- 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 Indians of that coast had plenty of sea otter, the Enhydra lutris of science. The fur of this little animal, jet black with silver sheen beneath, was the most precious in the world. Sea otter were hunted on the open sea with spear or arrow, to avoid breaking the skin. In the Chinese markets, a sealskin might bring a silver dollar, and a sable $10 or $15, but a single pelt of the sea otter had once sold in Canton for $100, and even average skins brought $25.
John was impatient to trade, but the Indians seemed in no hurry. While their log canoes rode in a circle about the Juno, they would lie on her deck by the dozen all day long, stubbornly repeating their exorbitant prices and indifferent as to whether he bought their pelts or not. Though he took care to disarm the native traders before he let them aboard, he saw that sharpshooters ashore, in case of trouble, could damage him before he had time to sail, for the harbor of Newettee shelved so sharply that his anchors hit bottom only within gunshot of the shore. He decided not to haggle any longer, but to head 500 miles northward, where he knew the Russians had an outpost. A week later, on August 17, 1805, he reached the settlement of New Archangel on the west coast of Baranov Island. It is called Sitka now.
The vast territory of Alaska—or Alashka, as John called it—had been discovered in 1741, by a Dane named Vitus Bering in the employ of the Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Except for scattered trading posts, the Russians had never migrated in great numbers to Alaska, and it became the hunting ground of a semiofficial corporation, under the patronage of the tsars, known as the Russian-American Company. This corporation operated in Alaska much as the Hudson’s Bay Company did in Canada. It held title to the country, and paid the tsar for the monopoly from the profits of the fur trade.
Alexander Andreyvich Baranov, the resident governor, was almost a tsar himself. (In early life he had been a dry goods salesman, and not a successful one, on the Russian mainland.) Eighteen years before John reached Alaska, Baranov had entered the company’s employ, and crossed the Bering Sea eastward to the unexplored territory, creeping along the chain of Aleutians—they were called the Fox Islands then—to Kodiak, and finally pushing 500 miles, in pursuit of the diminishing sea otter, across the gulf to the island that is named for him. In 1802 the Tlinget Indians, called Kolosh by the Russians, had burned its fort, after massacring its garrison, but Baranov had defeated them in battle, and built a new fort five miles from the site of the old one. It stood on a high rocky knoll at the edge of the water. Attended by a Bengalese valet and an American clerk with the homely name of Abraham Jones, Baranov welcomed John’s longboat at the wharfhouse below his fort.
Baranov still mistrusted the Kolosh. For his shipments to Russia, he bought pelts not from them, but from slaves whom he had imported from the Aleutian archipelago far to the west. The hostile Kolosh, the submissive Aleuts, and some friendly Kodiaks made up the native population of Baranov Island. The Governor made the Kolosh live outside of his fort. Their log huts had a smokehole in the roof, and stank of fish and train oil. The men daubed their faces with colored earth. John describes the women thus:
At the age of 14 or 15 they make a hole in their underlip and insert a small piece of wood like a button. This is increased in size as they advance in age, until it is three or four inches long and one or two wide. I saw an old woman, the wife of a chief, whose ornament was so large that by a peculiar motion of her lower lip she could almost conceal her whole face inside it. You will naturally inquire the reason for this barbarous mode of adornment. I might reply by asking the reason for topknots and stays among civilized women. But I may be allowed to make one observation which has probably occurred to my readers; and that is, that the fair sex of the northwest coast are utterly unable to enjoy the luxury of a kiss.
And Sam Petterson, a seaman aboard the Juno, wrote of a Kolosh chieftain:
Maquina was of a dignified mien, about six feet high, straight and well proportioned; his features were tolerably good, and his face remarkable by a large Roman nose, very uncommon amongst these people; his colour was of a dark copper, but his limbs were covered with paint; his eyebrows were painted black in two broad arching stripes; his hair was long and black, shining with oil, and tied in a bunch at the top of his head, and covered with a white down. His dress was a cloak of black sea-otter skin, reaching down to his knees and fastened around him with a cloth belt. His appearance had a degree of savage dignity. He possessed a knowledge of English words, and could make himself in a good degree understood in our tongue.