- 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
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.