Elton celebrates globe-trotters

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

A globe-trotter is defined in the dictionary as "a person who travels widely about the world," especially for pleasure instead of for business.

There are many who fit this description. Perhaps the most famous early American globe-trotter is John Ledyard, who sailed with Capt. Cook on his third voyage, which visited Alaska in 1778.

It was 10 years later that Ledyard became fixated by the desire to travel across the wide expanse of imperial Russia. He started at St. Petersburg. His goal was Okhotsk on the Pacific shore, and then a boat journey to Alaska and the Northwest Coast, where he intended to walk across the American continent on his way to the east. This was about 15 years before the plans of Lewis and Clark. He was stopped at Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, by order of Empress Catherine and returned to Europe. The Russians thought he was a British spy.

A good friend of mine is fascinated with adventurous travel. His name is Albert Shaw. He was born in Juneau and is in the seventh decade of his young-in-spirit life. He and his lovely wife, Brita, are presently in Argentina. Since it is winter there, they are in the mountains skiing.

In a few weeks he will be back in Juneau getting ready to fly to Nepal with his brother, Gerald, to trek in the mountains with his cousin, Don Messerschmidt, who has spent many years studying and working in Nepal as a social anthropologist.

Al is a member of a famous Juneau family. His grandfather was Gustof Messerschmidt, who came from Stuttgart, Germany. He learned the bakery trade in San Francisco and came to Juneau-Douglas to work at a bakery in Douglas. He arrived in 1898 on the vessel, Cottage City. Gustof's daughter, Katherine (Al's mother), was born above the family's bakery on Dec. 1, 1909, the present day Silverbow Inn. Katherine is truly Juneau's elder stateswoman.

Al's brothers are Gerald, living in Washington, and George in Kenai and sisters Lorraine and Margaret. Mary Catherine is deceased.

Al has two sons, Karl living on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Robert in San Francisco.

In addition to his many Messerschmidt cousins he is also related to another long time Juneau family, the Hermles.

When that other traveler John Ledyard got back to London after his abortive effort to cross Russia, he met with a wealthy and well known scientist called Joseph Banks. Banks had sailed on Cook's first voyage as a naturalist.

Banks offered to underwrite an adventure in a different direction. It was to cross the continent of Africa. With an almost quixotic eagerness, Ledyard immediately agreed. A few months later, he started up the Nile from Cairo. His last communication was to the American ambassador in Paris, who one day would be the third president of the United States - Thomas Jefferson.

Ledyard wrote Jefferson on Nov. 15, 1788:

"From Cairo I am to travel southwest about 300 leagues to a black king. Then my present conductors will leave me to my fate. Beyond, I suppose I shall go alone."

He died at 37 years of age, not too far along on his last adventure, sailing up the Nile to Africa.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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