The Fact of the Matter Is. . .
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
Q. Very little has been written about the homesteading Peterson family. How did a single father with two small boys find their way to Gustavus, Alaska?
A. From a long ways off and thousands of rowing strokes! Late 1910’s from Rody, Norway came John Ben Peterson, rowing and sailing a 14’ boat (square sail) from Seattle to Petersburg. It was reported he rowed so much his hands were permanently formed in a gripping position and could not close! He got a job in Hoonah where he met and married Phoebe Charles and had two sons Henry “Billy” and Angle Peterson. Phoebe died when Angle was about 2.
John Peterson rowed everywhere he went. In about 1935 he rowed to Gustavus with Billy and Angle to homestead on the east side of Salmon River where he could have a farm for raising produce and a cow or two to provide milk (improving on a little log cabin already partially complete at Eldon & Rita Wilson’s present location). He procured an old Fordson tractor with solid rubber tires from Excursion Inlet and had it shipped here to assist him in his work. A tractor/wagon trail that followed the eastside of Salmon River past Verne Henry’s original homestead, crossed a small creek bridge and meandered past the “wild steer enclosures” was access to his homestead (4 Corners being 3 at that time).
He often took his sons to Excursion Inlet for weeks at a time, where he worked in the sawmill and as a “rigger man” for Icy Passage fish traps, raised produce in Gustavus in between, and during WWII won the contract for the airport construction barge. He beachcombed stray trap pilings for extra credit or cash and landed the contract to twice a month fill the Point Gustavus kerosene lantern attached to a piling and designed to warn mariners. John was a willing, hard worker and was credited with passing this ethic to his sons, who from an early age could be found like shadows working (and rowing!) along side.
John Peterson became legendary for his extraordinary strength. When the barge came in with barrels of 55 gallons of fuel, he single handedly lifted full barrels on to the back of a pickup truck. When the tide was going out of Salmon River and his 28’ boat the “Emma B” was on a tilt, John put his back to the boat, pushed it upright and had son Billy prop it up.
Henry “Billy” Peterson broke one or both of his hips rendering him handicapped for life when he either fell off a ladder propped against their cabin, fell off Salmon River Bridge tightwalking—twice, or fell off the dock in Excursion Inlet at low tide. All three of these versions persistently surfaced by the other homesteader children (as grown adults) in Gustavus at the time. Peterson family descendants understood it was the ladder leaning against the house. In any case, delayed medical transport to Seattle was a “hitched” ride on a very uncomfortable barge. Billy was in a full or partial body cast for over a year. Back in Gustavus, using sticks for crutches Billy got around best he could while the bones continued to heal in an unfortunate and painful way. Billy was absent from Gustavus 1949 to 1979 when he reportedly returned to help son-in-law Phil Perisich build a cabin. Landing at the boat harbor, he was so happy to be back on Gustavus soil that he “danced” on the beach in spite of his considerable handicap. He had 2 daughters, was a commercial fisherman and died in 1995.
Angle Peterson was extremely quick and athletic. Once a hundred yards was marked off at the new Gustavus airport. Angle was timed for the 100-yard dash and reportedly broke the world record (unofficially, of course). During WWII Angle was stationed in the Pacific Theatre and visited on his 30-day leave as a decorated soldier. He had the high honor of being appointed to serve as a Presidential Honor Guard. A Presidential Honor Guard from Gustavus, Alaska! He retired from Alaska Airlines in Juneau mid 1980’s and died at age 79 in 2002. He had 12 children—one of which, Reggie Peterson, is a well-known Tlingit artist in Sitka, Alaska.
P.S. John Peterson would get GHAA’s unquestioned support for Gustavus’ Pioneering Father Award if there were such an honor for successfully homesteading (proved up in 1943) and raising 2 & 4 yr. old sons in the untamed Alaskan wilderness by himself and doing a wonderful job of it! In the words of a family member, John and his son’s were “the closest people to saints that I have ever known!”