The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Petersen, William John
(January 30, 1901–February 2, 1989)

–Iowa historian, author, professor, and Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa—was born in Dubuque, Iowa, the youngest of six children of Charles Lewis Petersen and Bertha Theresa (Helm) Petersen. Charles, born in Hamburg, came to the United States in 1873, where he married and spent the remainder of his life employed at the Diamond Jo Line Steamers barge company. William Petersen was educated at Prescott Elementary School and graduated from Dubuque High School in 1920. He received his B.A. from the University of Dubuque in 1926, followed by an M.A. (1927) and Ph.D. (1930) from the State University of Iowa. He worked for the Drake University Historical Tours for six years; was a visiting professor at Washington University, St. Louis; and taught Iowa history at the University of Iowa from 1930 to 1968. He married Bessie Josephine Rasmus from Cherokee, Iowa, on September 25, 1937.

    In 1947, after serving 17 years as a research associate at the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI), Petersen was appointed Superintendent. He would hold that position for 25 years before leaving in 1972. His fascination with the Mississippi River and his award-winning book, Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi (1937), led to his nickname, "Steamboat Bill."He had an intimate knowledge of the river and spent many years logging tens of thousands of miles on barge lines and by automobile researching and collecting documents and artifacts. In 1975, at the age of 74, he and his wife, Bessie, nicknamed "Skipper," actually hitched towboat rides on the Illinois, Tennessee, and Ohio rivers.

    On one of his research excursions, he put to rest the long controversy over whether Mark Twain was really a riverboat pilot when he found Twain's pilot's license. He also had a large sheet music collection of river-related songs and hosted riverboat tours for friends, federal and state dignitaries, and members of SHSI to share his knowledge and love of the river.

    He earned another nickname, "Mr. Iowa History," through his prolific research and writing about his native state. He authored several books–including Iowa: The Rivers of Her Valleys (1941), A Reference Guide to Iowa History (1942), The Story of Iowa: The Progress of an American State (1952), Mississippi River Panorama: Henry Lewis Great National Work (1979), and Towboating on the Mississippi (1980)–and more than 400 articles for magazines and scholarly journals, and gave hundreds of lectures for numerous organizations across the nation. He was a member of the Iowa Centennial Commission, cochair of the United States Territorial Papers Committee, and a member of the board of trustees of the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Society.

    His efforts helped raise the membership of SHSI from 1,000 to nearly 11,000 by the time he left in 1972. He was also instrumental in raising a portion of the $500,000 cost and persuading the state legislature to build the Centennial Building in Iowa City, home of SHSI, in 1960. In 1988 SHSI honored him with the first Petersen-Harlan Award for significant long-term contributions to Iowa history. He was also inducted into the National Rivers Hall of Fame sponsored by the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.

    In 1989, at the age of 88, William J. Petersen died in Dubuque and was buried in Linwood Cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River. 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.
Sources The William J. Petersen Collection is in the Charles C. Myers Library at the University of Dubuque. See also Edward N. Dodge, ed., Business Men of Iowa (1953); and newspaper files of the Des Moines Register, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Davenport-Bettendorf Times Democrat, and Dubuque Telegraph-Herald .
Contributor: Michael D. Gibson