an interest in how mid-19th century Americans lived.
More than 130 years after the accident, the Arabia was found and unburied from a farm (the river had shifted). Parts of the boat and much of its cargo were salvaged and on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
The boat carried medicines, spices, bottled food, eyeglasses, jewelry, tools, tableware and pots, buttons and sewing supplies, dolls, weapons, and much, much more–a treasure trove of daily life a few years before the Civil War.
You might be wondering why a bunch of stuff is so valuable to a historical novelist. A historical novel cannot simply recount who did what when, and it must have more than strong characters and plot. It must re-create the life of its era, and unless time travel is involved, most novels can’t point out that characters didn’t have plastic, microwaves, or Internet access.
Artifacts, such as those found on the site of the Arabia, give us a glimpse of what they did have. How did they cloth themselves? How did they prepare food? What did they do to amuse themselves? What would they see in a general store? In other words, all this stuff helps us answer those questions.
For more about the Arabia, its cargo, and the project that made it possible for us to see this slice of life, visit the museum website.