Digital Library

Western River Steamboats Treasure




Kristen Vogel



In the winter months of 1987-88, a salvage company uncovered the buried remains of the nineteenth-century steamboat Missouri Packet. The vessel sank in 1820 in the Missouri River after hitting a snag, an obstruction in the river caused by a fallen tree, in the Missouri River. According to legend, the treasure aboard the ill-fated steamboat was lost. Twentieth-century salvors hoped to recover precious metals or well-aged whiskey. Instead, they found the remains of the vessel’s hull, barrels of pickled pork, and little else. There was nothing of market value–nothing for the treasure hunters to sell to offset the cost of the excavation and make a profit.

The Search for Buried Treasure on Sunken Steamboats
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the steamboat was a crucial mode of transportation of goods and people in the American West, including along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, their tributaries, and lesser rivers. Cargos included foodstuffs, cotton, ceramics, clothing and accessories, alcoholic spirits, tools, and other items. If it was needed or wanted, it was likely carried in the cargo hold of a riverboat. In writing about the contributions of the vessel to the U.S. economy in the antebellum period, Charles Russell exclaims, “The steamboat, the steamboat—everything depended upon the steamboat!”

Overview of the Dissertation
Chapter Two of this dissertation surveys the site formation processes of western rivers steamboat wreck sites. I examine the disaster of the steamboat wreck, including the reasons wrecks happened on western waters and how a vessel could be buried over time. Chapter Three examines the development of the myth of buried treasure aboard sunken steamboats and details how the story is related to the general population. The next two chapters detail attempts to recover treasure from these vessels in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The final chapter, Chapter Six, concludes the study with discussion of the cultural, financial, and legal issues raised by the dissertation.


Vogel, K., 2017. ‘It Wasn’t the Money Boat’: The Myth and Reality of Treasure Hunting for Western River Steamboats in the United States. PhD Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University.