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The steamboat Bertrand was created during the steamboat era of the 1800s and sank in the Missouri River in 1865. Searchers attempted to locate the wreck in 1896, and also much later in 1967. However, the searches did not yield the site of the Bertrand. Its successful excavation finally came in 1968, and revealed a closer look into the material culture of the time. The steamboat housed cargo that was recovered during the excavation, and it was estimated that $300,000 was aboard the steamship upon it's launch. [4] Gold, Whiskey, and mercury were among the rumored treasure. However, only nine containers of mercury were acquired in the 1968 excavation. [1] Artifacts from the Bertrand are now displayed in a museum at the De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge.


  • The Bertrand depicted in a 1971 artists rendition
  • "Cargo is Removed From Sunken Boat"
  • The Bertrand sink site facing away from the Missouri River
  • The Bertrand sink site facing the Missouri River
  • The Bertrand sink site facing the Missouri River
  • The Bertrand sink area
  • Box of nails, and Barrel of nails behind
  • Mercury
  • Leather Boots
  • Pickles

Setting forth in April of 1865 on the final leg of its long journey from West Virginia to Montana, The Steamboat Bertrand struck a log hidden beneath the surface of the Missouri River and sank in less than ten minutes. While the crew and passengers were able to abandon ship and there were no injuries nor loss of life, over 10,000 cubic feet of cargo was lost.

Over the next century, there were many attempts to find the precise location where the steamboat had sunk, but without success. It was not until 103 years had passed, when in 1968 private salvors Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino finally located the wreck of the steamboat “25 miles upstream from Omaha on the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.”[1]

The two salvors themselves were from Omaha, and the stories of the sinking of the Bertrand were legends among Omaha and Iowa communities. The rumors of whiskey, gold, and most importantly mercury were the fortunes that excavators hoped they would find if the Bertrand was excavated.[1]

The material goods recovered from the Bertrand were mostly goods and materials destined for sale in the territory of Montana. Preserved bottles of alcohol, fruit, vegetables, and even luxuries like lemonade were discovered in the steamboat wreckage. These foodstuffs were well preserved and intact, but they of coarse have lost their taste over the time they were submerged. Canned peaches were popular on the harsh plains as a source of vitamin C to avoid scurvy. The bottles of alcohol contain the same percentage they did when they were first bottled. Upon examination and testing by the excavators, oddly enough among these last tests were taste test, the Brandy had turned into vinegar with age just by smell. However the whiskey still had a similar taste to what it once was.[5]

Bitters was a popular form of alcohol used for medicinal purposes that contained 40% alcohol content. Steeped with herbs and spices, it was popularly used for many illnesses during the 19th century. The bitters taste has been destroyed over time along with the whiskey uncovered.[5] Drake’s Plantation Bitters were among the popular brands of bitters found on the Bertrand, and have their trademark “distinctive cabin shape,” and only contained 17% alcohol.[6]

Ironstone china was popular during the 19th century, and it was used for dishware and other dining needs, as well as basins and chamber pots. Ironstone was first made in 1813 England, but became popular in the 1860s on the western frontier due to its durability.[5] Many types of clothing were found of the Bertrand, including some items that might have been owned by passengers, or just items that were possibly made custom.[5] Kerosene lamps were also in high use for their beautiful designs, and many pieces of these lamps were recovered.

Originally launched in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1864, Bertrand was a 161 foot long, 32 feet wide steamboat that was typical of designs for the time. Steam-powered boats had been invented in 1787, and by the early 19th century became a common means of trade such that “by 1830, hundreds of steamboats, traveling nearly twice as fast as in the 1810s, traded goods on oceans and rivers.”[2]

The Bertrand had made a successful journey to St. Louis, Missouri, in the summer and autumn of 1864. After wintering in St. Louis, command of the Bertrand passed to Captain James Yore for the journey to Fort Benton, Montana territory.[3] From St. Louis the Bertrand actually took a stop to receive a passenger by the name of Mrs. Walton with her children, and an unplanned stop at Fort Leavenworth.[3] Captain Yore disembarked in Omaha, and Captain Horace Bixby took over command of the Bertrand at this point, and was the captain during the boat’s sinking. Captain Bixby was a well-known figure of the steamboat trade era, and notably “newspaper accounts attached no blame to Bixby as the snag was entirely out of sight.”[3]

During the year of 1864 there was a rush to get to Fort Benton, as there was gold discovered in Last Chance Gulch.[4] The Bertrand was one of many steamboats heading for Montana over the next few years, bringing passengers and supplies useful to the mining operations and expanding the town.

[1] Petsche, Jerome, the Steamboat Bertrand, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, 1974 (Washington).

[2] Schaller, Michael et al., American Horizons: U.S. History in a Global Context, Vol. 1, Third Edition, Oxford Press, 2018, pgs. 335-336.

[3] Switzer, Ronald R., 2013, The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce, Norman, UNITED STATES: University of Oklahoma Press, ebook.

[4] Loges, Max L. 1998, “Horace Ezra Bixby: The Life and Times of a Frontier River Pilot.” Mark Twain Journal 36 (1): 19–33.

[5] Steamboat Bertrand Museum, De Soto Bend Wildlife Refuge, Missouri Valley, IA.

[6] Corbin, Annalies, Material Culture of Steamboat Passengers: Archaeological Evidence from the Missouri River, 2006.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Council Bluffs Public Library - Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil Archives

Council Bluffs Public Library - Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil Archives

Aubrey Hazelton

Aubrey Hazelton

Aubrey Hazelton

Bertrand Exhibit - Aubrey Hazelton

Bertrand Exhibit - Aubrey Hazelton

Bertrand Exhibit - Aubrey Hazelton

Bertrand Exhibit - Aubrey Hazelton