Captain - Staff Writer


The North American Frontiersmen


Smoke Signals

Jan./Feb. '10




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 perseverance.

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 believed.

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 anywhere else.


Bill Cunningham


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