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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
In August, 1804, a young sea captain named John deWolf sailed from his native port of Bristol, Rhode Island, on a voyage to the Pacific. Four years were to elapse before he returned from a fabulous adventure that had taken him around the world. In the course of his trip, he had spent a year in the lonely outposts of Russian Alaska and had crossed the wastes of Siberia—a feat accomplished by no American before him, and few Europeans. Like the story of King Philip in our December, 1958, issue, this account is taken from George Howe’s Mount Hope, a remarkable chronicle of Bristol and its most illustrious family, the deWolfs.
In those intervals of the Napoleonic wars when American trade with Europe was possible at all, ships from the little village of Bristol, Rhode Island, loaded for Bilbao, Bordeaux, Le Havre, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and even as far as Cronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg in Russia. But for most of the Presidencies of Adams and Jefferson, and for the first half of Madison’s, if American vessels traded with any but neutral ports they were liable to seizure by British cruisers acting under Orders in Council or by French under the Berlin and Milan decrees. While Jefferson’s embargo of 1807 lasted, they were forbidden to leave the country at all. Neutral ports grew fewer as Napoleon gradually conquered the mainland of Europe. Yet even in 1806, the year of his greatest power, 61 ships entered Bristol harbor from foreign voyages, apart from more than 100 coasting vessels, and paid $120,000 in customs duties to Collector Charles Collins. And before Napoleon entered Moscow, before Lewis and Clark had even crossed the American mainland, one Bristol captain became the first American, and perhaps the first non-Russian, to travel by land from the Pacific to the Baltic, across the empire of the tsars.
The shipowners of Boston, Providence, and Salem had already made fortunes from China and the East Indies. The General Washington, which John Brown of Providence fitted for Canton in 1787, returned in 1789 with a cargo of tea, silk, china, and lacquer ware worth $150,000. Brown unimaginatively named another of his Indiamen the George Washington, and a third the President Washington. Both made the long Pacific voyage round Cape Horn and returned from China with profits that could not be matched by the slave trade, now outlawed, in which Bristol mariners had formerly made their livings.
The greatest shipowners of the village were four brothers named deWolf. They had become used to making two profits from a single voyage, one by selling African slaves in Havana and the second by selling Cuban rum in New England. They now hit on the idea of doing the same thing from Asia by trading Yankee goods for the furs of the North Pacific, and then trading the furs in China for such eminently marketable cargo as the three Washingtons brought back for the temptation of Rhode Island housewives. Only two Bristol sail, so far, had entered the Pacific. In 1801 the deWolfs’ brig Lavinia, Captain Holbrook, had circled the globe, only to break up in a snowstorm off Cape Cod as she was nearing home. In that disaster five of their nephews had gone down. In 1802 Captain James Phillips’ ship Juno reached Canton and returned with China goods, including firecrackers worth $30,000. Phillips claimed that his profit would have doubled if he had included a trade along the northern fur grounds, charted only eight years before by George Vancouver.
The deWolf brothers determined to follow this course themselves. In 1804, James and Charles, with Charles’s ambitious son George, bought the Juno from Phillips for $7,600. Armed with eight defensive carriage guns, she was a full-rigged ship of 206 tons—a large vessel for Bristol, though not to be compared with the 950-ton President Washington of Providence, which could hardly have entered Bristol harbor.
James, who took the largest share, chose for her captain his nephew John deWolf II. This John should not be confused with Farmer John, nor with his son, ’Fessor John. His father was Simon deWolf, one of those two sons of Mark Antony who had been lost during the Revolution on a voyage to Hispaniola, and his brother was Simon, Jr., who later cut his own throat on the Slave Coast.