Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
“Capt. D’Wolf was one of the most compassionate
and benevolent of men.” —George H. Von Langsdorff
It is generally assumed that John Jacob Astor’s creation of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River provided the original spark for the fur trading industry of the Oregon Territory, but, in fact, some little-known precursors built a short-lived settlement along the banks of the Columbia in 1810. One of the main catalysts for this pioneering experiment was John D’Wolf (1779–1872)—Herman Melville’s uncle—who sailed along the North Pacific coast in 1805 as captain of the American brig Juno.
A worldly adventurer who had gone to sea at age thirteen, D’Wolf was a member of a prominent Rhode Island family that prospered by owning merchant ships in the slave trade. After eleven years at sea, D’Wolf, at age twenty-four, was hired by members of his family to navigate the newly purchased Juno to the Northwest Coast to collect furs for China. It was a welcome promotion for D’Wolf, who was reportedly averse to the slave trade.
In April of 1805, laden with hardware, rum, tobacco, beads, dried beef, firearms and cottons, his ship arrived on the north-western tip of Vancouver Island at Newettee Harbour. “Everything around us, the sea, the sky, and the precipitous shore, covered with a forest of heavy timber, wore a most gloomy aspect,” he wrote. “We were visited daily by a great number of the Indians, who generally brought with them a few sea-otter skins, but not enough to make trade brisk. They were exceedingly sharp in all their intercourse with us, being great beggars, withal. It seemed impossible to satisfy them for their skins, and they were ready to grasp at everything they saw. They were a very stout and robust people, and in some things not destitute of skill. Their boats were hewn from a single log, and varied in size from sixteen feet in length and three in breadth, to thirty-five in length and six in breadth. Their paddles were made and ornamented with a great deal of neatness.”
Proceeding north, D’Wolf reached New Archangel on the west coast of Baranov Island on August 17, 1805. In New Archangel (now called Sitka) he met Baron Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, who was the Czar’s representative on an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. D’Wolf befriended his physician, twenty-nine-year-old German naturalist George H. von Langsdorff, who had travelled through Polynesia on Krusenstern’s voyage of exploration in 1804. (Langsdorff and D’Wolf would meet again in St. Petersburg in 1809.)
The journal of John D’Wolf, published in 1861, recalls how and why he sold his 206-ton ship to Rezanov, along with the remaining one-third of his outward cargo, saving the Russians from starvation, they having already eaten most of the supplies of their host, Russian Governor Baranov. At age sixty-five, wracked by arthritis, the emperor-like Baranov ladled vodka from a bucket that he always kept by his side.
To save the Russian colony from famine, Rezanov paid almost twice what the Juno and her entire cargo had cost its owners in Bristol. In addition, he provided D’Wolf with the Russian ship Yermak in exchange. Having already profited by selling one-third of his cargo to Baranov shortly after his arrival, D’Wolf was able to instruct his crewmen to sail to China without him in order to sell the one thousand pelts he had acquired in trade.
D’Wolf planned to sail to Siberia on the Juno with its new Russian owners, but Rezanov tarried, waiting for a second ship to be built. By winter’s end, provisions were again running low, encouraging Rezanov to sail to California in the spring of 1806 in the hope of acquiring food from the Spanish.
During this bizarre escapade, Rezanov temporarily banished five of D’Wolf’s American seamen on barren Alcatraz Island, and he decapitated some seabirds Langsdorff had collected as scientific specimens, tossing their carcasses overboard. As well, the forty-year-old Baron managed to get himself betrothed to fifteen-year-old Concepción Argüello, the youngest daughter of Don José “El Santo” Argüello, the commandant of San Francisco.
Returning to New Archangel on June 21, Rezanov was triumphant. The trouble was that Rezanov could not marry without the Czar’s permission, nor could his sweetheart marry him without the Pope’s consent. A wedding date was set two years hence, for May 20, 1808.
Unable to abide further delays, D’Wolf took charge of the 25-ton brig Russisloff, and sailed with Langsdorff. In making his way back to Rhode Island, D’Wolf would become the first American to travel across Siberia from east to west, but it would take him 16 months after leaving Alaska to reach St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, in a sudden haste to see the Czar, Rezanov returned separately, travelling at a feverish pace, only to be thrown from his horse near Krasnoyarsk, just over the Urals, and die. With Rezanov gone, Baranov was able to consider an idea supplied to him by D’Wolf, an idea that opened the way for the aforementioned American venture in Oregon in 1810, led by Captain Nathan Winshop.
In the early 1800s, Spain was prohibiting foreigners to trade with “their” Indians for sea otters along the California coast. In order to gain access to that potentially lucrative market, D’Wolf had suggested a plan to Baranov to circumvent Spanish restrictions—take Kodiak Indians from Alaska to conduct the offshore hunting. Baranov was enthusiastic but his visiting superior Rezanov didn’t want to risk alienating the Spanish and therefore jeopardizing the Russians’ access to supplies.
After D’Wolf left New Archangel with Rezanov, D’Wolf’s idea lay fallow until the Winship family in Boston contracted with the Russians to employ Aleut hunters off the California coast in 1810.
Seeking a depot between the Russians in Alaska and the California sea otter grounds, Captain Winship decided upon the Columbia River because the Lewis and Clark expedition had wintered there in 1805–1806, allowing Winship to claim it was an American river, beyond Spanish jurisdiction.
In May of 1810, Winship sailed 40 miles up the Columbia River in the Albatross, with livestock and supplies. Here he attempted to build a fort, opposite present-day Oak Point, Washington, but Winship’s crew were forced to forsake the enterprise by increasingly hostile Indians. Theirs was nonetheless the first attempt to make a permanent American fur trading depot on America’s Pacific coast, albeit a failed one. Very soon thereafter, John Jacob Astor followed Winship’s lead, establishing Astoria.
Some years later, at age thirty-five, John D’Wolf, married Mary Melville, and he subsequently had a profound influence on her young nephew, Herman Melville, who spent his summer vacations with D’Wolf’s family at Bristol, Rhode Island.
The seafaring tales of “Nor’wester John” stirred the boy’s imagination, encouraging him eventually to seek his own adventures at sea, culminating in the novel Moby Dick. In homage, both Captain Langsdorff and Captain D’Wolf appear in Chapter 45 of the novel.
In Moby Dick, Melville describes a whale that John D’Wolf had encountered in the Russisloff in the Sea of Okhotsk. “A whale bigger than the ship set up his back and lifted the ship three feet out of the water. The masts reeled and the sails fell all together, while we who were below sprang instantly upon the deck, concluding we had struck upon some rock; instead of which we saw the monster sailing off with the utmost gravity and solemnity, leaving the ship uninjured.”
Continuing in the unusual semi-autobiographical style of Moby Dick, Herman Melville says, “Now the Capt. deWolf here alluded to as commanding the ship in question is a New Englander who, after a long life of unusual adventures as a sea captain, this day resides in the village of Dorchester near Boston. I have the honor of being his nephew. The ship was by no means a large one, being a Russian craft built on the Siberian coast and purchased by my uncle after bartering away the vessel in which he had sailed from home.”
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
A Voyage to the North Pacific and a Journey through Siberia More than Half a Century Ago
D'Wolf, John. A Voyage to the North Pacific And A Journey Through Siberia (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1861; Fairfield, Washington, Ye Galleon Press, 1968).
[BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur"