UNI student digs for truth behind historian's legacy

Nathan Gruber didn't spend the majority of his summer vacation basking in the summer sun. Rather, he spent his summer immersed in books, newspapers and archival library collections.

GruberGruber, a University of Northern Iowa senior social sciences teaching major and Dubuque resident, is researching the impact of one major historian on the development of Iowa's history.

He is studying and writing about William J. Petersen (a.k.a. Steamboat Bill), a former superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI). Gruber's study is a part of the McNair Scholars Program at UNI, a program designed to prepare participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.

According to Gruber, Petersen was an important figure in the preservation of Iowa's history and a key individual for the development of SHSI as it grew from a moderately small group of history-minded Iowans into the official historical repository for the state.

Gruber's research mainly focused on Petersen's tenure as SHSI superintendent during the middle decades of the 20th century. He found that Petersen had a great impact on the history of the steamboat and the Upper Mississippi River. Gruber also learned that Petersen uncovered and publicized the existence of Mark Twain's riverboat pilot's license.

"Up until this point, one could only speculate about Twain's actual river experience," Gruber said. "Petersen's discovery solved a decades-old mystery."

But Gruber said one of his most interesting finds was the legacy Petersen left at the SHSI. He found that Petersen's tenure might have negatively affected SHSI.

"While the previous two superintendents of SHSI stressed and emphasized an academic, scholarly approach to the society's research and publication program, Petersen was much more of a publicist," Gruber said of his findings. "Most notable about Petersen's tenure at the historical society was his emphasis on the popularization of Iowa history and making sure that as many Iowans as possible were aware of Iowa's culture and history. With that said, there seems to be some evidence that Petersen's emphasis on pop history negatively affected the quality of scholarship being produced by the historical society."

Gruber said he learned a great deal of interesting information while researching Petersen.

While most of his research on Petersen has taken place in Special Collections at the Charles C. Myers Library at the University of Dubuque, he has also consulted with Mary Bennett at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City, Mike Gibson at the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College and the Dubuque County Historical Society/The Captain William Bowell River Library and Archives at the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque. 

"I found working with archival and special collections materials absolutely fascinating," he said. "It can be very unpredictable and tedious, but unexpected discoveries always make the time spent worthwhile. Every once in a while, you'll come across items that are so unique that it is hard to believe you're holding them, such as the two newspapers that were published the day after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, or a 2-inch tall children's book published in the first decade of the 19th century."

After conducting his research on Steamboat Bill, Gruber now knows that he would like to continue working with archival collections.

"I would love to pursue a master's degree in library and information science specializing in archival management and administration," he said.

Steamboat Bill research

William J. Petersen poses while hitchhiking and conducting research for his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Iowa.

(Photo courtesy of the Dubuque County Historical Society/The Captain William Bowell River Library and Archives at the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque.)

Nathan Gruber conducts research on William J. Petersen in the Special Collections room at the Charles C. Myers Library at the University of Dubuque.

(Photos courtesy of Becky Canovan.)