1808-1810: The wreck of the Sv. Nikolai

One surviving travel narrative from early PNW contact times is not about trading, but about a year and a half of terror.


(Image credit: Wikipedia)

I’m taking my information from “The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai“, edited and with an introduction by Kenneth N. Owens (translated by Alton S. Donnelly; Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

These events occurred in 1808 on the Olympic Peninsula coast of what’s now Washington State. That date is utterly intriguing for us Chinookers. Tantalizingly, it’s just before any permanent overland fur-trade presence on the coast, as Fort Astoria (a.k.a. Fort George) would be established in 1811 a few days’ travel south.

Lacking such an establishment, the region still made do with sporadic shipborne visits by Euro-Americans, and the pretty variable pidgin we think of as Nootka Jargon. A reason for NJ’s instability lay in how few folks spoke it, and how farflung they were, plus how seldom they saw each other.

So if you ever do some further reading about the wreck of the Saint Nicholasthat’s the English translation of her name Святой Николай — don’t you go believing any of the writers who claim these marooned Russians were talking Chinook Jargon with Native PNW people. There’s zero evidence for that idea, despite editor Owens’ footnote on page 96:

Tarakanov’s account prompts the surmise that he was able to to communicate in a limited way throgh the lingua franca of the Northwest Coast, the so-called Chinook Jargon, a trade language based largely on the Chinook language of the lower Columbia River region; a jargon that spread as early as 1810 to as far north as coastal Alaska. Subsequent passages confirm the belief that Tarakanov could make himself understood orally, and the context suggests that the Chinook Jargon would have been the most likely common language.

Owens doesn’t back up these claims with references. We know from Lewis & Clark’s 1805-1806 journals that CJ existed back then on the far lower Columbia River — but nowhere do we have evidence of it spreading beyond that locality, or having any reason to do so, until its Métis renaissance in Fort Vancouver times, 1825+.

Plus, Russians didn’t know Chinuk Wawa. Somebody once wrote that there are Russian words in the Jargon, and they were wrong, but once a thing is put into print, people cite it as if it were authoritative. (See why I’ve published 2,306+ articles about my research on this website?)

On or about Halloween of 1808, the ill-fated Sv. Nikolai foundered in Hoh Tribe country, on the coast at what was measured as 47° 56′ north latitude. Those on board, who included a typical ethnic mix such as “Kodiak Aleuts” (really Alutiiq, close relatives of Inuit), were forced to struggle ashore and go into emergency mode.

Never previously had Hoh people and Russians had contact (see Ben Hobucket’s words below). I image the Sv. Nikolai folks would’ve recounted quite a pleasanter experience if they had had any real understanding of the Native people among whom they lived for 18 months.

See if you agree with me that the Russian’s claims of having communicated with Hoh, Quileute, and Makah people amount to what could be accomplished by manual gestures, pantomime, tone of voice in one’s own language, and so on. I see no indications of even Nootka Jargon, let alone Chinook Jargon, having been used.

In the following scrapbook of all of this book’s incidents relating to the intercultural exchange of information, any [bracketed text] is from the book, unless it includes my initials “DDR”.

1. From the narrative of Timofei Osipovich Tarakanov

Page 45: intercultural communication gets off to a very bad start indeed, with

…a pair of the local natives who had voluntarily joined us. One of these natives, a young man who called himself a toyon [chieftain], invited me to inspect his residence, located not far from us…I tried everything to convince this toyon of our peaceableness and to persuade him not to harm us nor try our patience. He promised friendship and declared he would attempt to bring his fellow countrymen around to the same attitude….I protested to the toyon about the malicious actions of his subjects, and asked him to order them to leave us in peace. Since we did not understand each other very well, our conversation was prolonged.

A battle breaks out, leaving several dead. As soon as possible, the Russian party set out to the north through Quileute territory for Makah country, in hopes of being picked up by the Russian-American Company’s ship Kad’iak. Page 47:

…two savages caught up with our party. One was the very same starshina [headman or elder] who had been with us in the tent at the beginning of the recent clash. We asked what they wanted. They replied that they had come to show us the way, since we would have a very winding route if we followed along the shore, and we would meet impassable cliffs. They stated there was a path through the forest, easy and straight, which they advised us to take…I asked them to wait a little bit and see the way our firearms could perform.

A couple of days later, the castaways encounter apparently Quileutes, a tribe that speaks the same language as the Hoh (pages 48-49):

…we met three men and one woman who gave us some dried fish, and who began a tirade against that tribe from which we had just suffered while praising their own tribe…We asked them for a boat to cross the river, but they told us to wait until full tide, saying that it was difficult to cross the river at low tide. At night, they said, when the tide was up, they would take us across. But we would not agree…Early the next morning…About two hundred savages were sitting around their lodges…They answered not a word. We…started upstream…The Koliuzhi [Russian for ‘Tlingits and Native people to the south of them’ DDR]…sent out toward us a canoe manned by two naked boatmen. Since this canoe could carry only about ten persons, we asked for another, to make sure we could all cross at once. The savages complied with our request.

These Natives however remove some plugs from the canoes to sink them in mid-river; some of the Russians are taken captive, and a battle ensues (page 50):

We could not understand how more than two hundred persons could fit in six lodges. Later we learned that they had gathered by plan from several places to attack us. More than fifty were from those people who had attacked us when the ship was wrecked, and many were even from Cape Grenville.

Several days later, starving, having found two traditional big houses (page 52):

…we found there only one captive, a boy about thirteen years old. He revealed by gestures that all the people had crossed the river, frightened by signs [of our presence]…Scarcely had we gone one verst from the lodge when we saw a savage running after us, crying out something we could not understand.

The party decides to head upriver in search of a place to build a winter fortification (page 53):

Fortunately, we often came upon the natives traveling in canoes on the river. Several of them, at our invitation, came to the bank and traded us fish in return for glass beads, buttons, and other trifles…we found ourselves before the very doors of two lodges. We asked [the occupants] to trade us some fish and received a very meager amount. They declared they had no more, and blamed the shortage upon the high water that had covered the fish traps through which the salmon must pass…in a loud, commanding tone, we ordered the people in the lodges immediately to deliver to us all the fish they had. Our demand was instantly met..For all of this we paid the savages well, giving glass beads and metal beads; a trade that was made, as they say, to their complete satisfaction. We then persuaded them to give us two men to help carry our provisions to our first night’s camp.

The next morning an interesting exchange occurs (pages 53-54):

…two Koliuzhi came to our camp and very boldly entered our tent…They had brought a bladder full of whale oil to trade. After talking with us about this matter, the stranger asked us whether we wanted to buy back from him our woman Anna, knowing Mrs. Bulygin by this name…Bulygin offered him the last greatcoat for his wife. To the coat I added my new nankeen cotton dressing gown. All our other comrades, not excluding even the Aleuts, added something…But the savage declared that to his countrymen this was too little and he demanded in addition four guns. We did not refuse him, but stated that before concluding the deal we wanted to see Anna Petrovna. The savage agreed…After speaking with her, we began to bargain with the savages over the purchase price…When they saw that we hesitated to meet their demand, they quickly carried her back across the river.

Several more days later (page 55):

…a canoe approached in which there were three persons, one of whom was a young man. We supposed that this youth, an alert lad, must be the son of some toyon, and we were not mistaken. In answer to our query, he said that their settlement was located very close by. We asked if they would take one of us with them to buy fish and return him to our camp. They were pleased to agree to this proposal at once and made ready to leave with extraordinary haste…Kurmachev, one of our promyshlenniks, was ready to go with him…however, we requested that they leave a hostage with us in his place. This idea they did not like at all; but, since there was no help for it, they had to comply… [The next day Kurmachev is brought back empty-handed. DDR} The savages had deceived us.

Several days later, when the “cabin or barracks” is ready (page 56):

Shortly thereafter the same young man, the toyon‘s son with whom we had already done business, paid another visit to us. Again we asked him to sell us some fish but received only a brusque refusal. We placed him under guard and declared we would not allow him his freedom until he secured for us the amount of fish necessary for the winter. We demanded four hundred salmon and ten bags of roe, showing the number with marks on a stick. Once he learned our demand, he sent off his companions in a hurry…The second time they came [back, DDR], our hostage begged us to allow some canoes with his people to pass down the river. We agreed willingly…

On page 57, the party debates turning south to the supposedly more friendly region of the Columbia River, based on their understanding of information from local people here:

The savages, we learned, had gathered a large force at the mouth of the [DDR: Quileute] river, intending to do us the utmost harm if we should attempt to leave by way of the seashore.

The Russians head downriver, stopping at the place where the return of Mrs. Bulygin had been offered (pages 57-58):

While we were there an old man visited us and gave us an ishkat [watertight basket] of stewed kvas. He was curious to know where we were going. We told him to the mouth of the river, and then he wanted to learn where we were going from there, but this we did not know ourselves…He then offered to accompany us to the mouth of the river as a guide, explaining that he could protect our canoes from snags and log jams…we came to a small island. There our guide suddenly stopped and advised us to land on the riverbank while he went across to the island…The old man…quickly returned and told us that a large number of people had gathered on the island with the intention of throwing spears and shooting arrows at us as we passed them. He therefore proposed to take us around by another, very narrow channel, and he kept his word precisely…When we reached the mouth of the river…we rewarded him with a medal…[telling, DDR] the year, month, and day when this savage, Liutliuliuk by name, received it. We told him to wear it around his neck. 

The next day a crowd of Native people come across (from modern La Push?) to the Russians’ camp; a man and two women are seized for their connection with the abduction of Mrs. Bulygin and three other Russians (page 59):

Soon the husband of one of the captive women came to us. He convinced us that our people were not there, since they had fallen by lot to another tribe, but that he would go after them and would return them all to us within four days if only we would promise not to kill his wife. Our commander, hearing this promise, was overwhelmed with joy, and we immediately decided to spend several days there.

In a classic twist that really happened in many frontier-era “Indian captivity” episodes, Mrs. Bulygin, when found, refuses to come back! (Pages 60-61)

…I posed a question to Bulygin and all our comrades. If Anna Petrovna, being a Russian, praises this people, then is it possible that she has been instructed by the savages and has agreed to deliver us into their hands? No! We must believe her. We must conclude that it would be better to entrust ourselves to them, to place ourselves voluntarily under their authority, than to wander about in the forest…The next morning the savages again appeared at the former place and began anew to beg us to free our captives. At this point I announced to the toyon that five of our company — the navigator, Tarakanov, Ovchinnikov, and two Aleuts — considering his people honorable and virtuous, had decided to surrender to them, expecting that they would do us no harm and would allow us to depart for our homeland on the first ship to appear. The toyon assured us that we would not regret our decision, and he tried to persuade the others to follow our example.

On the following day the Russians reach “the settlement of Kunishat“, which is actually not a specific place name but instead “Qʷidiččaʔatx̣“, the Makah people’s word for themselves. The narrator has “been allotted” to the winter home of a toyon named Yutramaki. Page 62:

After we remained about a month at Kunishat, my master decided to go to his own house, located on Cape Juan de Fuca. Before setting out he bought back Bulygin, promising that he would soon buy back his wife also.

Tarakanov does various things that impress the Makahs. Pages 62-63:

For example, I constructed a kite out of paper and, having made some string from animal tendons, launched it into the air. The kite, rising to its full height, amazed the savages. They attributed the invention to my genius and declared that the Russians could reach the sun. But nothing I did to serve my master outdid the “war rattle.” Happily, I was able to explain to him that the various tones of a rattle’s sound could be made to signal the various movements in war, and that it would be extremely valuable when attacking an enemy or when retreating from one…Everyone was amazed at my intelligence and thought that few such geniuses could be left in Russia…The toyons in a general gathering declared that a person as skillful as I must certainly be a starshina or toyon.

Page 63:

The promyshlenniks Petukhov, Shubin, and Zuev fled to me because of their lack of food. My master fed them. Moreover, when their masters demanded that they be returned, he told them that they were living with me and that their return depended on me. The savages turned to me, and I let these men return to them only on the condition that they be fed and not abused. 

Rescue (page 64):

On the 6th of May [1810], early in the morning, a double-masted vessel came into view and soon approached the shore. My master, taking me with him, at once set out for the ship. This brig was a ship from the United States called the Lydia, under the command of Captain Brown. On this ship, to my great surprise, I found my comrade Bolgusov and learned that he had been resold to someone on the Columbia River, where he had been purchased by Captain Brown. The captain, having talked with me about our misfortunes, explained to my master as best he could that he should order all his countrymen to bring to the captain all captive Russians, whom the captain would buy back…The next day the savages brought the Englishman, John Williams, who had been with us previously, and for whom they first asked an outrageously high ransom. Later they agreed to [less, DDR]. Afterwards they accepted the same quantity of goods for all of us except Bolotov and Kurmachev, whom they brought to the ship twice and both times asked…an extraordinary price…[and, DDR] took these unfortunate people away. They also declared that we would not see Shubin either, since he had been sold to a master who had departed for Destruction Island on a whale hunt. The stubbornness of the savages compelled Captain Brown to take other measures. He seized one of the starshinas, the brother of the toyon who held Bolotov and Kurmachev in slavery, and told him that he would not be freed until the Russians were released. This action had the desired effect.

2. From the narrative of Ben Hobucket, a Quileute oral tradition

This account specifies that the local Native people had never seen a White person before the stranding of the Sv. Nikolai‘s crew.

Page 69:

The Hoh Indians had a village on the other side of the river, and from it the Indians came over to take a look at the new people, appearing friendly. So the strangers got them to agree to ferry them across the stream. The Hohs, however, had treachery in their brains.

A puzzling note on the Russians’ having made it to Makah country (page 73):

Some people from the Southland had made a settlement at Neah Bay and it was supposed that they had escaped thither. And the supposition was true.

I don’t know who those southerners are supposed to be, do you?

A postscript to the Sv. Nikolai incidents has a Russian ex-captive able to communicate well with Quileutes (page 73):

Some years later a large vessel anchored in Quillayute Bay with the avowed purpose of enticing Indians on board to capture them and take them as slaves; and as many of the Quileute canoes were swarming about the apparently friendly ship with the intention of boarding her to satisfy their curiosity as to what a white man had, a woman appeared on the deck whom the Indians at once recognized as their captive. “Go away from this place! Leave this ship! Go away! The white man’s heart is not good,” she hallooed to them in their own language. “If you come aboard, you will be carried away as slaves. You will never see your people again. Go away! My brothers, in the name of the God of the white man and of Kwattee [k̓ʷá•ti, DDR] and Sekahtil, your gods, I beg you to keep away from this ship.” And they heeded her words and fled to the shore and to their stronghold on James Island.

Bonus fact:

The ship Lydia, a.k.a. Il’mena, had quite a storied career.

It’s even connected with the classic US children’s book and movie, “The Island of the Blue Dolphins”.

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