William John Petersen (January 30, 1901–February 2, 1989)
Iowa’s own “Mr. History,” author, professor, and Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Steamboat Bill, as Petersen was affectionately called, was America’s dean of historians when it came to writing about life on the Mississippi River. Bill was born in Dubuque, Iowa, the youngest of six children of Charles Lewis Petersen and Bertha Theresa (Helm) Petersen. His father, a German sail maker, was the Dubuque agent for the Diamond Jo Steamer Lines (1883-1911) and the young Petersen was fascinated by the Big River and the steamboats long associated with it. Click here to read more about the Iowa-based steamboats of the mid-nineteenth century.
Becoming Steamboat Bill.
Bill attended Prescott Elementary School, graduating from Dubuque High School in 1920. His high school classmates chose him as Best All-Around Man, Most Popular Boy, and Class Politician, and in 1926, Bill went on to graduate from the University of Dubuque. From there, Bill came to Iowa City to study history at the State University of Iowa, receiving his M.A. in 1927 and his Ph. D. in 1930.
In deciding what he would write for his doctoral dissertation, Bill had originally planned on the subject of George Channing and the Oregon Boundary. When his history professor caught wind of this, knowing of his student’s vast Mississippi River background, he challenged Bill, threatening him with these words…
Petersen, I will personally pull the rope that hangs you to yonder tree if you don’t start working on the history of steamboating on the Upper Mississippi.
Bill, apparently, saw the light and immediately began research by hitchhiking approximately 20,000 miles up and down the Mississippi River, stopping in nearly every river town library so he could gather much-needed information for his extensive writings. Petersen later said the whole experience cost him $84.00 with less than two dollars being spent on transportation!
As a side note…on one of these research visits, this time in St. Louis in 1928, Bill hit the jackpot, finding the April 9th, 1859 steamboat pilot license of a 23-year-old Missouri youth named Samuel Langhorne Clemens – aka Mark Twain!
The Fruit of Steamboat Bill’s Labor.
When completed, Bill’s Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi dissertation not only won him his Ph. D, but it also led to his work being published in a highly-successful book, first in 1937, and then re-issued, with added material, in 1968. During those last six years of college (1924-1930), Bill made good use of his summers by working for the Drake University Historical Tours, and upon graduation in 1930, he took a teaching position in the History Department at SUI, a job he continued until his retirement from the University in 1968.
The State Historical Society of Iowa – Becoming Mr. Iowa History.
Throughout those thirty-eight years, serving as a history professor at Iowa, Bill also worked with the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City. In 1947, after volunteering seventeen years as a research associate, Peterson was appointed Superintendent, following in the illustrious shoes of the great Iowa historian, Benjamin F. Shambaugh.
In this position (1947-1972), Steamboat Bill, through his prolific research and writing about his native state, earned yet another nickname: Mr. Iowa History. During this time, Bill authored more than 400 articles for The Palimpsest, the society’s magazine, while giving hundreds of lectures for numerous organizations across the nation. He also published the following books:
True Tales of Iowa (1931), Iowa: The Rivers of Her Valleys (1941), A Reference Guide to Iowa History (1942), and The Story of Iowa: The Progress of an American State (1952); four big volumes which included biographies of Iowans, family genealogies, and the histories of many Iowa businesses and institutions. Copies of Petersen’s Mississippi River Panorama: Henry Lewis Great National Work (1979) were sold by the Dubuque County Historical Society to raise money for the Upper Mississippi Riverboat Museum and complete some much-needed repairs on the historic Mathias Ham House in Dubuque.
In his spare time, Bill was a member of the Iowa Centennial Commission (1946), co-chair of the United States Territorial Papers Committee, and a member of the board of trustees of the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Society. After successfully lobbying for state government financing of nearly forty roadside plaques around Iowa detailing local historical spots, Bill also did the detail work of writing text for each of those markers!
Under Bill’s leadership, the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI) grew from 1,100 members in 1947 to nearly 11,000 in 1972, and he not only convinced state legislators to fund a new building to house the state’s growing historic collection, but raised a good portion of the $500,000 needed as well. The result was The Centennial Building in Iowa City, which became the new home of the SHSI in 1960.
Looking Backward on Hawkeyeland.
Steamboat Bill & Skipper Bessie.
In retirement (1972), Steamboat Bill and his wife, Bessie Josephine Rasmus (a Cherokee, Iowa native who married Bill on September 25, 1937 and was nicknamed “Skipper”) hitched towboat rides on the Illinois, Tennessee, and Ohio rivers. The result? Yet another book called Towboating on the Mississippi (1980). A collector of nearly anything associated with the Mississippi, Bill compiled a collection of over four hundred pieces dealing with the Father of Waters, including a large sheet music collection of river-related songs. In their final years, Bill & Bessie hosted riverboat tours for friends, federal and state dignitaries, and members of SHSI to share Bill’s deep knowledge and love of the river he called home.
In 1989, at the age of 88, William J. Petersen died in Dubuque and was buried in Linwood Cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River. Bessie died in 1994 (age 93) and is buried there as well. Petersen’s zest for history was infectious and his personal charm and enthusiasm for life endeared him to Iowans who rightly identified him as a champion of Iowa history. In 1990, the University of Dubuque library received a $16,670 grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa to catalog and preserve the 925-volume William J. ‘Steamboat Bill’ Collection which includes forty boxes of archival material!
Here’s to you, Steamboat Bill and Bessie, the Skipper. We salute you with this blast from the whistle of this Mississippi River Steamboat!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.