Cobwebbed Tales: The Mighty Mo

Sandy Jordan
Guest Columnist

The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City is a fascinating glimpse into Missouri history. The Arabia sank near Kansas City on September 5, 1856, she carried 200 tons of cargo. Lost for 132 years, its recovery in 1988 was like opening a door to a forgotten chapter of Missouri History The artifacts are preserved and displayed at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, located in the historic City Market. There is clothing, fine china, carpentry tools, guns, dishes children’s toys and the world’s oldest pickles.

March 1856, the Arabia was stopped and searched by pro-slavery Border Ruffians near Lexington, Missouri. According to newspaper accounts at the time, a Pennsylvania abolitionist aboard the Arabia dropped a letter, which was discovered and handed over to Captain Shaw. The letter described guns and cannons en route to the slavery-free Kansas Territory from the abolitionist Massachusetts Aid Society. The weapons were discovered in boxes labeled "Carpenters Tools" and confiscated.

Without this footnote in the historic archives she would have simply vanished into history like hundreds before her. The Mighty Mo devoured steam boats like we eat corn flakes. From Montana to the confluence with the Mississippi River, just north of St. Louis ,the Missouri River is 2,341 miles long.

Some claim that actually the Mississippi River is a tributary to the Missouri River as it is much longer than the Upper Mississippi River and also contains about double the amount of water than the Mississippi River at their confluence.

William Peterson wrote, in an intensive researched article, that Joliet and Marquette heard what sounded like loud rapids and discovered the Pekitanoui River. A tawny colored, frothing, massive river where whole trees floated by in rapid currents.

La Salle, Father Zemobias Membre, and Father Labriel Murest, all wrote about the river without actually going down it. The cartographer William Delibes made the earliest crude maps featuring the river, now known as the Missouri River. 

The common Keel-boats and the piroque could not safely navigate the river. Native American Tribes lived in villages along its banks but rarely ventured out on the river. It was not a navigable waterway. 

Lewis and Clark also saw and tried to explore the river. The first steamboat up the Missouri River, the Independence, ran from St. Louis to the vicinity of the Chariton River in 1819.. The second boat up the river was the Western Engineer.

The museum in Kansas City is a good example of what the Mighty Mo gave us and the tragic price so many paid navigating it’s nearly impossible currents. Peering through the cobwebs of tome can be richly rewarding. Perhaps in the attic, a basement or an old shed you might find a dish brought up the Mighty Mo.