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The Voyage Of Nor’west John
Curiosity motivated the first American who crossed Siberia. But he also made a handsome profit.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
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: