- 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
John planned to pass through the Kurile Islands below Kamchatka, and reach Siberia at Okhotsk, a thousand miles across the gulf of the same name. But an early blizzard hit him when he was in the very teeth of the Kuriles. He dared not go forward. He turned his course northwestward to the almost uninhabited peninsula of Kamchatka. On September 22, he brought the Russisloff into Petropavlovsk, resigned to another winter half the world away from home. It was a miserable place to hibernate. A rickety wharf led past the fish-drying racks to a collection of thirty weather-beaten huts, a bunkhouse, a small unfinished church, and a shed that served as office for the company. The buildings, framed of heavy logs, were anchored against the wind with stones. The company’s agent, Major Ivanah, lived in the only decent house on the station—or, for that matter, in the whole province. It was painted white, and had a red tin roof.
John, who had long since learned to make the best of things, deposited the ladies with the Major’s wife, and took lodging in the three-room shanty of an old man named Andra. He shared a curtained bunk in the largest room with Langsdorff; Parker had a cot at their feet. Andra and his wife slept on the stove in a second room; his cow and her fodder occupied the third.
Through the winter, Langsdorff combed the high Kamchatka capes for plants, rocks, birds, and insects. John explored the southern half of the peninsula on his dog sled. Together they soaked for hours in the hot-spring baths behind the station. John learned a little Russian. Everyone liked him, for he could laugh at himself, even when he splintered his dog sled against a tree trunk. The Major asked him to stand as godfather for his baby, which was a great compliment to a man who, as far as the Major comprehended, might have come from another planet. John describes the Russian christening thus:
We repaired to the Major’s house, where we found the Pope and numerous guests assembled. The Pope had brought with him a small box resembling a tea-caddy, containing consecrated oil. A large tub of water was placed in the center of the room, with the Pope’s apparatus near at hand. He then began the operation with prayers, after which he took the child in his arms and plunged it under the water. Then, with a small brush and some oil from the box, he crossed the child all over its body and legs, and afterwards marched around the tub. We, the sponsors, followed in Indian file, three times around. The child was given to one of its godfathers, crossed again, and round the tub we went three times more. And so it continued until we had all taken our turns, and made fifteen circuits of the tub. When it was over, the tub was taken away and a table set in its place. Madame, the mother of the child, brought on the goodies; pies of flesh and pies of fish, cakes of various kinds, preserved berries and many other things. But what astonished me most was that a bottle of real ardent spirits found its way to the table on this extra occasion, and still more that it was the very bottle which had disappeared from my own stores a week previous. The Pope paid his respects to it with peculiar unction and a glowing countenance, and the rest of us were not long in following suit.
Back at New Archangel, the departure of John and Langsdorff stung Baron Rezanov into action. A feverish haste to reach St. Petersburg replaced his lethargy. Perhaps he was determined to get there before them so that the Tsar would learn of his engagement to Concha Argüello from his own lips. Somehow he got the Avos’ into the water. With Khvostov at her helm, and Davydov in command of the Juno, he hurried across the Pacific, leaving Baranov in solitude once more.
He must have passed John deWolf somewhere in the Aleutian fogs. He plunged through the Kuriles and across the gulf to Okhotsk, straining to reach port before the ice closed in. From Okhotsk he headed west, on horseback and by coach. Traveling night and day, outwearing relays of the imperial post horses, he broke into a fever. Still he kept on, more dead than alive. He never reached the capital. At Krasnoyarsk, just over the Urals, his horse, as tired as he, stumbled. Over his head fell the Baron Rezanov to his death.
John awoke one morning in his miserable billet at Petropavlovsk to see the Juno, returned from Okhotsk, at anchor off the fish wharf. The two Russians, the German, and the Yankee had a celebration of their own aboard her that night. They had not heard of the Baron’s death, and if they had they would not have mourned him for long.
In May the Kamchatka ice began to melt. John good-naturedly crowded three more homesick ladies and two men aboard the tiny Russisloff. The Juno bored a lead for him through the decaying cake ice of the harbor, and kept him company, with her sails reefed to hold her speed down to his own, for the 33 days it took him to cross the Sea of Okhotsk. He was glad she was standing by, for once the Russisloff almost capsized when she ran up the back of a sleeping whale and down the other side. He finally reached Okhotsk on June 27, 1807—soon enough, for the ice had cleared the harbor only the week before.