- 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
“As my valet for the voyage to Russia,” he writes, “I retained in my service Edward D. Parker of Bristol. He was one of my ordinary sailors, but a very useful man of all work. A barber by trade, he was also a tolerably good tailor and performer on the violin and clarinet. This latter accomplishment I thought might be useful in dispelling the blues, if we should at any time be troubled by that complaint.”
He gave command of the Yermak to George Stetson, the Juno’s former mate, and made her clerk, James Moorfield, his attorney for the sale of the pelts in China. He directed Moorfield, when he reached Canton, to sell them, along with the brig herself, for what they would bring, deposit the proceeds with the Cantonese merchant Hu Qua, and find passage home to Bristol with the crew as best he could. He endorsed the Juno’s papers with the words “Sold to a Foreigner” and the date. Stetson, on reaching Bristol, would surrender them to Collins for cancellation of registry and release of bond. On October 27, 1805, the nineteen men set sail in the Yermak for Canton, 6,000 miles southwest. She could make only five knots, even before the wind.
There was no reason why John should not have gone with them, for the draft in his pocket could have been cashed in Canton as readily as in St. Petersburg. But though many Americans had seen Canton, none had crossed Siberia. He settled down, until Rezanov should be ready to sail for Russia, to spend the winter among the strangest company and in the most discouraging surroundings, perhaps, that ever handicapped a bachelor party.
John disliked Baron Rezanov for his gullibility as well as his arrogance. Both are traits which New Englanders despise. The Baron insisted on calling the Indians Americans, and the Americans Bostonians, and John himself Wolf instead of deWolf. But John admired the bearlike Baranov and feared him a little. No one could help liking the hard-working, considerate Lieutenant Khvostov, who never stopped talking, nor the handsome, fun-loving young Midshipman Davydov, who never stopped laughing. Khvostov was four years older than John, and Davydov four years younger.
Dr. Langsdorff, the German naturalist, became the best friend of John’s life. The two merry men were made for each other. Like Khvostov, Langsdorff was 29 years old. Besides his native German, he spoke English fluently, as well as a little Russian, French, Portuguese, and Latin. He was a short fellow with a bulbous lower lip, a pointed nose, says John, “turned up at the end like a slipper,” and a triangle of perpetual wonderment between it and the tips of his eyebrows. He loved nothing better than to hunt for the alpine flowers and volcanic minerals of the unfamiliar island. It was a debt, he said, which he owed to science. He explored the slopes of 3,500-foot Mount Edgecumbe across the bay, and ranged the evergreen forests with his fowling piece in quest of wild game. After his specimens had been skinned for his collection, Parker made stew of the remains.
After the Yermak had cast off for China, the settlement made ready for winter by chinking the joints of the log houses with moss and bark. Baranov kept a guard night and day at the fort in case of attack by the Kolosh. There was little snow, but at night the St. Elmo’s fire danced blue on the sentry’s bayonet, the flagstaff of the fort, and the barrel of the single cannon beside it, trained shoreward upon the Indians. The colony included a workshop, a forge, an empty cattle barn, three bathhouses, the tents and bunkhouses of the garrison, and the huts of the officers.
Everyone dressed in a hooded kamleika, a sort of raincoat sewn of the entrails of the harbor seal, and in the coldest weather added a wooden hat, strapped under the chin, and a reversible parka made of the skin of the harbor seal. This animal, Phoca vitulina in Langsdorff's vocabulary, provided food, heat, light, and clothing. Aside from its unpalatable but never-failing flesh, and from the Juno’s own provisions, the colony’s main diet was ukler, or dried fish—salmon, halibut, or herring. It took the place of bread. Occasionally someone shot a deer. John’s ewe dropped twin lambs, one of which was slaughtered and served up at the Baron’s table. The largest of the log houses was converted into a mess hall and ballroom. In lieu of glass, its windows were sealed with fishskin. Seven officers dined regularly with the Baron. Dessert was invariably cranberries preserved in candlefish oil.
For entertainment, the friendly Kodiak women, who were always hungry, were allowed into the mess hall to flatter the Baron with long speeches of loyalty and amuse him with dances. Their straight black hair hung loose, hiding the earrings in their ears. They may not have worn lip-plates like the Kolosh women, but their dancing was primitive. It consisted of hopping up and down and imitating the cries of birds and beasts while the watchers clapped hands in time. More Kodiak women waited out of sight in the bunkhouses. Baranov, though he still had a wife and two children in Russia, had “married” a Kodiak girl himself. He renamed her Anna Grigoryevna, in honor of Rezanov’s dead wife; Rezanov, far from being insulted, was flattered by the tribute.