- 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
Inside Baranov’s fort lived 200 Russian serfs, bound to service till their terms were up. These miserable serfs were called promyshlenniki. They hated the Indians and each other. They were allotted two dried fish a day for subsistence but had to buy everything else at the company store. They made a living by trading in pelts with the Indians and shipping them, once every year or two, to St. Petersburg, where they were credited with half the proceeds. Since the accounts were made up long after the furs had been shipped, the promyshlenniki were always in debt to the company.
When John arrived at New Archangel, Baranov was 65. His flaxen beard was turning white. His frail body was racked by arthritis. He eased his miseries by ladling vodka from a bucket that he kept always at his side. His gnarled hands could hardly lift the dipper. One of his rare visitors wrote of him:
His long abode among so uncivilized a race [the Indians], his daily intercourse with a dissolute and licentious rabble, with rogues and cheats [the Russians] and the necessity he has been under of having recourse to severity and harshness in order to ensure his own safety, and that of the Company, have indeed somewhat blunted his finer feelings, and rendered him less alive than he probably once was to the voice of compassion and philanthropy.
It would not have been unnatural for him to fire on the Juno, for Alaska was as remote from the events of the Atlantic as Chile or California, and Russia might have been at war with America for a year before the news reached New Archangel. The few Yankee traders who had reached the country had not left a good reputation. At the massacre three years before, deserters from a Salem trader had helped the Kolosh torture the Russian garrison.
Tusks of the sea walrus, known to the trade as “seatooth,” were accepted by the Indians as payment for pelts, just as Indian wampum had passed for money in New England hardly more than a century before. One Yankee shipmaster had palmed off imitation tusks, made of porcelain in England, for a valuable cargo of sea otter, and thus debased the currency. Yankees and Russians both knew that a Kolosh, once he possessed a musket, would almost certainly break it or let it rust after a few firings, and would then be unable to repair it. The Russians feared to let firearms get into native hands, but the Yankee captains made a practice of buying up secondhand Kolosh muskets for a trifle, having the ship’s blacksmith repair them at his forge, and then reselling them at the price of new. Baranov had good reason to mistrust his American visitor.
But he was a lonely man, and welcomed John to the fort. He asked only that he trade no guns to the Indians, and even offered to lease him some of his Aleutian hunter-slaves. They knew, better than any white man, how to spot the telltale bubbles when the little owl-faced sea otter rolled to dive, and how to plant the spear when they came up for air. Firearms were no good for sea otter anyway, for their noise frightened the herds away from the shallow hunting grounds into the deep water where they were safe from pursuit.
Baranov knew the value of the Juno’s goods if the Indians at Newettee did not. He bought up a third of her cargo—the bulky third—during a week of bargaining and dinners in the blockhouse. To get rid of the rest—or perhaps to show Baranov that he was not too eager to get rid of it—John sailed north another hundred miles to Lynn Channel, making a brisk trade with the Indians as he went. On one of his trading stops, he spoke the Boston ship Athawhalpa in distress and towed her to deep water. The Kolosh had murdered her captain. They might have murdered John too on another day when the Juno grounded on a sunken rock, if he had not had the foresight to hold one of their chiefs aboard as hostage until the tide floated her off, and to keep a six-pounder trained on the canoe which rowed the chief ashore, as long the Juno was within gunshot of the land. When he got back to New Archangel, he had collected a thousand pelts, worth $25,000 or more in any market, and he still had a third of his Bristol cargo in the hold. He confesses he was glad to see the gruff, hospitable Baranov and the homelike Jones again.
One day while he was still careened, making repairs from the grounding, the weather-beaten Russian brig Maria, Captain Maschin, limped into the harbor of New Archangel. On board the Maria, with a crew of galley slaves as wretched as Baranov’s own garrison, was the exalted Baron Rezanov, on his way home to Russia from a voyage round the world. He had left Cronstadt in the fall of 1803, a year before John had left Bristol. Of the two, he must have been the more homesick. His was the first Russian expedition to circle the globe, and so far it had been a failure.