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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
“His Excellency failed to make any arrangements for the future.”
There is nothing like a friend’s approaching marriage to make a bachelor homesick. John looked at the degradation around him—the Russians and the Aleuts held in slavery by the drunken Baranov and the arrogant Rezanov for the sake of a few otter-skins—and decided he must get home. As Langsdorff says:
“Capt. deWolf, one of the most compassionate and benevolent of men, who often made me the sharer of his joys and sorrows, was disgusted with the lot of the serfs.”
John was angry with Rezanov for punishing his sailors, and Langsdorff was angry with him for throwing his taxidermie specimens overboard. Rather than wait for the Juno to refit and the Avos ’ to be built, and the Baron to make up his mind, the two friends asked permission to start without him. Rezanov seemed glad to get rid of them. He commandeered Baranov’s one remaining vessel, the little 25-ton brig Russisloff, and ordered them on their way.
To the amazement of the slow-moving Russians, John fitted her out in three days. He presented Billy and his ewe to Baranov. He said good-by to the five Bristol boys, who, in spite of Rezanov’s ill-usage, still preferred Alaska. On June 30, 1806, with Dr. Langsdorff, Parker and his fiddle, five Russians, and two Aleuts, he put out on the 2,500-mile voyage to the eastern tip of Asia.
His first stop was Kodiak, two weeks across the gulf. Bander, the company’s local agent, showed him over the station. It was more civilized than New Archangel, with forty houses, a barracks, a church, and a school. The priest doubled as schoolmaster. Everyone called him “the Pope.” He and his wife were farmers as well, with several milk cows and a fair tract of potatoes, cabbage, turnips, and cucumbers. The Pope cultivated them in his black cassock. In New Archangel, vegetables and milk had not existed. Before the Russisloff cast off, Bander stowed aboard a cask of vodka for his colleague Prikaschik at Unalaska, her next port of call. Prikaschik was “drunk as David’s sow,” says John, when he staggered down to greet her at Unalaska. His predecessor, Larionov, had died a few months before, leaving his widow and daughter at Prikaschik’s mercy. A ship might not arrive from Russia for another two years to take them home. When the widow Larionova heard that John was bound for the mainland, she begged him on her knees to take her along, so that she could see her native town of Irkutsk before she died. He promised to make room for her, but Prikaschik objected, for he dreaded what report she might make of him to the company: he was, John says, “a great lover of the ardent.” In the end he made Prikaschik release her by threatening to hold up his cask of vodka. The old lady, with her daughter, her barrel of guillemot eggs preserved in oil, and plenty of smoked goose and pickled fish, was hoisted aboard. The ladies bedded down on one side of a screen in John’s cabin. He and Parker had to take turns in John’s own bunk on the other side.
They sailed from the treeless black cliffs of Unalaska on August 16, and hit foul weather at once. Langsdorff was eager to inspect a new volcano called Castle Rock, which was reported to have risen in 1796 from the sea northwest of the station, but a thick fog hid it from sight. By the twenty-eighth, sailing north of the Aleutian chain, they had hardly passed Attu at its tip. Through the mists, as they crawled along, they heard, but never saw, the seal herds, like thunder, roaring from their invisible islands. When they entered the open waters of the Bering Sea, they were in the haunts of the bowhead right whale, who roamed unmolested in the perpetual fog. John writes:
We were frequently surrounded by whale. Sometimes they would take a position to windward and bear down as if they meant to sink us. But when they approached within 8 or 10 rods, they would dip and go under, or make a circuit around us. Most of them were much longer than our vessel, and it would have taken but a slight blow from one of them to have smashed her into a thousand pieces.
The brig often made no more than two knots an hour. Once she was actually forced backward. John kept the seas from breaking over her by trailing blubber from the crew’s mess over the quarter-rail. It made a slick for nearly a mile to windward, and saved the Russisloff from foundering.
Dr. Langsdorff was not frightened. He studied the sea birds that perched on the spars and sails. Once he killed a flock of four wild geese at a single shot, and, still better, put out the brig’s canoe and brought them aboard.