- 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
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.”