Chapter 2 of the Steamboat Malta: Will they dig?

Posted at 1:45 PM, Aug 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-31 09:27:03-04

The last time we told you about the search for the buried steamboat Malta, Dave Hawley and his team were still searching farm fields in central Missouri.


Here's Chapter 1, the Search. Click here to read and watch it. No really, its worth your time. 


Now, they've found it.

They know it's buried 40 feet below the crumpled cornstalks of a farm just north of Malta Bend.

But would it be worth all the time, and energy, and money to dig? That depends on what's on board.



Researchers brought in a drill and began what may be the largest game of battle ship ever played.


The steamboat Malta sank in 1841 along a bend in the river. The boat sank so fast nothing was salvaged. Everything but the crew went down.

Hawley and his crew, who also found Steamboat Arabia several years ago, located where they believed the boat to be, using magnetic readings.

The next step was to figure out the outline of the boat. They brought in a drill and began what may be the largest game of battle ship ever played.

"For those of you that have played the game Battleship, you'll get this. When you put your peg in and you hit, then you miss.. and then you miss. You keep putting your peg in 'til you have found it. That's what you do when you test drill a boat," explained Hawley.


"Hits and misses"


They use the hits and the misses to map out the boat. The red dots indicate a miss. The green dots indicate a hit. Eventually, you get an outline of the boat.


Outline of the Steamboat Malta

There are few historic documents indicating the Malta's existence and its travels, but nothing shows any hint of which direction the boat was traveling when it sank - which is valuable information now.

"Is it going north into the Dakota's loaded with cargo, or has it arrived there. Is it coming back loaded with furs," said Hawley.

A boat full of 1840s cargo - goods to trade with the Native Americans for furs - is worth digging. A boat full of traded furs likely not.

Hawley's team had to know what was on board.

They would need a bigger drill.

"So with a bigger drill that captures samples, we went down into the earth from 37 to 40 feet - only three feet. We grabbed whatever that was and brought it up," Hawley explained.


"So it comes up and comes up and comes up and then out it lays. One hundred and fifty gold buttons. Ceramics and fabrics and stuff that you would like to dig," said Dave Hawley.


As the drill came up. No one said a word. This moment would tell them if this adventure was over, or if it was only just beginning.

"So it comes up and comes up and comes up and then out it lays.150 gold buttons. Ceramics and fabrics and stuff that you would like to dig," said Hawley. 

Click here to view more photos of the items found on Steamboat Malta

Buttons, coated with real gold. With the words "rich", "orange", and "warranted" stamped on the back.

"We believe they came from England. The 'rich' designated the quality of the button - which was high. The 'orange' was the finish - which was gold. 'Warranted' just said a great button," explained Hawley.

They researched the pieces of ceramic, too. It is impossible to explain how much time and energy went into the discovery that this pot they'd found on board the Malta is a pepper pot. One that may be worth as much as $2,500 for one.



 Researchers found several items in a portion of the sunken boat, including pieces of ceramics that could be worth as much as $2,500 for one vase. 


They found fabric, a giant hook handmade by a blacksmith, and evidence of tongue and groove carpentry.

As exciting as all of this was, it was the small barrels likely at one time full of butter or lard that was most, reassuring.

"Is it possible to find buttons on a boat going back home? Yeah probably. But you wouldn't find barrels filled with lard and butter and other things going back to St Louis. They would take those supplies to the frontier. So having found these things, it is clear to us at this point this boat was not going to St. Louis. This is going to the frontier...and it's loaded," Hawley said with a twinkle in his eye.

Loaded! With who knows what.

The team is moving full steam ahead, planning to dig as early as October of this year.

And it's anyones guess what other treasures might be on board.


Christa Dubill can be reached at

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