- 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
Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, chamberlain and plenipotentiary of Alexander I, Tsar of All the Russias, was a young widower, tall, glacial, cruel, handsome, and thwarted. He had hoped to become the Columbus of Russian trade, and make alliances for his imperial master. He had traveled through England, Brazil, the Marquesas, Hawaii, Canton, Nagasaki, and Kamchatka. The Spaniards had not let him into Manila. The Chinese had denied him the privilege of sending Russian ships into their ports, though they traded with all other nations. Russia could still barter furs for Chinese teas only at inaccessible Siberian frontier towns.
The Japanese had treated him even worse. They would trade with no foreigners at all except the Dutch. At Nagasaki the Japanese governor had ordered him to kneel in his presence and to give up his sword. Rezanov properly refused. He offered to unload from the Maria, as a present to the Mikado, goods worth 300,000 rubles: a clock in the form of an elephant, an electrical machine, a fifteen-foot mirror, a black fox coat, an ermine cloak, a microscope, and a portrait of the Tsar by Madame Vigée-Lebrun. It had taken the Mikado six months to decide whether he would accept them. Meanwhile, when the Baron was allowed ashore for exercise, he was imprisoned behind a bamboo wall no more than fifty feet across, through which, night and day, the governor’s spies peered at him. In the end, the Mikado rejected his gifts and ordered him out of the country, forcing him, as a parting insult, to accept 2,000 yards of silk as his present to the Tsar.
New Archangel was a miserable place, but at least it welcomed Baron Rezanov. In Russian America, he became important again. His father-in-law had founded the company; he was a heavy stockholder in it himself. His staff comprised two naval officers, Lieutenant Nikolai Alexandrovich Khvostov and Midshipman Gavriil Ivanovich Davydov, together with two shipwrights named Koryukin and Popov. He was attended by Dr. George Langsdorff, a thirty-year old German naturalist who doubled as his physician. The week following their arrival at New Archangel was spent in festivity and mirth, and business was entirely suspended.
Rezanov had come to inspect his property. His ignorance of Alaska was as profound as the Tsar’s own. He invited himself to stay with Baranov until his two carpenters had built him a new brig to replace the unseaworthy Maria. He planned, when the new vessel was finished, to load her with pelts, live animals, and precious ores, and carry them back to Siberia and thence overland to St. Petersburg, as a tribute from Alaska to the Tsar.
With the improvidence of the exalted, Baron Rezanov had brought too little food. One might not guess, from the banquets in Baranov’s fort, that the Russian colonists faced starvation. But Rezanov knew, and so did John, that their blue skin and falling teeth were the signs of scurvy. Their only remedy was wild garlic, for they were too lazy to grow vegetables or milk cattle, even though the climate was favorable; in fact, John was surprised to find Alaska as warm as Bristol. The sixty drunkards aboard the Maria ate up the station’s meager food supply without producing any in return. Rezanov needed the Juno’s provisions to save their lives. He needed the Juno herself, for the Maria could never sail again, and it became daily more doubtful that Koryukin and Popov could build him another seaworthy replacement before winter set in, if ever. The Juno was a ship that suited his rank; she was twice the burthen of the Maria.
John was as sharp a trader as his deWolf uncles. He sold Rezanov the Juno, together with the last third of her outward cargo. It was enough to feed the whole company at New Archangel for two more months.
In return Rezanov paid him: $54,638 by draft on the Russian-American Company in St. Petersburg, payable in Spanish milled dollars; $300 in specie; 572 sea otter pelts worth $13,062; the Yermak, a forty-ton brig of Baranov’s, completely rigged, with two suits of sail, four carriage guns, thirty muskets, and provisions for thirty days; and promise of safe conduct across Russia to St. Petersburg.
This consideration was worth almost twice what the Juno and her whole cargo had cost back home in Bristol. In addition, John had the thousand pelts he had bought from the Indians, and an undisclosed amount from Baranov for the first third of his cargo. He felt that he had struck a bargain; but Rezanov wrote his directors, along with a record copy of the draft, that he would have bought the Juno at any price to save the colony from famine.
On October 5, 1805, the guns of the fort fired a salute as the Juno and Yermak changed hands. John hoisted the Stars and Stripes to the masthead of the Yermak. He stowed the furs in her hold and crowded his Bristol crew aboard, except for five seamen who preferred to earn ten rubles a month by staying with the Russians, and one other.