WHILE HAVING FUN
By: Bill Cunningham
Some years ago (more than itís
fun to think about) I was at an historical site that had been rebuilt
and was manned by reenactors who were supposed to be experts on the fur
trade and events surrounding it in the southwest. I just happened to be
there when one of the employees, dressed in period clothing and
outfitted with lots of great looking equipment, began upbraiding a
visitor. This was a woman who was probably a buckskinner. She had brown
hair worn long, was wearing a beautiful leather dress tastefully
decorated with beads and quills, and had on her feet a likewise
decorated pair of moccasins. This employee let her know in no uncertain
words that she was dressed as an Indian and that she simply could not do
that. Being obviously of Caucasian persuasion, she could only wear the
clothing of a missionary or that of a Mexican prostitute. Any other
clothing for white women could not have been found in the interior of
the American west during the fur trade. So, to be authentic she could
only wear the aforementioned clothing. The beautiful young woman left in
embarrassment, and I left in disgust. Although I had never researched
that area of the fur trade history, I just knew he was wrong.
I could not shake that scene from
my mind. A couple of months later I traveled to the genealogical
libraries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt
Lake City, Utah and went to digging. I didnít know whether I could
find something useful about womenís clothing during the time period of
the fur trade or not, but that library has a lot of books and the staff
really knows their stuff!!
It didnít take long with the
assistance of the very helpful people there. Before many minutes had
passed I was reading from a book printed in the 1800s about a man named
Charles Beaubien, a successful Montreal businessman who, with his two
daughters, moved to Taos. These children dressed in the latest French
fashion. Their father became a large land owner whom the locals came to
address affectionately as Don Carlos. Don Carlos became partners,
eventually, with Lucien Maxwell who married Don Carlosí thirteen year
old daughter. Lucien Maxwell, by the way, owned over a million acres,
built a mill and home outside Cimmaron, New Mexico, where the Philmont
Boy Scout ranch is, and was a relative of the Pete Maxwell who owned the
ranch (once owned by Lucien) where Billy the Kid was killed.
I also found out that shipís
captains who moored in what is now San Francisco bay often brought their
families and traveled into the interior, some as far as the Denver area.
I soon came to realize that fashionable European clothing was no
stranger to the interior west during the fur trade.
Of course, many instances of white
women taken captive and held among the Indians of the east are well
known. They adapted and adopted Indian dress. They had to or go nude.
The same held true in the west, especially from Texas, Arizona,
Colorado, and New Mexico, and many instances are documented. The woman I
mentioned was perfectly correct in wearing Indian clothing and could
also have worn the fashions from the eastern seaboard or the courts of
Europe. It is my fervent desire that the lady I mention who was so
embarrassed, and the man who berated her, have the opportunity to read
this. I hope it serves as her vindication and his repudiation.
The materials and references that
I turned up at the LDS genealogy library provided for further research
for years. I still have a notebook filled with notations I made that I
havenít had the time to follow up on.
Recently, I was fortunate enough
to participate in a trip through the mid-west. The trip took a few weeks
and provided many interesting places to visit, such as a dandy little
museum in Lusk, Wyoming, the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron,
Nebraska, a bird refuge and river boat museum on the Missouri River that
had free admission in honor of Veteranís Day. There was a nice paved
road that led eventually to a large museum which had a big red-lettered
sign posted on the doors that said, "Closed in honor of Veteranís
Day." We visited Indian mounds, libraries and museums and much more
about which I intend to write when I can give each place its own
article. But for now I want to let you know about my favorite; The
steamboat Arabia in Kansas City, MO.
Over four hundred steamboats sank
on the Missouri River. One of them, the Arabia, sank in 1856 and was
located a few years ago by a couple of adventurous families of Kansas
City. The steamboat was deep under the mud left behind when the river
changed course. They obtained permission from the farmer who owned the
land to go diggingóseveral had tried before but to no avail. The
subsurface water poured into holes faster than the holes could be dug.
This did not deter these folks. It needs to be understood that these
were not the idle rich. These are very nice ordinary folks who own and
operate a refrigeration business. Not rich by any definition of the
word. Somehow they raised the money to start. And to begin they floated
equipment up the river, wrestled it across to the site, and with limited
equipment and unlimited brawn and lots of sweat went to work. They made
up five large pumps to get rid of the water that poured into the
cavernous hole they dug. (By the time the operation was fully underway
it was taking $600.00 of diesel a day to keep the pumps rinning). It was
winter and coldóbitter, wet, Missouri cold. But in four and a half
months they located the wreck, moved the mud from atop and around it,
and wrestled 200 tons of merchandise from the ruins.
This was a tremendous undertaking.
Experts came to gawk and criticize but had nothing of value to offer.
Two families accomplished what others had tried and failed. Two families
who would not give up. As an illustration of what it was like, even
though they wore heavy clothing they were constantly soaked and coated
in mud. Icicles hung from beards, mustaches and eyebrows. Their hands,
their faces, their hair and clothing were muddy, filthy abominations.
About the only part of them that was not slimy was the back of their
shoulders. The nicest thing a person could do for another was to allow
them to wipe their nose on the back of a shoulder.
When they had recovered all that
was there, they looked at the buildings where they had stored the
"treasure" and realized that they could not sell it. There was
just too much American history involved to allow it to get away into the
anonymity of private holdings. So they set about restoring everything.
The entire lot had been preserved by the mud, but once out of the deep
muck much of it would not last long. Exposed unprotected to air things
would quickly rot. The wood had to be preserved before it simply fell
apart, and they had to find out how to save it. Everyone went to work.
Wood had to be soaked in some preservative that would preserve without
harming. The clothing; trousers, hats, shirts, underwear, socks, all
made of wool but sewn with cotton thread which had rotted away, had to
be cleaned and re-sewn. (There was little to no womenís clothing.
Typically, it was made of cotton and had simply rotted to nothing).
Boots had to be re-sewn, as did everything that had been assembled with
cotton thread. The women went to work with needles and thread and
Among all the crates and bales
were boxes of Wedgewood china, fine silverware, bottled foods still good
to eat, bobby pins, nails, tools of all sorts; horse, mule, and ox
shoes; guns; lead; rubber shoes and boots with Goodyear marked on the
bottoms; shovels, picks, hoes, crystal goblets, brass and tin ware,
wagon wheels, hammers, screws and screw-drivers, handles, axes adzes,
surgical equipment and items unimaginable. It has to be seen to be
But what to do with it? Somehow
amid all the technological difficulties of preservation, of labor
required to salvage and repair, the two families managed to build an
impressive building to preserve and show the treasure. It is neat to
know that the farmer who owned the land under which the Arabia reposed
had imposed a fee of fifteen percent of the items recovered. When he saw
the magnitude of the cargo and what the families were doing to preserve
it for the public, he told them that he would give up what they had
promised him. Instead he would settle for his pick of any 25 items to
decorate his home. The rest was theirs.
I canít tell it well enough for
anyone to understand what the experience of visiting the Arabia is like.
I can only urge that if you are taking a vacation or traveling somewhere
for a camp, to instead plan on a couple or three days in Kansas City to
tour the Arabia. You will be astounded at this view into Americaís
past. And you will never quite view it again as you do now. In the
interim, look it up online. It is an American treasure that is unmatched