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Monday, July 8, 2019

The Enchanting Frozen Charlotte

During our initial tour of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Kansas, I was amazed at the thousands of items from the 1800s that were preserved in mud in a farmer’s field.

“The Arabia Steamboat Museum is home to a true time capsule of frontier life in the 1800s. The Arabia was headed up the Missouri River in the fall of 1856 when she struck a tree snag and sank just north of Kansas City. Her cargo hold was full of 200 tons of supplies bound for general stores and pioneer settlements.” 

The Arabia was a typical western steamboat. A twin side-wheel steamer, she was built long and flat to carry maximum cargo. Measuring 171 feet long, with three decks and a wheel house above the water line, she plied the waters of the mighty Missouri River, pushing upstream at more than 5 miles per hour.

On August 30, she left St. Louis headed for Sioux City, Iowa, by way of Kansas (present-day Kansas City, MO), Weston (MO), St. Joseph (MO), and Council Bluffs (IA).  The Missouri River was wide and shallow and her rushing muddy waters hid dangerous snags—tree trunks that had fallen into the water when the river undercut their roots. Going full steam upriver against the current the Arabia struck the trunk of a large submerged walnut tree that smashed her hull open. She sank fast, until only the wheelhouse was visible, and that quickly broke up in the current.

All the 130 passengers and crew got off safely, but the cargo was buried in sand and mud at the bottom of the Missouri. Over the years, the river changed course with the floods and dry times, layering the site of the wreck under successive years of dirt. When the Arabia was finally located in 1986 she lay in a farmer’s corn field half a mile from the current river’s course and under 45 feet of dirt—and below the water table.

It took 4 months and twenty (20) irrigation wells pumping out up to 20,000 gallons of water per minute to get to the Arabia. The team of family and friends brought up boxes, barrels and crates of frontier merchandise, both necessities and available luxuries, items meant for General Stores all along the river: castor oil, needles, nutmegs, windowpanes, brass and silver locks and keys, eyeglasses, syrup bottles, rubber overshoes and wedding bands; jars of pickles that were still edible (yes, one of the team tried one); French perfume that still held it’s scent thanks to the ambergris that was a main ingredient; carpenter’s tools; a Frozen Charlotte figurine; buttons and scissors; even over one million Venetian glass beads meant as trade goods.

Of all the items, I was enchanted by that Frozen Charlotte. Not the gold or diamonds or beautiful venetian glass, but a tiny doll. The three-inch doll was discovered wrapped in wool and tucked at the bottom of a carpenter’s tool box.

Manufactured from 1850-1920, the Frozen Charlotte dolls ranged in size from less than 1” to more than 18”.

If your grandmother had a bathing baby doll in a little porcelain tub—that’s a type of Frozen Charlotte.

The doll was named for a popular American Folk Ballad, Fair Charlotte, which tells of a young girl (Charlotte) who froze to death on a sleigh ride because she refused to dress warmly. The Frozen Charlotte appeared as everything from a charm in a Christmas Pudding to the inhabitant of a doll house to the pampered favorite possession of many little girls.

Since our visit to the museum, I think of the Frozen Charlotte on the Arabia at odd moments. Who was it meant for? Was a hard-working carpenter who’d been earning money back East bringing a gift for his daughter in St. Joseph? Or perhaps a litle girl had wrapped her favorite doll in a bit of wool blanket and hid it at the bottom of her daddy’s tool box as a momento, a reminder that she was waiting for him at home.

Definitely a story starter.


  1. Oh, this was fascinating. All the little mundane details of everyday life and well-loved toys are the things which rarely survive, but which speaks volumes about the everyday life of people at the time. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Tracy,

    It is amazing that after all this time being buried in that farmer's field that so many items on the Arabia were still in great condition. I have so many questions about Frozen Charlotte. It makes me a little sad to think the doll was a gift that never made it to the recipient.

  3. What a wonderful discovery to have uncovered the Arabia after all those years had passed and to find all that precious cargo it held when it went under. To think that they had to dig down 45 feet and use all those water pumps to accomplish such a task makes it all the more amazing. I wonder what that French perfume smelled like? I would have never guessed that those porcelain dolls would have preserved without being broken after such a perilous wreck.
    A very interesting post. I love to see these kinds of every day items in museums. It makes me feel a kinship to the people and circumstances of that time.

  4. The past has so many pieces of tactile history, and the stories they could tell if they spoke. A wonderful piece. Thank you. Doris