Andy Masich, President and CEO, Heinz History Center:
But there was a lot going on in the 1850s in America. We learn about Bleeding Kansas. It was the center of the abolition debate: should there be free states or should there be slave states in the west?
This was the beginning of the Civil War, and the Arabia was steaming right into the heart of it.
In fact, on board the Arabia, we found bundles of shirts like this. This is a militia man’s shirt made of wool. Look at the heart sewn over the heart. This is the kind of thing that John Brown’s men wore in Bleeding Kansas. And, aboard the Arabia, were guns, lots of guns, sharps carbines like this.
John Brown was an abolitionist. His sons and other like-minded people were out in Kansas trying to determine whether Kansas would come into the union as a free state or a slave state. They were battling the border ruffians, men from Missouri who were determined to make Kansas a slave state. Well, what the abolitionists in New England did was packed up sharps rifles like this – these very rifles were aboard the Arabia that year in 1856 – but they were worried about the border ruffians discovering them, so they took them out of their factory crates and put them in German immigrant trunks like this. They wrapped them in straw, straw ropes to protect them, and then at the last minute when they got to St. Louis, they repacked the German immigrant trunks in larger boxes marked “carpenter’s tools” – two boxes for every one of the bigger boxes.
They thought they were safe, but one day, David Star Hoyt, the guy who was charged with transporting the rifles, wrote his mother a letter. He said something like, “Dear mom, thanks for sending my buffalo overcoat. It’s been very cold at night aboard the Arabia. P.S. Those border ruffians have no idea there are angels in their midst carrying sharps rifles.” Hoyt went to the hog deck for dinner. He put his letter in his pocket, but he missed his pocket. A cabin boy found the letter on the deck of the ship, he brought it to the captain of the Arabia, who read it aloud to the whole ship’s company. “P.S. These border ruffians don’t even realize there are angels in their midst.” And they all looked at the guy with the buffalo coat and said grab him! They were going to hang him from the smokestacks, but cooler heads prevailed. He lived, but was later murdered near Kansas City, near Lexington.
Well, they captured the whole stockpile of guns bound for Bleeding Kansas, bound for John Brown’s men. But there was a lawsuit. They recorded all the serial numbers and, eventually, the guns got back to the abolitionists. We were able to reassemble the guns from the Arabia, based on those serial numbers – the first time they’d been back together, well, in 150 years.
This video is part of a series of videos about the History Center’s recent exhibition, Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.