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Early excavation and outline of the boat before the digging began

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Digging the boat out of the sand with heavy equipment

 (1820) The Sinking of the Missouri Packet and excavation for it

By Wayne Lammers


The PLUNDER of the Missouri Packet Steamboat

An1820 Steamboat excavation near the mouth of the Lamine and Missouri Rivers

By Wayne Lammers

June 2020


Information of the MISSOURI PACKET Steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in May of 1820.

From the Missouri Intelligence and Boonslick Advertiser (this newspaper issued its first copy in Franklin MO., on April 23, 1819)

Volume #1 Issue #51 May 13, 1820, P. 2 col. 3

“The Steam Boat Missouri Packet arrived at this place [May 5] in a short passage from St. Louis, bound for the Council Bluffs, laden principally with flour and provisions, for the troops at that place. We regret to state, that a few hours after leaving Franklin, she unfortunately sunk. Being, however, near the shore, in low water, it is expected a considerable portion of the cargo will be saved, and the boat raised and repaired so as to proceed on to her destination.”  [No further mention of the Missouri Packet in other issues of the Missouri Intelligence and Boon’s Lick Advertiser] 


This information was given to Wayne Lammers from Robert “Bob” Dyer after we, along with Gene Smith, visited the the excavated site on December, 30. 1987.

For many years I dreamed of working on an archeological site, uncovering history that have been lost to mankind. That dream came to light on December 30, 1987, when a friend by the name of Gene Smith asked me to video tape the excavation of a steamboat that he and his salvage corporation from Independence MO had found in the bottoms of the Missouri River, about eleven miles west of Boonville near the Lamine River. The boat they were searching for, ca1850’, according to the history, had a large amount of gold and silver onboard.

My friend Gene Smith of Independence MO, found this sunken boat using a Proton Magnetometer that used the principle of earth’s field nuclear magnetic resonance (EFNMR) to register very small variations on the earth’s magnetic field, allowing metal objects, underground, to be detected to the depth of 30 to 50 feet below the surface. In doing this, the salvage corporation can make exploration decisions, with a grid map, to show the variation of the magnetic field below. After the suspected boat is located on this grid, the next process is to use a 4- or 5-inch auger to bore a sample drill into the suspected target. In doing this, some of the boat hull and artifacts will belch out on to the surface of the Missouri River Bottoms. This boat that was dug, was at the depth of about 30 to 35 feet in the middle of a soybean field.

(Authors Note:) In 1820, the sunken boat was located on the southern shore of the Missouri River in Cooper County, on a bend in the river.

Over the years the Missouri River changed its course, I believe, because of the sinking of this steamboat and eliminating this bend in the river doing this, there is now part of Cooper County in the Howard County bottoms which exist today, xof 385 acres owned by the Jake Huebert. Family and CENTRAL MISSOURI PROPERTIES LLC of Boonville. 

On the day I arrived at the excavation site, it was a beautiful sunny day, with the temperature in the upper 30’s. Gene Smith  and I were in his black pickup truck following Gary Sisk, in his large RV, going to the two-inch snow field excavation site.  We were flying down the Missouri River Bottom because of all the snow and didn’t want to stop because we knew we would get stuck in a heart-beat if we did. We arrived at mid-morning to a site that was unbelievable. The midsection of the 120-foot boat was totally missing. This is where the three  boilers and firebox were located. I looked off to the side and saw one large cast iron boiler with other parts nearby that was set aside for later removal. On the port side of the bow of the boat, I saw men with shovels, clearing a large cast iron object. I later found out that this was the engine that powered the craft. I started recording with my Olympic video camera and captured the scene. Moments later I was told by Mr. Smith that we had the rest of the day to discover, record and retrieve what we could of the excavation, because the salvage company was going to rebury this historic steamboat forever. My first thought was “NO”, we need to

document this ship and its contents in front of us. To a certain extent, this never happened.

Gene Smith and I along with his 100-foot survey tape, began measuring the steamboat which measured approximately 120 feet long, 25 feet wide and 5 feet deep. By the time I settled in to the excavation, the salvage crew were removing the lone engine on the port side of the vessel. The lone large backhoe had a large two-inch strap that was raising the engine away from the boat. The engine had a pitman that was about 12 to 15 feet long with a 3/4-inch cast iron plate on both sides - top and bottom of this beam or pitman. This was connected to the paddle wheel cam which powered the boat. In raising the engine high above, I heard a large crunch. This was the breaking of the cam at the end of the pitman. Well, I thought, is this is how they retrieve artifacts from a historic sunken boat? I was shocked, literally shocked, by the irreverence to the methods and manner they pilfered these items on this old boat. My thoughts were, “This isn’t the way it is supposed to be done.”

The next thing was to try to find the name of this boat and when it sank. We found no paint on the sides of what was left of the vessel. We knew that there were about 30 to 40 wooden barrels of salted pork along with some empty whiskey barrels onboard the steamboat. A bunghole on the top of the barrel was the only indication of liquid in the empty container. Over the many years, the whiskey leached out and was gone forever. We located the barrels midway on the steamboat covered with sand, in front of where the three boilers were located. With two small shovels and a lot of work we uncovered many barrels. During this process, I noticed that there were no metal rings around each barrel. They were made of wooden rings with no metal at all. Each wooden band was secured to the barrels with small square nails. I knew that the early barrels had wooden rings instead of metal, to hold the contents together. I then had the feeling that we had a much earlier boat than the later 1850 “Money Boat” that the salvage company thought

 this one was. This “Money Boat” was thought to contain $200,000 in silver and $50,000 in gold coins. In today’s money….we are talking Millions of Dollars. My question was, why would a very early steamboat be caring that much money? Back to the search for the name of the boat.

We felt that there may be a stamp on the top of the barrels indicating the location of the shipment of pork. We pressed on and searched for this. We were right. We finally found a barrel top that was marked. Later, my next move, was to research for the origin of this salt cured pork at Chillicothe Ohio. I did some calling and found a person by the name of Brian Hackett, Director of the Ross County Historical Society in Chillicothe. He gave me the information about the Waddle & Davisson Company that was in operation from 1812 to 1824, shipping salt cured pork to early settlements out west including the forts at Council Bluffs Iowa some 950 river miles away from the docks at Chillicothe, Ohio. This is such a significant incite for a remarkable adventure early in the settling of the Great West. 

Brian Hackett advised that “This is a greater glimpse of what things were like, an unintentional time capsule. Finds like this allow people to have  insight about daily lives of those who lived long ago. Covering it was a waste, a loss of significant historical artifacts.” 

Again, we pressed on with our search. Gary Sisk wanted to search the stern of the boat with his idea of using a two-inch water hose that was supplied by the water pumps that removed the water from the sunken boat area. In digging the boat which was incased with sand and water, this water had to be removed. A system of four to five pumps were needed for this process. The pumps ran 24/7 at a cost of $500 dollars per day in fuel to run the pumps. This water was pumped some 150 yards back to the Missouri River.

In this task, of washing the stern of the boat, we uncovered a recessed paddle wheel or bootjack stern-wheeler. This was also an indication of an early boat. I knew from my studies that this is what the early steamers looked like.

See photo:  The first thing that was found was a pelvic bone. At the time we didn’t know what kind of bone this was.

Arthur’s note: Weeks later, I contacted Doctor Wiley McVicker, a veterinarian in Boonville, and he advised that this was a bovine pelvic bone. He couldn’t tell if it were male or female. So, we know that at least one cow was onboard when the ship sank.

Again, this was important to me because cattle were not a plentiful item out west at this point in time.

Video of the recovery of the Missouri Packet Steamboat

River, Rails & Trails Museum in Boonville houses the following: ½ scale model of a keel boat, handmade model of a Keel boat by Eric Owens, many artefacts from the Missouri Packet collected by Wayne Lammers. Oldest artifacts of oldest steam to be excavated on the Missouri River – May 5, 1820 excavated in December 1987.

River, Rails & Trails Museum in Boonville houses the following: ½ scale model of a keel boat, handmade model of a Keel boat by Eric Owens, many artefacts from the Missouri Packet collected by Wayne Lammers. Oldest artifacts of oldest steam to be excavated on the Missouri River – May 5, 1820 excavated in December 1987.


Paddle wheel and the stern of the boat - they dug through the boat.

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Boiler - one of the boilers - excavated and "carefully" searched for in the boat, with a 6-foot bucket

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Bob Dyer examining the steam engine

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Barrel staves from barrels of salt pork and whiskey.  Pork was processed in Chillicothe Ohio by Waddel and Davidson

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Closeup of the capstan

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Picture of barrel top and a pork jaw bone

Artifacts on display at River, Rails and Trails Museum

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Copper tubing (high steam pressure tubing)


Digging out the steam engine


Steam engine from another angle

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Lobby in the Arabia Museum in Kansas City displaying the steam engine

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