- 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 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.