Alaska, Cook, Washington and Gregory

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Many people come to Alaska with a specific object in mind. They come to take a job, visit a friend or travel around, to see what James Cook said in 1788, "that they ever knew to be a great land."

Some come as a result of a chance encounter. Tom Gregory from New Jersey was visiting Seattle in the early 1950s. While standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, he said hello to a stranger beside him, whose name was Terry Axley. Terry owned a boat named the Nellie B. They started to talk and Terry invited Tom to come to Alaska, to work with him as a fish buyer and a packer of salmon for the troll fleet. They started buying at the north end of Prince of Wales Island, for Inar Beyer, who had a company called Northern Products.

Later, the Nellie B. settled at Angoon, to buy fish for Engstrom Brothers Co. and haul the salmon and halibut into Juneau. In the early 1960s Tom met his wife, Dorothy, in Juneau. They had three wonderful children, John, Donald and Sarah. John is deceased, but Donald and Sarah live in Juneau with their children, who are especially close to grandpa and grandma.

A family stretches into the future but it also has a legacy from the past. One of Tom's forbears was John Gregory, a captain in the Revolutionary War army. The American army faced annihilation in its early days after catastrophic defeats around New York City. In northern New Jersey, with the tired soldiers camped around him, Tom Paine started to write, "these are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service to his country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Most of the enlistments were due to expire on the 31st of December. In a great moment in American history, George Washington assembled a small detachment of about a hundred men. He was a reticent speaker, but asked for volunteers to step forward to continue the fight for even another month. A drum beat followed but no one stepped forward.

Washington spoke again, "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do," but if you stay now, "you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do" again.

One man stepped forward and another, until all the able-bodied men volunteered. This was repeated in other parts of the army as officers asked the men to continue to serve.

They crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania and in the snow, marked along the way by the blood from their feet, they eluded the British army of Cornwallis, sent to trap them on the banks of the river. They marched to Princeton where they defeated regiments of British regulars. As a consequence, the British evacuated New Jersey, and retired to the city of New York.

The war would continue for eight long years. During that time, Washington visited his home only twice. He served without pay, only expecting Congress to recompense him for his expenses. Was there ever a greater American? The integrity of his army was never again seriously threatened by the British. John Gregory marched with him.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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