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Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf

Before There Was A Coast Guard, Future First Commandant Won Admiration For Daring Alaskan Expeditions

By the time future Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf was appointed captain commandant of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (RCS) on June 19, 1911, he was already famous throughout the country for his Alaskan rescue expeditions. On Jan. 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the RCS and the Life-Saving Service to join, forming the U.S. Coast Guard. Bertholf became the service's first commandant.

Bertholf entered the RCS in 1885 as a 16-year-old cadet, graduating as a third lieutenant in 1889. His official biography encapsulates most of his long career in one sentence: “He served through all grades of the Service, on ships stationed along various parts of the coast of the United States and Alaska.” The brief summarization is probably seen as necessary because of the two remarkable relief missions in which Bertholf took part.

After the Alaska purchase, what for many years would be known as the Bering Sea Patrol sailed revenue cutters in and out of the frigid, foggy Bering Straits. However, when in 1897 eight whaling ships were trapped in an ice field near Alaska’s northernmost Point Barrow, even the experienced Sea Patrol on duty could not rescue them. The companies employing the 265 men on board the ships appealed to President William McKinley.

McKinley asked the Treasury Department to have its RCS organize a relief expedition. The cutter Bear, recently returned from Bering Sea Patrol duties, struck out in late November from Port Townsend, Wash. Ship’s captain Francis Tuttle brought his vessel as far as Cape Vancouver, Alaska, and then put a party ashore to buy a herd of reindeer and bring them to the near-starving whalers. The Overland Relief Expedition, headed by Lt. David H. Jarvis with Bertholf as second in command, set out on Dec. 16; on March 29, 1898, the party arrived at Point Barrow with 382 reindeer for the stranded men, who had been reduced to eating their boots.

In the winter of 1901, at the request of the Bureau of Education, Lt. Bertholf traveled across northern Siberia by sled to obtain a new herd of reindeer for the use of northern Alaskan natives.

In 1902, Congress commissioned and awarded a special medal to commemorate Bertholf’s unusual and unusually heroic deeds. After holding the temporary rank of commodore during World War I, Captain Commandant Bertholf retired in 1919 to become an active and influential vice president in the American Bureau of Shipping. He died in his native New York City on Nov. 11, 1921.

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