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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
At these prazniks, Langsdorff earned Baranov’s gratitude by dosing his vodka with vitriolic acid and sugar syrup, to make it more potent; and the blazing candlefish wicks guttered to the thumping of the dancers’ feet, shod with the soft mukluk, on the earthen floor.
“His Excellency Baron Rezanov,” writes John, “was always with us on these occasions, and would in an emergency take the fiddle, on which he was quite a good performer. Mostly, Dr. Langsdorff and my man Parker took turns at the bow. With plenty of good resin for it, as well as for our stomachs, we made a gay season of it. Our daily ration was a bottle of the Russian brandy called vodka, which contrasted happily with the half-gill of rum issued aboard our Yankee vessels.”
Aside from the dances, the chief amusement of the Russians was in watching Billy the ram trying to butt John in the rear. He suspected they had trained Billy to attack him unawares, but he did not much mind amusing them at his own expense until Billy hit him so hard, one day, that he rolled head over heels down the hillock and into the cold water. After that he learned how to sidestep and grasp Billy by the horns as he lunged by. It was a battle, he says gravely, between sheep and Wolf.
By spring, the generous provisions in the Juno’s hold were almost gone. Rezanov stubbornly refused to sail home without the brig which Koryukin and Popov were building. After a year on the stocks, they had got no farther than her keel. She was to be named the Avos’, which is the Russian word for “perhaps.” Meanwhile, the colony would face starvation again unless more food could be found.
Rezanov decided he could get it from the Spaniards at San Francisco, a thousand miles south. It was well known that the mission was rich in cattle and wheat; he believed that the monks would trade their provisions for the hardware and cloth still left from John’s outward cargo. Rezanov sailed aboard the Juno on March 1, 1806, taking with him Langsdorff, the two naval officers, the five American deserters, and enough Russians from the Maria to make up the ship’s complement. John was left alone with Baranov. If only as a means of getting home, he spent his days working on the Avos ’ with Koryukin and Popov.
Rezanov returned to New Archangel on June 21 in triumph. Ten of the garrison had died of scurvy in his absence. Not only had he filled the Juno’s hold with Spanish beef and grain, but he was also engaged to be married. He had won the heart of Concepción Argüello, the youngest daughter of Don José “El Santo” Argüello, the commandant of San Francisco. She was fifteen and the Baron forty. Langsdorff reported to John that her eyelashes were dark and long, the whites of her eyes were bluish, and she had the prettiest instep and the merriest laugh in both the Californias. Since he could not marry without the Tsar’s permission, nor she without the Pope’s, the wedding date had been set for May 20, 1808, two years after the formal betrothal. It might well take that long for the Pope’s blessing, through the cumbersome protocol of the Spanish court, to reach San Francisco, and for Rezanov to travel to St. Petersburg and return with the Tsar’s. Rezanov could flatter himself that at one coup he had justified his whole embassy. He had saved Alaska from starvation, he had won a bride, and he had made an alliance between Spain and Russia. That alliance might have a profound effect on the world’s future. The dismemberment of the Spanish empire had begun, and no one could foresee how far it would go. At sea, the British had seized a Spanish treasure fleet carrying $3,000,000. Napoleon had practically stolen the Louisiana Territory from Spain, in order to sell it to the United States. He had sacrificed the Spanish Navy to Nelson at Trafalgar. He had crushed the Russian Army at Austerlitz, and Russia lay open to his invasion. It was not too wild a dream that the Spanish and Russian empires, at opposite corners of Europe, might found a third, through the marriage of Rezanov and Concepción, which would stretch from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, and forever bar America from the Pacific.
According to Langsdorff, the strain of courtship had told on Rezanov, who was moody at best. Angry that Langsdorff had hunted sea birds at San Francisco instead of chatting Latin with the brown-habited Franciscans as a diplomat should, Rezanov had cut off the heads of his precious specimens and thrown the carcasses overboard. When his crew sneaked ashore to wash their clothes in fresh water, he had them flogged astraddle the Juno’s guns. He dared not flog John’s five Yankees, but he did confine them to the treeless island of Alcatraz until he was ready to set sail. Back in New Archangel, he was no more tractable. The four bachelors—John, Langsdorff, Khvostov, and Davydov—gave him a dinner party for which the second lamb was killed. They urged an early start to Russia, before another winter should make it impossible to cross the Bering Sea and the vast reaches of Siberia. But Rezanov insisted on waiting for the Avos'. Even with John to help them, and forty promyshlenniki at the command of their knouts, Koryukin and Popov had got no farther than her ribs. Rezanov invented still other reasons for delay. Perhaps he dared not face the Tsar; perhaps he did not want to marry “Concha” after all. John simply says: