- Historic Sites
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
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?”
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 …