Skip to main content

The Voyage Of Nor’west John

July 2024
41min read

Curiosity motivated the first American who crossed Siberia. But he also made a handsome profit.

In August, 1804, a young sea captain named John deWolf sailed from his native port of Bristol, Rhode Island, on a voyage to the Pacific. Four years were to elapse before he returned from a fabulous adventure that had taken him around the world. In the course of his trip, he had spent a year in the lonely outposts of Russian Alaska and had crossed the wastes of Siberia—a feat accomplished by no American before him, and few Europeans. Like the story of King Philip in our December, 1958, issue, this account is taken from George Howe’s Mount Hope, a remarkable chronicle of Bristol and its most illustrious family, the deWolfs.

In those intervals of the Napoleonic wars when American trade with Europe was possible at all, ships from the little village of Bristol, Rhode Island, loaded for Bilbao, Bordeaux, Le Havre, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and even as far as Cronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg in Russia. But for most of the Presidencies of Adams and Jefferson, and for the first half of Madison’s, if American vessels traded with any but neutral ports they were liable to seizure by British cruisers acting under Orders in Council or by French under the Berlin and Milan decrees. While Jefferson’s embargo of 1807 lasted, they were forbidden to leave the country at all. Neutral ports grew fewer as Napoleon gradually conquered the mainland of Europe. Yet even in 1806, the year of his greatest power, 61 ships entered Bristol harbor from foreign voyages, apart from more than 100 coasting vessels, and paid $120,000 in customs duties to Collector Charles Collins. And before Napoleon entered Moscow, before Lewis and Clark had even crossed the American mainland, one Bristol captain became the first American, and perhaps the first non-Russian, to travel by land from the Pacific to the Baltic, across the empire of the tsars.

The shipowners of Boston, Providence, and Salem had already made fortunes from China and the East Indies. The General Washington, which John Brown of Providence fitted for Canton in 1787, returned in 1789 with a cargo of tea, silk, china, and lacquer ware worth $150,000. Brown unimaginatively named another of his Indiamen the George Washington, and a third the President Washington. Both made the long Pacific voyage round Cape Horn and returned from China with profits that could not be matched by the slave trade, now outlawed, in which Bristol mariners had formerly made their livings.

The greatest shipowners of the village were four brothers named deWolf. They had become used to making two profits from a single voyage, one by selling African slaves in Havana and the second by selling Cuban rum in New England. They now hit on the idea of doing the same thing from Asia by trading Yankee goods for the furs of the North Pacific, and then trading the furs in China for such eminently marketable cargo as the three Washingtons brought back for the temptation of Rhode Island housewives. Only two Bristol sail, so far, had entered the Pacific. In 1801 the deWolfs’ brig Lavinia, Captain Holbrook, had circled the globe, only to break up in a snowstorm off Cape Cod as she was nearing home. In that disaster five of their nephews had gone down. In 1802 Captain James Phillips’ ship Juno reached Canton and returned with China goods, including firecrackers worth $30,000. Phillips claimed that his profit would have doubled if he had included a trade along the northern fur grounds, charted only eight years before by George Vancouver.

The deWolf brothers determined to follow this course themselves. In 1804, James and Charles, with Charles’s ambitious son George, bought the Juno from Phillips for $7,600. Armed with eight defensive carriage guns, she was a full-rigged ship of 206 tons—a large vessel for Bristol, though not to be compared with the 950-ton President Washington of Providence, which could hardly have entered Bristol harbor.

James, who took the largest share, chose for her captain his nephew John deWolf II. This John should not be confused with Farmer John, nor with his son, ’Fessor John. His father was Simon deWolf, one of those two sons of Mark Antony who had been lost during the Revolution on a voyage to Hispaniola, and his brother was Simon, Jr., who later cut his own throat on the Slave Coast.

The Juno’s new captain was born in 1779, only a month after his father sailed on his last voyage. He grew up to be a fun-loving, loose-jointed boy with the family periwinkle-blue eyes, a bevel-end nose, a peak of unruly black hair, and a crease of mirth down his slab cheeks. He describes himself as “light and spare of person.” His hands were big and square, but his chin jutted forward, plow-shaped, like nobody else’s. His education consisted of a few years at the grammar school—his uncles had had no more—where Captain Noyes, the schoolmaster, taught from the Alden Speller, the English Speaker, and Daboll’s Arithmetic; cut the pupils’ quills; and taught seamanship from the Practical Navigator, by candlelight, to such boys as were ambitious and could afford his fee. At thirteen, John went to sea, starting as cabin boy in one of his Uncle Charles’s slavers. He was a head too long, even then, for the bunks in the forecastle. He rose to foretopman, then boatswain, then mate; but he confessed in later years that, though he had a strong stomach and, being an orphan, had had to take what was offered, he hated the slave trade almost as much as the Quakers did.

It was an honor, and must have been a welcome relief from the African trade, for John, a bachelor of 24, to take command of a clean home-town ship like the Juno. Her owners filled her hold with hardware, rum, tobacco, beads, dried beef, firearms, and cottons—trade goods that they supposed were what the trappers of the North Pacific needed. The lading cost them $27,400.

The Juno’s departure was a great event in town. The farmers’ drays took a week to load her provisions: pork, molasses, live poultry, and long ropes of red Bristol onions. The poultry was stowed in a coop under the carpenter’s bench amidships. A ram named Billy, with his ewe, was tethered to the capstan. Major William deWolf of the Bristol Insurance Company underwrote her at 30 per cent of value, which was a high rate, for the trip around the Horn was dangerous and unfamiliar. (Premiums on slave ships ran from 35 per cent for the Middle Passage from Africa to Cuba, down to 2½ per cent for the last leg from Havana to Bristol.) Captain Charles and Captain Jim signed her bond. Squire John deWolf, the fourth brother, gave his namesake $200 as a venture to spend in Canton, directing him to lay it out in a dining set of painted china (what is now called Lowestoft) at no more than $40, a tea set at $10, and the rest in Hysong tea. His wife sent $25 for a bolt of satin and a fan, with $5 more, as an afterthought, for two silk shawls. Their son ventured $25 for silk handkerchiefs and a bolt of nankeen suitable for trousers.

On August 13, 1804, the Juno put out of Bristol and stood to the east. John sailed almost to Africa in order to bypass the adverse trade winds. He met no cruisers, either French or British. He did not turn south till he had sighted the Cape Verdes. At seven knots’ cruising speed, it took him two months to cross the equator, two more to double the Horn, and two to reach the line again on the Pacific side. The ship Mary of Boston was in company. They were lucky to get round the Horn at all. He wrote his mother dryly:

“In those latitudes the sea is very seldom smooth, because the cessation of gales is of so short a period that the swell has not time to subside.”

In a blinding storm off the desolate tip of the world the Mary bashed into the Juno’s sides with a crash that made every timber quake, and tore her copper sheathing off in sheets. By the time she reached warm water, far up the coast of Chile, her seams had sprung and the teredos had eaten into her hull. The salt-water spray had blinded the poultry. Firewood was so low that Hanson, the cook, dared not serve hot food oftener than once a week.

The Spaniards on the west coast of South America, almost unaware of the wars in Europe, did not welcome visitors. Their few settlements were sparsely manned by priests who had come to convert the Indians and by prospectors who had come to find gold for King Carlos IV. They were poor in everything but precious metals. They wore ragged trousers, straw hats, and coarse camisas. Although fruit grew riotously along the seacoast, they were too lazy to cultivate vegetables. They were too poor to own stockings, yet they boiled their water in kettles of silver.

The governor of Valparaiso grudgingly let John take on food, water, and firewood, but would not let him land for repairs. The Juno hobbled on to the little port of Coquimbo. There the commandant had to let him land, for he trained his guns on the garrison until he got permission. He careened the Juno on the beach. He spent a fortnight calking her seams and repairing her spars and canvas. Then he stood to the north again, toward the fur grounds, stopping only to take on green turtle for the galley as he passed the Galápagos Islands.

It was April of 1805 before he reached shelter on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in 51 degrees north, 128 degrees west, at the narrow inlet of Newettee. To get past the breakers and the cliffs, he had to hoist out his boats to tow the Juno. His longboat sank alongside; his yawl and his whaleboat were too light to pull the Juno alone. However, with the cliffs only an oar’s length away, he managed to drift inside the anchorage.

The Indians of that coast had plenty of sea otter, the Enhydra lutris of science. The fur of this little animal, jet black with silver sheen beneath, was the most precious in the world. Sea otter were hunted on the open sea with spear or arrow, to avoid breaking the skin. In the Chinese markets, a sealskin might bring a silver dollar, and a sable $10 or $15, but a single pelt of the sea otter had once sold in Canton for $100, and even average skins brought $25.

John was impatient to trade, but the Indians seemed in no hurry. While their log canoes rode in a circle about the Juno, they would lie on her deck by the dozen all day long, stubbornly repeating their exorbitant prices and indifferent as to whether he bought their pelts or not. Though he took care to disarm the native traders before he let them aboard, he saw that sharpshooters ashore, in case of trouble, could damage him before he had time to sail, for the harbor of Newettee shelved so sharply that his anchors hit bottom only within gunshot of the shore. He decided not to haggle any longer, but to head 500 miles northward, where he knew the Russians had an outpost. A week later, on August 17, 1805, he reached the settlement of New Archangel on the west coast of Baranov Island. It is called Sitka now.

The vast territory of Alaska—or Alashka, as John called it—had been discovered in 1741, by a Dane named Vitus Bering in the employ of the Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Except for scattered trading posts, the Russians had never migrated in great numbers to Alaska, and it became the hunting ground of a semiofficial corporation, under the patronage of the tsars, known as the Russian-American Company. This corporation operated in Alaska much as the Hudson’s Bay Company did in Canada. It held title to the country, and paid the tsar for the monopoly from the profits of the fur trade.

Alexander Andreyvich Baranov, the resident governor, was almost a tsar himself. (In early life he had been a dry goods salesman, and not a successful one, on the Russian mainland.) Eighteen years before John reached Alaska, Baranov had entered the company’s employ, and crossed the Bering Sea eastward to the unexplored territory, creeping along the chain of Aleutians—they were called the Fox Islands then—to Kodiak, and finally pushing 500 miles, in pursuit of the diminishing sea otter, across the gulf to the island that is named for him. In 1802 the Tlinget Indians, called Kolosh by the Russians, had burned its fort, after massacring its garrison, but Baranov had defeated them in battle, and built a new fort five miles from the site of the old one. It stood on a high rocky knoll at the edge of the water. Attended by a Bengalese valet and an American clerk with the homely name of Abraham Jones, Baranov welcomed John’s longboat at the wharfhouse below his fort.

Baranov still mistrusted the Kolosh. For his shipments to Russia, he bought pelts not from them, but from slaves whom he had imported from the Aleutian archipelago far to the west. The hostile Kolosh, the submissive Aleuts, and some friendly Kodiaks made up the native population of Baranov Island. The Governor made the Kolosh live outside of his fort. Their log huts had a smokehole in the roof, and stank of fish and train oil. The men daubed their faces with colored earth. John describes the women thus:

At the age of 14 or 15 they make a hole in their underlip and insert a small piece of wood like a button. This is increased in size as they advance in age, until it is three or four inches long and one or two wide. I saw an old woman, the wife of a chief, whose ornament was so large that by a peculiar motion of her lower lip she could almost conceal her whole face inside it. You will naturally inquire the reason for this barbarous mode of adornment. I might reply by asking the reason for topknots and stays among civilized women. But I may be allowed to make one observation which has probably occurred to my readers; and that is, that the fair sex of the northwest coast are utterly unable to enjoy the luxury of a kiss.

And Sam Petterson, a seaman aboard the Juno, wrote of a Kolosh chieftain:

Maquina was of a dignified mien, about six feet high, straight and well proportioned; his features were tolerably good, and his face remarkable by a large Roman nose, very uncommon amongst these people; his colour was of a dark copper, but his limbs were covered with paint; his eyebrows were painted black in two broad arching stripes; his hair was long and black, shining with oil, and tied in a bunch at the top of his head, and covered with a white down. His dress was a cloak of black sea-otter skin, reaching down to his knees and fastened around him with a cloth belt. His appearance had a degree of savage dignity. He possessed a knowledge of English words, and could make himself in a good degree understood in our tongue.

Inside Baranov’s fort lived 200 Russian serfs, bound to service till their terms were up. These miserable serfs were called promyshlenniki. They hated the Indians and each other. They were allotted two dried fish a day for subsistence but had to buy everything else at the company store. They made a living by trading in pelts with the Indians and shipping them, once every year or two, to St. Petersburg, where they were credited with half the proceeds. Since the accounts were made up long after the furs had been shipped, the promyshlenniki were always in debt to the company.

When John arrived at New Archangel, Baranov was 65. His flaxen beard was turning white. His frail body was racked by arthritis. He eased his miseries by ladling vodka from a bucket that he kept always at his side. His gnarled hands could hardly lift the dipper. One of his rare visitors wrote of him:

His long abode among so uncivilized a race [the Indians], his daily intercourse with a dissolute and licentious rabble, with rogues and cheats [the Russians] and the necessity he has been under of having recourse to severity and harshness in order to ensure his own safety, and that of the Company, have indeed somewhat blunted his finer feelings, and rendered him less alive than he probably once was to the voice of compassion and philanthropy.

It would not have been unnatural for him to fire on the Juno, for Alaska was as remote from the events of the Atlantic as Chile or California, and Russia might have been at war with America for a year before the news reached New Archangel. The few Yankee traders who had reached the country had not left a good reputation. At the massacre three years before, deserters from a Salem trader had helped the Kolosh torture the Russian garrison.

Tusks of the sea walrus, known to the trade as “seatooth,” were accepted by the Indians as payment for pelts, just as Indian wampum had passed for money in New England hardly more than a century before. One Yankee shipmaster had palmed off imitation tusks, made of porcelain in England, for a valuable cargo of sea otter, and thus debased the currency. Yankees and Russians both knew that a Kolosh, once he possessed a musket, would almost certainly break it or let it rust after a few firings, and would then be unable to repair it. The Russians feared to let firearms get into native hands, but the Yankee captains made a practice of buying up secondhand Kolosh muskets for a trifle, having the ship’s blacksmith repair them at his forge, and then reselling them at the price of new. Baranov had good reason to mistrust his American visitor.

But he was a lonely man, and welcomed John to the fort. He asked only that he trade no guns to the Indians, and even offered to lease him some of his Aleutian hunter-slaves. They knew, better than any white man, how to spot the telltale bubbles when the little owl-faced sea otter rolled to dive, and how to plant the spear when they came up for air. Firearms were no good for sea otter anyway, for their noise frightened the herds away from the shallow hunting grounds into the deep water where they were safe from pursuit.

Baranov knew the value of the Juno’s goods if the Indians at Newettee did not. He bought up a third of her cargo—the bulky third—during a week of bargaining and dinners in the blockhouse. To get rid of the rest—or perhaps to show Baranov that he was not too eager to get rid of it—John sailed north another hundred miles to Lynn Channel, making a brisk trade with the Indians as he went. On one of his trading stops, he spoke the Boston ship Athawhalpa in distress and towed her to deep water. The Kolosh had murdered her captain. They might have murdered John too on another day when the Juno grounded on a sunken rock, if he had not had the foresight to hold one of their chiefs aboard as hostage until the tide floated her off, and to keep a six-pounder trained on the canoe which rowed the chief ashore, as long the Juno was within gunshot of the land. When he got back to New Archangel, he had collected a thousand pelts, worth $25,000 or more in any market, and he still had a third of his Bristol cargo in the hold. He confesses he was glad to see the gruff, hospitable Baranov and the homelike Jones again.

One day while he was still careened, making repairs from the grounding, the weather-beaten Russian brig Maria, Captain Maschin, limped into the harbor of New Archangel. On board the Maria, with a crew of galley slaves as wretched as Baranov’s own garrison, was the exalted Baron Rezanov, on his way home to Russia from a voyage round the world. He had left Cronstadt in the fall of 1803, a year before John had left Bristol. Of the two, he must have been the more homesick. His was the first Russian expedition to circle the globe, and so far it had been a failure.

Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, chamberlain and plenipotentiary of Alexander I, Tsar of All the Russias, was a young widower, tall, glacial, cruel, handsome, and thwarted. He had hoped to become the Columbus of Russian trade, and make alliances for his imperial master. He had traveled through England, Brazil, the Marquesas, Hawaii, Canton, Nagasaki, and Kamchatka. The Spaniards had not let him into Manila. The Chinese had denied him the privilege of sending Russian ships into their ports, though they traded with all other nations. Russia could still barter furs for Chinese teas only at inaccessible Siberian frontier towns.

The Japanese had treated him even worse. They would trade with no foreigners at all except the Dutch. At Nagasaki the Japanese governor had ordered him to kneel in his presence and to give up his sword. Rezanov properly refused. He offered to unload from the Maria, as a present to the Mikado, goods worth 300,000 rubles: a clock in the form of an elephant, an electrical machine, a fifteen-foot mirror, a black fox coat, an ermine cloak, a microscope, and a portrait of the Tsar by Madame Vigée-Lebrun. It had taken the Mikado six months to decide whether he would accept them. Meanwhile, when the Baron was allowed ashore for exercise, he was imprisoned behind a bamboo wall no more than fifty feet across, through which, night and day, the governor’s spies peered at him. In the end, the Mikado rejected his gifts and ordered him out of the country, forcing him, as a parting insult, to accept 2,000 yards of silk as his present to the Tsar.

New Archangel was a miserable place, but at least it welcomed Baron Rezanov. In Russian America, he became important again. His father-in-law had founded the company; he was a heavy stockholder in it himself. His staff comprised two naval officers, Lieutenant Nikolai Alexandrovich Khvostov and Midshipman Gavriil Ivanovich Davydov, together with two shipwrights named Koryukin and Popov. He was attended by Dr. George Langsdorff, a thirty-year old German naturalist who doubled as his physician. The week following their arrival at New Archangel was spent in festivity and mirth, and business was entirely suspended.

Rezanov had come to inspect his property. His ignorance of Alaska was as profound as the Tsar’s own. He invited himself to stay with Baranov until his two carpenters had built him a new brig to replace the unseaworthy Maria. He planned, when the new vessel was finished, to load her with pelts, live animals, and precious ores, and carry them back to Siberia and thence overland to St. Petersburg, as a tribute from Alaska to the Tsar.

With the improvidence of the exalted, Baron Rezanov had brought too little food. One might not guess, from the banquets in Baranov’s fort, that the Russian colonists faced starvation. But Rezanov knew, and so did John, that their blue skin and falling teeth were the signs of scurvy. Their only remedy was wild garlic, for they were too lazy to grow vegetables or milk cattle, even though the climate was favorable; in fact, John was surprised to find Alaska as warm as Bristol. The sixty drunkards aboard the Maria ate up the station’s meager food supply without producing any in return. Rezanov needed the Juno’s provisions to save their lives. He needed the Juno herself, for the Maria could never sail again, and it became daily more doubtful that Koryukin and Popov could build him another seaworthy replacement before winter set in, if ever. The Juno was a ship that suited his rank; she was twice the burthen of the Maria.

John was as sharp a trader as his deWolf uncles. He sold Rezanov the Juno, together with the last third of her outward cargo. It was enough to feed the whole company at New Archangel for two more months.

In return Rezanov paid him: $54,638 by draft on the Russian-American Company in St. Petersburg, payable in Spanish milled dollars; $300 in specie; 572 sea otter pelts worth $13,062; the Yermak, a forty-ton brig of Baranov’s, completely rigged, with two suits of sail, four carriage guns, thirty muskets, and provisions for thirty days; and promise of safe conduct across Russia to St. Petersburg.

This consideration was worth almost twice what the Juno and her whole cargo had cost back home in Bristol. In addition, John had the thousand pelts he had bought from the Indians, and an undisclosed amount from Baranov for the first third of his cargo. He felt that he had struck a bargain; but Rezanov wrote his directors, along with a record copy of the draft, that he would have bought the Juno at any price to save the colony from famine.

On October 5, 1805, the guns of the fort fired a salute as the Juno and Yermak changed hands. John hoisted the Stars and Stripes to the masthead of the Yermak. He stowed the furs in her hold and crowded his Bristol crew aboard, except for five seamen who preferred to earn ten rubles a month by staying with the Russians, and one other.

“As my valet for the voyage to Russia,” he writes, “I retained in my service Edward D. Parker of Bristol. He was one of my ordinary sailors, but a very useful man of all work. A barber by trade, he was also a tolerably good tailor and performer on the violin and clarinet. This latter accomplishment I thought might be useful in dispelling the blues, if we should at any time be troubled by that complaint.”

He gave command of the Yermak to George Stetson, the Juno’s former mate, and made her clerk, James Moorfield, his attorney for the sale of the pelts in China. He directed Moorfield, when he reached Canton, to sell them, along with the brig herself, for what they would bring, deposit the proceeds with the Cantonese merchant Hu Qua, and find passage home to Bristol with the crew as best he could. He endorsed the Juno’s papers with the words “Sold to a Foreigner” and the date. Stetson, on reaching Bristol, would surrender them to Collins for cancellation of registry and release of bond. On October 27, 1805, the nineteen men set sail in the Yermak for Canton, 6,000 miles southwest. She could make only five knots, even before the wind.

There was no reason why John should not have gone with them, for the draft in his pocket could have been cashed in Canton as readily as in St. Petersburg. But though many Americans had seen Canton, none had crossed Siberia. He settled down, until Rezanov should be ready to sail for Russia, to spend the winter among the strangest company and in the most discouraging surroundings, perhaps, that ever handicapped a bachelor party.

John disliked Baron Rezanov for his gullibility as well as his arrogance. Both are traits which New Englanders despise. The Baron insisted on calling the Indians Americans, and the Americans Bostonians, and John himself Wolf instead of deWolf. But John admired the bearlike Baranov and feared him a little. No one could help liking the hard-working, considerate Lieutenant Khvostov, who never stopped talking, nor the handsome, fun-loving young Midshipman Davydov, who never stopped laughing. Khvostov was four years older than John, and Davydov four years younger.

Dr. Langsdorff, the German naturalist, became the best friend of John’s life. The two merry men were made for each other. Like Khvostov, Langsdorff was 29 years old. Besides his native German, he spoke English fluently, as well as a little Russian, French, Portuguese, and Latin. He was a short fellow with a bulbous lower lip, a pointed nose, says John, “turned up at the end like a slipper,” and a triangle of perpetual wonderment between it and the tips of his eyebrows. He loved nothing better than to hunt for the alpine flowers and volcanic minerals of the unfamiliar island. It was a debt, he said, which he owed to science. He explored the slopes of 3,500-foot Mount Edgecumbe across the bay, and ranged the evergreen forests with his fowling piece in quest of wild game. After his specimens had been skinned for his collection, Parker made stew of the remains.

After the Yermak had cast off for China, the settlement made ready for winter by chinking the joints of the log houses with moss and bark. Baranov kept a guard night and day at the fort in case of attack by the Kolosh. There was little snow, but at night the St. Elmo’s fire danced blue on the sentry’s bayonet, the flagstaff of the fort, and the barrel of the single cannon beside it, trained shoreward upon the Indians. The colony included a workshop, a forge, an empty cattle barn, three bathhouses, the tents and bunkhouses of the garrison, and the huts of the officers.

Everyone dressed in a hooded kamleika, a sort of raincoat sewn of the entrails of the harbor seal, and in the coldest weather added a wooden hat, strapped under the chin, and a reversible parka made of the skin of the harbor seal. This animal, Phoca vitulina in Langsdorff's vocabulary, provided food, heat, light, and clothing. Aside from its unpalatable but never-failing flesh, and from the Juno’s own provisions, the colony’s main diet was ukler, or dried fish—salmon, halibut, or herring. It took the place of bread. Occasionally someone shot a deer. John’s ewe dropped twin lambs, one of which was slaughtered and served up at the Baron’s table. The largest of the log houses was converted into a mess hall and ballroom. In lieu of glass, its windows were sealed with fishskin. Seven officers dined regularly with the Baron. Dessert was invariably cranberries preserved in candlefish oil.

For entertainment, the friendly Kodiak women, who were always hungry, were allowed into the mess hall to flatter the Baron with long speeches of loyalty and amuse him with dances. Their straight black hair hung loose, hiding the earrings in their ears. They may not have worn lip-plates like the Kolosh women, but their dancing was primitive. It consisted of hopping up and down and imitating the cries of birds and beasts while the watchers clapped hands in time. More Kodiak women waited out of sight in the bunkhouses. Baranov, though he still had a wife and two children in Russia, had “married” a Kodiak girl himself. He renamed her Anna Grigoryevna, in honor of Rezanov’s dead wife; Rezanov, far from being insulted, was flattered by the tribute.

At these prazniks, Langsdorff earned Baranov’s gratitude by dosing his vodka with vitriolic acid and sugar syrup, to make it more potent; and the blazing candlefish wicks guttered to the thumping of the dancers’ feet, shod with the soft mukluk, on the earthen floor.

“His Excellency Baron Rezanov,” writes John, “was always with us on these occasions, and would in an emergency take the fiddle, on which he was quite a good performer. Mostly, Dr. Langsdorff and my man Parker took turns at the bow. With plenty of good resin for it, as well as for our stomachs, we made a gay season of it. Our daily ration was a bottle of the Russian brandy called vodka, which contrasted happily with the half-gill of rum issued aboard our Yankee vessels.”

Aside from the dances, the chief amusement of the Russians was in watching Billy the ram trying to butt John in the rear. He suspected they had trained Billy to attack him unawares, but he did not much mind amusing them at his own expense until Billy hit him so hard, one day, that he rolled head over heels down the hillock and into the cold water. After that he learned how to sidestep and grasp Billy by the horns as he lunged by. It was a battle, he says gravely, between sheep and Wolf.

By spring, the generous provisions in the Juno’s hold were almost gone. Rezanov stubbornly refused to sail home without the brig which Koryukin and Popov were building. After a year on the stocks, they had got no farther than her keel. She was to be named the Avos’, which is the Russian word for “perhaps.” Meanwhile, the colony would face starvation again unless more food could be found.

Rezanov decided he could get it from the Spaniards at San Francisco, a thousand miles south. It was well known that the mission was rich in cattle and wheat; he believed that the monks would trade their provisions for the hardware and cloth still left from John’s outward cargo. Rezanov sailed aboard the Juno on March 1, 1806, taking with him Langsdorff, the two naval officers, the five American deserters, and enough Russians from the Maria to make up the ship’s complement. John was left alone with Baranov. If only as a means of getting home, he spent his days working on the Avos ’ with Koryukin and Popov.

Rezanov returned to New Archangel on June 21 in triumph. Ten of the garrison had died of scurvy in his absence. Not only had he filled the Juno’s hold with Spanish beef and grain, but he was also engaged to be married. He had won the heart of Concepción Argüello, the youngest daughter of Don José “El Santo” Argüello, the commandant of San Francisco. She was fifteen and the Baron forty. Langsdorff reported to John that her eyelashes were dark and long, the whites of her eyes were bluish, and she had the prettiest instep and the merriest laugh in both the Californias. Since he could not marry without the Tsar’s permission, nor she without the Pope’s, the wedding date had been set for May 20, 1808, two years after the formal betrothal. It might well take that long for the Pope’s blessing, through the cumbersome protocol of the Spanish court, to reach San Francisco, and for Rezanov to travel to St. Petersburg and return with the Tsar’s. Rezanov could flatter himself that at one coup he had justified his whole embassy. He had saved Alaska from starvation, he had won a bride, and he had made an alliance between Spain and Russia. That alliance might have a profound effect on the world’s future. The dismemberment of the Spanish empire had begun, and no one could foresee how far it would go. At sea, the British had seized a Spanish treasure fleet carrying $3,000,000. Napoleon had practically stolen the Louisiana Territory from Spain, in order to sell it to the United States. He had sacrificed the Spanish Navy to Nelson at Trafalgar. He had crushed the Russian Army at Austerlitz, and Russia lay open to his invasion. It was not too wild a dream that the Spanish and Russian empires, at opposite corners of Europe, might found a third, through the marriage of Rezanov and Concepción, which would stretch from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, and forever bar America from the Pacific.

According to Langsdorff, the strain of courtship had told on Rezanov, who was moody at best. Angry that Langsdorff had hunted sea birds at San Francisco instead of chatting Latin with the brown-habited Franciscans as a diplomat should, Rezanov had cut off the heads of his precious specimens and thrown the carcasses overboard. When his crew sneaked ashore to wash their clothes in fresh water, he had them flogged astraddle the Juno’s guns. He dared not flog John’s five Yankees, but he did confine them to the treeless island of Alcatraz until he was ready to set sail. Back in New Archangel, he was no more tractable. The four bachelors—John, Langsdorff, Khvostov, and Davydov—gave him a dinner party for which the second lamb was killed. They urged an early start to Russia, before another winter should make it impossible to cross the Bering Sea and the vast reaches of Siberia. But Rezanov insisted on waiting for the Avos'. Even with John to help them, and forty promyshlenniki at the command of their knouts, Koryukin and Popov had got no farther than her ribs. Rezanov invented still other reasons for delay. Perhaps he dared not face the Tsar; perhaps he did not want to marry “Concha” after all. John simply says:

“His Excellency failed to make any arrangements for the future.”

There is nothing like a friend’s approaching marriage to make a bachelor homesick. John looked at the degradation around him—the Russians and the Aleuts held in slavery by the drunken Baranov and the arrogant Rezanov for the sake of a few otter-skins—and decided he must get home. As Langsdorff says:

“Capt. deWolf, one of the most compassionate and benevolent of men, who often made me the sharer of his joys and sorrows, was disgusted with the lot of the serfs.”

John was angry with Rezanov for punishing his sailors, and Langsdorff was angry with him for throwing his taxidermie specimens overboard. Rather than wait for the Juno to refit and the Avos ’ to be built, and the Baron to make up his mind, the two friends asked permission to start without him. Rezanov seemed glad to get rid of them. He commandeered Baranov’s one remaining vessel, the little 25-ton brig Russisloff, and ordered them on their way.

To the amazement of the slow-moving Russians, John fitted her out in three days. He presented Billy and his ewe to Baranov. He said good-by to the five Bristol boys, who, in spite of Rezanov’s ill-usage, still preferred Alaska. On June 30, 1806, with Dr. Langsdorff, Parker and his fiddle, five Russians, and two Aleuts, he put out on the 2,500-mile voyage to the eastern tip of Asia.

His first stop was Kodiak, two weeks across the gulf. Bander, the company’s local agent, showed him over the station. It was more civilized than New Archangel, with forty houses, a barracks, a church, and a school. The priest doubled as schoolmaster. Everyone called him “the Pope.” He and his wife were farmers as well, with several milk cows and a fair tract of potatoes, cabbage, turnips, and cucumbers. The Pope cultivated them in his black cassock. In New Archangel, vegetables and milk had not existed. Before the Russisloff cast off, Bander stowed aboard a cask of vodka for his colleague Prikaschik at Unalaska, her next port of call. Prikaschik was “drunk as David’s sow,” says John, when he staggered down to greet her at Unalaska. His predecessor, Larionov, had died a few months before, leaving his widow and daughter at Prikaschik’s mercy. A ship might not arrive from Russia for another two years to take them home. When the widow Larionova heard that John was bound for the mainland, she begged him on her knees to take her along, so that she could see her native town of Irkutsk before she died. He promised to make room for her, but Prikaschik objected, for he dreaded what report she might make of him to the company: he was, John says, “a great lover of the ardent.” In the end he made Prikaschik release her by threatening to hold up his cask of vodka. The old lady, with her daughter, her barrel of guillemot eggs preserved in oil, and plenty of smoked goose and pickled fish, was hoisted aboard. The ladies bedded down on one side of a screen in John’s cabin. He and Parker had to take turns in John’s own bunk on the other side.

They sailed from the treeless black cliffs of Unalaska on August 16, and hit foul weather at once. Langsdorff was eager to inspect a new volcano called Castle Rock, which was reported to have risen in 1796 from the sea northwest of the station, but a thick fog hid it from sight. By the twenty-eighth, sailing north of the Aleutian chain, they had hardly passed Attu at its tip. Through the mists, as they crawled along, they heard, but never saw, the seal herds, like thunder, roaring from their invisible islands. When they entered the open waters of the Bering Sea, they were in the haunts of the bowhead right whale, who roamed unmolested in the perpetual fog. John writes:

We were frequently surrounded by whale. Sometimes they would take a position to windward and bear down as if they meant to sink us. But when they approached within 8 or 10 rods, they would dip and go under, or make a circuit around us. Most of them were much longer than our vessel, and it would have taken but a slight blow from one of them to have smashed her into a thousand pieces.

The brig often made no more than two knots an hour. Once she was actually forced backward. John kept the seas from breaking over her by trailing blubber from the crew’s mess over the quarter-rail. It made a slick for nearly a mile to windward, and saved the Russisloff from foundering.

Dr. Langsdorff was not frightened. He studied the sea birds that perched on the spars and sails. Once he killed a flock of four wild geese at a single shot, and, still better, put out the brig’s canoe and brought them aboard.

John planned to pass through the Kurile Islands below Kamchatka, and reach Siberia at Okhotsk, a thousand miles across the gulf of the same name. But an early blizzard hit him when he was in the very teeth of the Kuriles. He dared not go forward. He turned his course northwestward to the almost uninhabited peninsula of Kamchatka. On September 22, he brought the Russisloff into Petropavlovsk, resigned to another winter half the world away from home. It was a miserable place to hibernate. A rickety wharf led past the fish-drying racks to a collection of thirty weather-beaten huts, a bunkhouse, a small unfinished church, and a shed that served as office for the company. The buildings, framed of heavy logs, were anchored against the wind with stones. The company’s agent, Major Ivanah, lived in the only decent house on the station—or, for that matter, in the whole province. It was painted white, and had a red tin roof.

John, who had long since learned to make the best of things, deposited the ladies with the Major’s wife, and took lodging in the three-room shanty of an old man named Andra. He shared a curtained bunk in the largest room with Langsdorff; Parker had a cot at their feet. Andra and his wife slept on the stove in a second room; his cow and her fodder occupied the third.

Through the winter, Langsdorff combed the high Kamchatka capes for plants, rocks, birds, and insects. John explored the southern half of the peninsula on his dog sled. Together they soaked for hours in the hot-spring baths behind the station. John learned a little Russian. Everyone liked him, for he could laugh at himself, even when he splintered his dog sled against a tree trunk. The Major asked him to stand as godfather for his baby, which was a great compliment to a man who, as far as the Major comprehended, might have come from another planet. John describes the Russian christening thus:

We repaired to the Major’s house, where we found the Pope and numerous guests assembled. The Pope had brought with him a small box resembling a tea-caddy, containing consecrated oil. A large tub of water was placed in the center of the room, with the Pope’s apparatus near at hand. He then began the operation with prayers, after which he took the child in his arms and plunged it under the water. Then, with a small brush and some oil from the box, he crossed the child all over its body and legs, and afterwards marched around the tub. We, the sponsors, followed in Indian file, three times around. The child was given to one of its godfathers, crossed again, and round the tub we went three times more. And so it continued until we had all taken our turns, and made fifteen circuits of the tub. When it was over, the tub was taken away and a table set in its place. Madame, the mother of the child, brought on the goodies; pies of flesh and pies of fish, cakes of various kinds, preserved berries and many other things. But what astonished me most was that a bottle of real ardent spirits found its way to the table on this extra occasion, and still more that it was the very bottle which had disappeared from my own stores a week previous. The Pope paid his respects to it with peculiar unction and a glowing countenance, and the rest of us were not long in following suit.

Back at New Archangel, the departure of John and Langsdorff stung Baron Rezanov into action. A feverish haste to reach St. Petersburg replaced his lethargy. Perhaps he was determined to get there before them so that the Tsar would learn of his engagement to Concha Argüello from his own lips. Somehow he got the Avos’ into the water. With Khvostov at her helm, and Davydov in command of the Juno, he hurried across the Pacific, leaving Baranov in solitude once more.

He must have passed John deWolf somewhere in the Aleutian fogs. He plunged through the Kuriles and across the gulf to Okhotsk, straining to reach port before the ice closed in. From Okhotsk he headed west, on horseback and by coach. Traveling night and day, outwearing relays of the imperial post horses, he broke into a fever. Still he kept on, more dead than alive. He never reached the capital. At Krasnoyarsk, just over the Urals, his horse, as tired as he, stumbled. Over his head fell the Baron Rezanov to his death.

John awoke one morning in his miserable billet at Petropavlovsk to see the Juno, returned from Okhotsk, at anchor off the fish wharf. The two Russians, the German, and the Yankee had a celebration of their own aboard her that night. They had not heard of the Baron’s death, and if they had they would not have mourned him for long.

In May the Kamchatka ice began to melt. John good-naturedly crowded three more homesick ladies and two men aboard the tiny Russisloff. The Juno bored a lead for him through the decaying cake ice of the harbor, and kept him company, with her sails reefed to hold her speed down to his own, for the 33 days it took him to cross the Sea of Okhotsk. He was glad she was standing by, for once the Russisloff almost capsized when she ran up the back of a sleeping whale and down the other side. He finally reached Okhotsk on June 27, 1807—soon enough, for the ice had cleared the harbor only the week before.

He left the borrowed brig with the governor of Okhotsk. The two Aleuts in the crew begged him to take them with him to America as slaves, rather than send them back to Baranov; but that he could not do. There were too many slaves in America already, he writes. He said farewell to Langsdorff, who decided to linger for more specimens, and to Khvostov and Davydov, who had to stand by the Juno. They agreed to meet for another party—a civilized one this time—if ever they all reached St. Petersburg. John sewed his draft, and the safe conduct which Rezanov had given him, into his coat. He dared not trust his pockets, for after three years, in spite of Parker’s repairs, his clothes were falling apart. With Parker, three guides, and eleven white horses, he started out to cross the Russian Empire.

When they could, they stopped at the imperial post stations. When they could not, they camped out beside the trail in bearskin sleeping bags. They made thirty to forty miles a day, which was not much faster than their speed at sea. Sometimes they could ferry the rivers, and sometimes they had to swim them. Their horses became streaked with blood from mosquito bites, and the men had to wear gloves, sunbonnets, and gauze veils. John, being skinny, rattled in the saddle between two six-inch pommels till he learned to wedge himself in with pillows. One night, four of the horses, including his own mount, broke away from the picket line, not to be seen again; they were probably eaten by bears.

At the end of July the caravan reached Yakutsk, on the Lena. They rested a day before pushing toward Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia. Irkutsk lay 1,200 miles southwest, counting the bends in the trail and the river. Aching from his saddle, John decided to make it by boat instead of astride. He hired a twenty-foot towboat, with three horses to haul the long stretch upstream. This leg of his trip took him another month, but at least it was a more comfortable one. When the wind held, he sat in the roundhouse watching Parker and his courier Kuznetzov (the name means Smith) working the single square sail. When it fell, the boat was towed by the horses from the bank. When both sail and horsepower failed, Parker and Kuznetzov had to man the sweeps.


“I had long noticed the great deference shown to the military in these parts,” John writes, “but I saw it particularly illustrated by Kuznetzov, my Cossack. He was scolding the postillions for their laziness in hitching up the horses at one relay, and I could understand that he was making a great lion of me. ‘Start quick, you rascals,’ said he. ‘We have a great American captain in the boat, going on government business!’ And this seemed to hasten everything, even the horses, for they travelled much better after it.”

Irkutsk was a town of 30,000. Along the duckboard sidewalks, John saw stone buildings for the first time since he had left his uncles’ wharfhouse. He met people who understood a little English. It was a mystery to them how he could have reached Siberia from the east, instead of from Moscow or St. Petersburg. They had curiosity enough to ask him where America was, and what was the name of its tsar. Langsdorff, in his fitful way, caught up with him, and they spent a day sightseeing together. But the scientist decided to spend a week on the flora and fauna of the Siberian capital, so John went on without him.

He bought a carriage, called a provozka, which proved to be no more than a box rounded at the bottom and fitted to the axletree without springs. He had either to lie down in it or sit bolt upright. Even stuffed with a featherbed, it was as uncomfortable as his saddle. With Parker and his courier Kuznetzov, he left Irkutsk on August 21 in two provozka. To cover the 3,500 miles to St. Petersburg before still another winter set in, they would have to travel fast. Aside from replenishing his provisions and changing his horses, John stopped only once in the next week. That was in a village struck by a plague of smallpox, where he urged the local “pope” to feed his parishioners bread and milk, of which there was plenty, and showed him a kind of primitive vaccination by inoculating the healthy with thread smeared in the sores of the sick.

After eight days in the springless provozka, he reached Tomsk with his whole body trembling. There Kuznetzov sold one of the provozka and brought him a new troika—a three-horse carriage equipped with springs. Parker and Kuznetzov followed uncomfortably behind in the remaining provozka. The $300 in silver which he had got in part payment for the Juno was almost gone.

Even with the comfort of springs beneath his swaying troika, he had to rest up for a week when he reached Tobolsk. The night before he left that town, the mayor gave him a farewell which he describes as follows:

The custom of the gentlemen was for each to lay his right hand on the other’s back, and then to kiss each other on both cheeks. Not infrequently their noses came into rude collision. A lady, however, presents you the back of her hand to kiss, and at the same time she kisses you on the cheek. Being all ready for action, the ladies and gentlemen placed themselves in a row around the room, and then the performance was begun. By this time the sweat had begun to start from my forehead; but I saw no use to be lagging, and so, summoning up my courage, I turned to and went through the ceremony like a veteran courtier. The last of the ladies was the mayor’s daughter, a great beauty; and I was strongly tempted, in violation of Russian etiquette, to kiss her cheek. But I managed to restrain myself.

At Ekaterinburg, now renamed Sverdlovsk, he passed the Urals. At Kazan he ferried across the Volga, and on October 8 he reached Moscow, which until a century before had been the capital of all Russia, and was to become the capital again a little more than a century later. There John heard his first reliable news in three years. Aaron Burr had been convicted; the British frigate Leopard had fired into the American Chesapeake; Napoleon had entered Spain and, after his victories at Austerlitz, Jena, and Eylau, had forced the Tsar, on the island of Tilsit in the Nemen, to sign an alliance with France.

In Moscow, with the rest of his travel money, John had some of his pelts made into a fur coat, for the trip north to St. Petersburg would be cold. He was delighted to meet an educated lady who had heard of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He spent a week exploring the ancient city, which looked, he says, like a turtle two-thirds submerged in water. He saw the Kremlin, on the crown of the hill, and the three concentric, walled circles outside it: Chinese Town, White Town, and Land Town. He saw the famous 200-ton bell, which was cracked even then. He marveled at the hundreds of gold and silver spires, little guessing that within five years the Russians themselves were to burn the city to save it from Napoleon.

At last he reached the end of the vast country. On October 21, sixteen months after leaving Alaska, he drove into St. Petersburg. He found, as he must have guessed all along, that he need not have made the overland trip at all. The duplicate of Rezanov’s draft for the Juno had been cashed long before. James Moorfield, from Canton, had sent it around the world in the opposite direction from his. Through the American consul, the Russian-American Company had paid it to Cramer & Smith, the deWolf agents in Russia. Since John had made it payable in Spanish dollars, and Russian and American paper had dropped 15 per cent in the meantime, they had made an unexpected premium. While he was needlessly struggling across Asia and half of Europe, they had already reinvested in Russian hemp and iron, and that cargo had preceded him to Bristol. He had nothing left to worry about except getting there himself.

He went out to Cronstadt, the port of the capital, and engaged passage in a British ship for London. But the day before she was to sail, Napoleon forced the Tsar to declare war on England. Without warning, every British ship fled from the Baltic. The only foreign-bound vessel left in port was a seventy-ton Dutch galiot, laden with tallow. Her skipper was a little old Dutchman, less than five feet tall. A mate and cook comprised her crew. John asked if he would take him and Parker aboard.

“Yaw,” said the Dutchman.

“Where are you bound?”


“Will you let my man work his passage?”

“Yaw, goot.”

The cabin was a doghouse containing two box bunks with sliding doors. John turned in with the Dutchman; Parker and the mate took turns in the other bunk. After a breakfast of beans and buckwheat, which John had not tasted since he left Bristol, they stood down the Baltic. Parker broke out his fiddle for the sheer joy of being homeward bound, but the Dutchman did not even smile.

On the tenth day, John was standing on the pier at Elsinore, under the battlements of Hamlet’s castle, looking up the sound to Copenhagen, when he saw a ship bearing down with a large American ensign at her masthead. He later wrote:

At the sight of her my heart leaped into my throat. I waited until she came to anchor, and then called a shore-boat and went off to her. She proved to bear the same name as my outbound companion. She was the Mary of Portland, Capt. David Gray, and she was homeward bound in ballast. This was joyful news, and affected me so deeply that I could hardly tell the Captain my story. At last, after making known who I was, and from whence I came, I asked if he would take me as passenger, and he readily consented. I went immediately to the galiot to settle with the little Dutch skipper. To the question how much I was to pay him, he answered that he only wanted “Was billig ist; das ist mir recht.” (“Whatever is reasonable; that will be all right with me.”) Not knowing exactly what that was, I tendered him 20 Spanish dollars, with which he was well satisfied, and made him a bonus of a pair of my breeches, which he had already been wearing …

John and Parker shipped aboard the Mary with Captain Gray. Except for putting in at Liverpool for repairs, they had a clear passage.

“You may suppose,” writes John, “that I started from Portland with as little delay as possible for Bristol. I arrived there, by Mr. Chadwick’s stage from Providence, on the first of April, 1808. Thus ended an absence of three years and eight months. The owners were already in receipt of the proceeds of the voyage, which resulted in a clear profit of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.”

This included the profit from the sale of the Yermak and her pelts in Canton. After selling her, Moorfield and Stetson had taken passage home in a Boston ship. It had foundered off Cape Hatteras; and though all hands were saved, the Juno’s registry and bill of sale were lost.

Under the law, a ship’s bondsmen forfeited their collateral unless they could prove, within two years after she cleared from her home port, that she had been sold abroad. For over a year, Collector Collins, hoping that John might return, had managed to delay the forfeiture of the Juno’s bond. Stetson’s story of the sale might be true, said Secretary Albert Gallatin of the Treasury, but there was no proof of it. When John arrived with Rezanov’s duplicate receipt in his coat lining, Gallatin was satisfied. The Juno’s registry was honorably canceled without penalty—more honorably than when deWolf slavers were sold abroad to evade the law—and Major William’s insurance company paid Squire John for the loss of his china, his tea, his shawls and handkerchiefs and trouserings.

The town had pretty well given up John for lost, like his father, by the time he and Parker returned; but it was not greatly surprised that they did return. Disappearances at sea were common, and so were miraculous escapes from it. The village had not changed much in his absence. John met the common neglect of travelers, but he immediately earned, from the boys on the wharf, the nickname of Nor’west John, which thereafter distinguished him from any other John deWolf.

He got none of the hundred thousand dollars for himself, but Russia was now in his blood. The year after his return, his Uncle James sent him back to St. Petersburg. As he had hoped, he found Langsdorff there, and by luck the two of them ran into Khvostov and Davydov too, still officers in the Imperial Navy. The scheduled celebration took place in Nor’west John’s boarding house. It turned into a night of four-way reminiscence. John says dryly that “libations to the gods of friendship were not omitted.” The two Russians had fought in a war with Sweden since John had seen them and had much to tell. Their ship was anchored on the far bank of the Neva River, which runs through St. Petersburg. At two in the morning they started for her, and had crossed the drawbridge before remembering a last story that must be told. By that time the drawbridge had been opened for river traffic. They tried to jump across the opening, which was more than even sober men could have done. They fell into the swift waters of the icy Neva and were drowned. Nor’west John ends his memoirs, written in his old age:

“Though more than 50 years have passed since the death of these young men, I cannot forbear to recall their many virtues and to lament their untimely end.”

The Juno herself, still under Russian colors, was the next victim of the years. In 1816 she foundered off Petropavlovsk, with the loss of 23 men and her cargo.

Baranov stayed on at his post after the others had left him, growing drunker and gloomier each year. The more he drank, the less he ate. He lived on one meal a day, swallowed whenever hunger forced him. He took to wearing a black wig to keep his head warm. He tied it round his neck with a colored scarf. Each year he tried to resign as governor of Russian America. The Tsar would ignore his resignation, award him a new medal, and simply refuse to send out a ship to take him home. When he got too old for anything else, Baranov was suddenly dismissed. By that time, he did not want to leave Alaska. But the Tsar sent out a successor anyway, with orders to check all the account books of his long service. Not a kopeck was missing, but there was a sad shortage in the company’s supply of vodka. At once bitter and happy at leaving his life’s work, Baranov determined to spend the rest of his days in the warm Pacific, where he was well-known. He paid a call on King Kamehameha of Hawaii, visited the Marquesas Islands, and then, one day at the Grand Hotel in Batavia, he died. His work for the Tsar was undone in 1867, when the United States bought all Alaska for $7,200,000. He would have thought it a high price, for the sea otter had been hunted to extinction.

Langsdorff, after returning to his native Germany, formed a company to promote emigration to Brazil. When it failed, he retired to his home in Freiburg, at the foot of the Black Forest. There he wrote an account of his trip round the world, the first half with Rezanov and the second, more or less, with Nor’west John. He described Rezanov’s tomb at Krasnoyarsk:

“It is a large stone, in the fashion of the altar, but without any inscription.”

He did not forget to mention the golden woodpecker (Picus auratus) which he had seen on Baranov Island, nor the skunk (Viverra putorius) at San Francisco. He strayed from the stern objectivity of science only to describe the impact which Concha Argüello had made on the Baron—and, who can doubt it?—on himself:

She was distinguished for her vivacity and cheerfulness, her love-inspiring and brilliant eyes, which pierced his inmost soul, and her exceedingly beautiful teeth; for her pleasing and expressive features and for a thousand other charms. Yet her manners were perfectly simple and artless. Beauties of her kind one may find, though seldom, only in Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Doña Concepción Argüello never married. She waited the agreed two years for her fiancé, not knowing that he had been killed. She waited longer, till California became first Mexican and then American. In 1851, when she was sixty, she entered the Sisterhood of St. Dominic at Monterey, taking the name of Sister Maria Dominga. By this time, Bristol ships were reduced to ferrying gold-seekers around the Horn to the harbor below her father’s Presidio. In 1854 the sisters moved to Benicia, across the bay from San Francisco. They opened St. Catherine’s Academy for Young Ladies. By paying fifteen dollars extra a quarter, the pupils could take Spanish lessons. It can be imagined that the Spanish teacher was Sister Maria Dominga. She died two days before Christmas of 1857 at Benicia, in the white habit of the sisterhood.

Nor’west John outlived the others. Like many of the deWolfs, he seems to have preferred working for his relations to working for himself. His uncle, Captain Jim, was one who appreciated the achievement of his voyage. In 1815 he made him master of his brig Shannon, captured from the British in the War of 1812, and in 1816 of his ship Ann, named for a slaver which the British had seized in 1806.

In 1817 Nor’west John bought the brigantine If, 160 tons, but sold it the next year to his cousin George deWolf. With the proceeds, he bought a farm behind his native village. At 35 he was regarded as an incurable bachelor, but no sooner had he bought the farm than he married an out-of-town girl named Mary Melville. She let him name their only son for Dr. Langsdorff. His last command was Captain Jim’s finest ship, the General Jackson. But as clippers began to replace the old bluff-bows of his youth, and as steamers began to replace them, he grew disgusted with the sea. It was no place, he said, for a married man. He quit it for good in 1829 and settled down, like many Bristol sea captains, to farming onions. When he grew too old for that, in 1850, he and Mary moved in with their married daughter, Nancy Downer, in Dorchester, overlooking Boston Harbor.

Mary had a nephew named Herman Melville who was writing what became the classic story of whaling, Moby Dick. Nor’west John did not claim to be a specialist on whales, but he had met some. Moby Dick describes the whale the Russisloff encountered in the Sea of Okhotsk:

A whale bigger than the ship set up his back and lifted the ship three feet out of the water. The masts reeled and the sails fell all together, while we who were below sprang instantly upon the deck, concluding we had struck upon some rock; instead of which we saw the monster sailing off with the utmost gravity and solemnity, leaving the ship uninjured.

To silence doubters, Herman Melville added:

Now the Capt. deWolf here alluded to as commanding the ship in question is a New Englander who, after a long life of unusual adventures as a sea captain, this day resides in the village of Dorchester near Boston. I have the honor of being his nephew. The ship was by no means a large one, being a Russian craft built on the Siberian coast and purchased by my uncle after bartering away the vessel in which he had sailed from home.

Nor’west John wrote his reminiscences when he was nearing eighty. His grandchildren called him “White Grandpa.” They could always count on finding candy in his sunny room, but he would make them hunt for it. He would lean with his elbows on the lambrequin of his arched mantelpiece as if he still leaned against a quarter-rail. His face had been tanned incurably to leather. His square hands grasped the lapels of his broadcloth coat, and his merry eyes twinkled as he watched them search what he called his cabin. When they saw him gazing out to sea, with his old spyglass stretched to arm’s length, the children would ask him:

“What do you see, White Grandpa?”

Nor’west John always growled back, “I’m looking at those damned three-masted schooners.”

He died at Dorchester in 1872, aged 93.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.