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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Steamboat Bertrand

Late one cold afternoon in February, 1968, two men from Omaha, in search of treasure that had eluded many others for over a century, came close to realizing their dreams. Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino had found the remains of the riverboat Bertrand, the sunken steamer that was a legend in many Iowa and Nebraska communities along the Missouri River. For as long as the oldest residents could remember, stories were told of the gold, whiskey, and mercury that awaited those fortunate enough to find the boat that had gone down in 1865 while enroute to Fort Benton, Montana Territory. But as is the case with so many dreams and visions of wealth, other men long ago had salvaged the Bertrand and had taken all but nine containers of mercury. The gold and kegs of whiskey reported to have been on board were never found during the 1968-69 excavations.

But the real treasure-that of the riverboat and the cargo in its holds-has become a part of the heritage of the people of the United States, to be displayed and protected for us by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. Always important as a resting and feeding place for hundreds of thousands of our nation's migrating wildfowl, the Refuge has become particularly significant now as one of those sites where American history will be made more meaningful and vivid for many future generations.

The remains of very few historic sites in the United States can compare with the diversity and number of cultural objects recovered from the riverboat's holds. Over three years were required to preserve and stabilize the goods meant to be used by our forebears a century ago. During those three years, scarcely a day passed at the laboratories of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge or of the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service in Lincoln, Nebraska without the opening of a Bertrand shipping case, and the identification and preservation of still another historic tool or other product used·in Montana Territory in the 1860's.

The remains of a sunken riverboat are valuable for the interpretation of an earlier way of life because of the accidental nature of their loss, their undisturbed preservation, and their intrinsic interest. Catastrophes arising from volcanic eruptions, storms at sea, and turbulent rivers often result in instant preservation of significant archeological evidence. The Bertrand is an excellent example of this kind of preservation.

As will become clear to those who read Mr. Petsche's book, the Bertrand is not simply a unique historic site investigated by a few persons for the edification of a small number of archeologists and historians. It is one for which many persons gave of their talents, and one for which two agencies of the Federal Government-the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, and the National Park Service-marshalled their forces. And it is one for which two determined private citizens, Messrs. Pursell and Corbino, exercised extraordinary skill in locating the sunken riverboat and then cooperated with Federal authorities to excavate and thus initiate processes which would result in the saving of one of America's most meaningful treasures of the past.

Date of Report: March 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 198
Order Number: G1320
Price: $5.95

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