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"Steamboat Bill": Dr. William Petersen

Dr. William Petersen
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As much as any writer or historian to date, Dr. William J. Petersen understood the deep connection the Mississippi river has to the people who live on its banks. Nationally, his writings on Iowa history focused a spotlight specifically on the state’s important role in early nautical transportation along the Mississippi River. He was known statewide for introspectively shining a light on the importance the river has on Iowa's culture, revealing a deep reverence for a river so many depend on.

“Steamboat Bill” – as he was affectionately called – was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1901. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa where his most famous work, Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi River, initially began as a doctoral thesis. For his research, he hitchhiked more than 20,000 miles – 3,000 miles aboard federal barge-line boats and 17,000 miles by automobile – visiting river towns and interviewing the local inhabitants.

The result is a massively rich documented history of Mississippi steamboating from 1823 to about 1870, which includes chapters on Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat, steamboats as cargo carriers, steamboats in Indian affairs and steamboats during the Civil War.

To this day, Petersen’s tome is considered the authoritative reference book on the subject of steamboats and river navigation. However, during his lifetime, he wrote and edited several books and magazines not only on Iowa but also on American history, including a four-volume work entitled, The Annals of Iowa and Davenport Past and Present, among others.

In recognition of his contributions to Iowa history, he was presented the Johnson Brigham Plaque Award in 1938 for Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi River. For a number of years, he served as curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa, located in Des Moines.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
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