175-year-old fur-trading boat located by Missouri steamboat hunters

Arabia Steamboat Museum News Release

Contact: Paula Rose, Coordinator of Education and Preservation
Arabia Steamboat Museum
(816) 471-1856


February 26, 2016

175-year-old fur-trading boat located by Missouri steamboat hunters

Kansas City, MO - The local team responsible for the Arabia Steamboat Museum has its sights set on another buried steamboat: the Malta. After a three-year search, River Salvage Inc. has discovered the location of a fur-trading boat fifteen years older than the Steamboat Arabia. David Hawley is hoping that an excavation in winter 2016-2017 will yield artifacts telling a tale of American enterprise on the frontier. The story behind this adventure begins in Missouri 175 years ago.

The year is 1841. John Tyler is president, and Missouri is the western border of the United States. The economy is suffering after bank failures led to the Panic of 1837. The Town of Kansas (present-day Kansas City) only has a little over 500 residents. Despite serious challenges, entrepreneurs see opportunity in the Great Plains. A surprisingly modern network of international exchange starts to develop through the Upper Missouri Fur Trade.

“The Missouri River and her banks are home to hundreds of untold stories...It would be a shame if we only told one.”
David Hawley

At the beginning of the 1840s, a couple dozen steamboats were operating on the Missouri River, bringing supplies from St. Louis to Westport in present-day Kansas City---where travelers embarking on the Santa Fe Trail could stock up at trading posts---but only a couple of boats per year ventured further northwest. When John Jacob Astor partnered with St. Louis company Berthold & Chouteau to create the American Fur Company, they founded a trading monopoly and expanded Midwestern trading routes.

The Steamboat Malta was carrying goods for the American Fur Company when it hit a tree snag on August 8, 1841 and sank. Newspapers reported that “probably no boat ever went to the bottom so quickly on the river.” At the time, steamboats for the American Fur Company were supplying trading posts in the Nebraska Territory. They would ship goods from Europe, including glass beads, fabric, knives, traps, tinware, coffee, tobacco, and much more. This merchandise was traded for furs obtained and processed by members of many American Indian Nations, including Sioux, Arikara, Assiniboine, and others. By 1850, the American Fur Company was shipping up to 100,000 bison robes (buffalo skins) per year, many of which were then transported to the fur markets of Germany and England. The fur trade of the 1840s was a global enterprise.

Today the Steamboat Malta is lying under a farmer’s field near Malta Bend: a Missouri town halfway between Waverly and Miami, named for the boat that was never forgotten by local residents. The Malta may still contain an assortment of early American frontier trade goods---a collection unlike any other in the world. Testing has already yielded vivid red and black woven fabric, along with wood believed to be from the boat’s paddle wheel and deck. David Hawley and his team of friends and family are hoping to reveal another time capsule of life on the American frontier, which could vastly expand their mission of preserving maintaining, and sharing cultural possessions. Since 1991, the Arabia Steamboat Museum in the City Market has housed 200 tons of cargo preserved when the Steamboat Arabia sank in 1856. 

You can follow the discovery of the Steamboat Malta at: www.moexplorer.com

For more information, contact the Arabia Steamboat Museum at (816) 471-1856 or steamboatmuseum@gmail.com

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