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Ellsworth Price Bertholf, USRCS, USCG

Arctic & Northern Biographies

    Ellsworth Price Bertholf, who would become the first Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, was born in New York City on April 9th, 1866, the son of John Jay Bertholf and Annie Francis Price.

    Bertholf joined the Revenue Cutter Service in 1885 as a 16-year-old cadet, graduating as a third lieutenant in 1889. He served through all grades of the Service, on ships stationed along various parts of the coast of the United States and Alaska. In the winter of 1897-1898 he was sailing as Second Lieutenant on the hazardous Bering Sea Patrol aboard the USRC Bear, seen below to the right with the SS Corwin near Nome, Alaska, when a rescue call arrived.

    Eight whaling ships had become trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, and the owners of the ships appealed to President William McKinley to save the 265 men on board. The Bear, recently returned to Port Townsend from her Bering Sea Patrol duties, struck out in late November under command of Captain Francis Tuttle. They made it to Cape Vancouver, and then put a party ashore to buy a herd of reindeer which would be driven some 1,500 miles to Point Barrow. The Overland Relief Expedition, led by Lt. David H. Jarvis with Bertholf as second in command and Dr. Samuel J. Call as medical officer, set out on December 16, 1897. On March 29, 1898, the party arrived at Point Barrow with 382 of the 448 reinder that had been purchased. On August 15, 1904, First Lieutenant E. P. Bertholf was awarded a special Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for his actions during that rescue operation.

    In January 1901, the Department of Education asked him to travel to Siberia to purchase larger and hardier reindeer for the natives of northern Alaska. Traveling alone from Petrograd to Irkutsk, and from there across northern Siberia by sledge, he found and purchased an appropriate herd, and brought 254 animals back to Alaska.

    Upon being promoted to captain in 1907, he returned to the USRC Bear as its commander during its Arctic duties from 1908 to 1910.

    In 1911, President Taft appointed him commandant of the US Revenue Cutter Service in recognition of his record of outstanding service. On Jan. 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law consolidating the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life Saving Service, accepting Bertholf's suggestion that: "'Coast Guard' was the logical name for both the old Revenue Cutter Service as well as the new combination...". Ellsworth Price Bertholf, USRCS, USCG, became the first Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, and as the new commandant, he was invaluable in implementing the successful merger of the two services.

    He retired from the Coast Guard in 1919 and became first vice-president of the American Bureau of Shipping in New York City. He died in New York City on November 11, 1921 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf
This 418-foot-long, $640 million ship, launched in 2008, was the first of a planned 8 National Security Cutters.

"The Rescue of the Whalers"
An illustrated article from the June 1899 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

Congressional Gold Medal of Honor
The text of the award ceremony on August 15, 1904, and images of the medal.

Siberian Reindeer Expedition
An article from the New York Times of October 13, 1901.