The remarkable voyage of Nor-West John DeWolf

Posted 3/27/24

In Rhode Island, and especially in Bristol, April 1 could be celebrated as “Nor-west” John Day to mark that adventurer’s completion of the first circumnavigation of the globe by sea …

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The remarkable voyage of Nor-West John DeWolf


In Rhode Island, and especially in Bristol, April 1 could be celebrated as “Nor-west” John Day to mark that adventurer’s completion of the first circumnavigation of the globe by sea and by land.  Here is the story of his odyssey and its literary influence.

John DeWolf, born on September 6, 1779 to Simon and Hannah DeWolf, was a member of the famous and wealthy clan of Bristol merchants whose financial status was largely dependent upon their involvement in the nefarious slave trade.  However, it does not appear that John engaged in such a deplorable maritime endeavor. 

Although Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton became the first American to circumnavigate the globe in 1790 aboard his ship Columbia, Captain John DeWolf became the first American (and probably the first human) to travel around the world by crossing Asia overland, a remarkable journey detailed in his published diary, A Voyage to the North Pacific and a Journey Through Siberia More than Half-a-Century Ago (1861).  In this narrative, “Nor-west” John describes his voyage aboard his uncle James DeWolf’s ship Juno, which departed Bristol on August 13, 1804, to sail around Cape Horn and acquire furs along the north Pacific Coast.  After accumulating a full cargo of pelts in the area explored a decade-and-a-half earlier by Robert Gray, DeWolf reached Russian Alaska in May 1805.  Here he sold the Juno to the Russia-America Company and sent a quantity of furs back to Bristol in a sister ship. 

After spending two years among the Russian traders and trappers, John crossed the Bering Strait and set-off across Siberia via foot, sled, boat, and horseback, reaching St. Petersburg on October 21, 1807.  After leaving Russia, he journeyed to Copenhagen Denmark where he encountered the ship Mary out of Portland, Maine under Captain David Gray.  He sailed on this vessel back to America after a stopover in Liverpool, England.  DeWolf finally arrived triumphantly in Bristol on April Fool’s Day 1808, almost forty-four months after he had departed on the Juno.  Local sailors immediately conferred upon him the name of “Nor-west” John to distinguish him from other John DeWolfs.

The year after John’s return, Uncle James sent him back to St. Petersburg to open a trade connection that would last nearly two decades.  On this visit John reunited with several of his European merchant friends.

Eventually James made John master of the brig Shannon, which James, America’s foremost privateersman of the War of 1812, had seized from the British.  In 1816, John became master of the brigantine Ann which he bought from James in 1821.  In 1818 he bought his uncle’s finest ship, the General Jackson, but soon sold both vessels to his cousin George DeWolf.  With the proceeds he bought a farm and a business in Bristol.

Still restless, by 1823 John established one of the four American mercantile houses in Honolulu giving the United States a strong presence in the Polynesian kingdom of Hawaii.  By 1829, however, the fifty-year-old John gave up the sea and made his home on Hope Street in Bristol with Mary Melville, a Massachusetts lady he had married in 1814, and by whom he had a son and daughter.  In 1850, the aging couple moved in with their newly-married daughter, Nancy Downer, in Dorchester, overlooking Boston Harbor.

            John’s marriage to Mary has given his saga a new dimension.  John’s wife had a young nephew named Herman Melville (1819-1891) who would write what has become America’s whaling and seafaring classic.  He named this novel Moby Dick (1851).  Herman’s conversations with Uncle John in Bristol and Dorchester greatly enriched Melville’s narrative of life on the high seas.  He acknowledged the influence of Nor-west John who, among other tales, described to Melville his encounter with a huge whale in the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia that lifted his ship, the Russisloff, three feet out of the water.

Nor-west John wrote his fantastic memoirs near the age of eighty and published them in 1861.  He died at Dorchester in 1872 at age 93 and is buried there, rather than at the DeWolf burial ground in Bristol’s Juniper Hill Cemetery. 

In 1967 Nor-west John became one of the earliest inductees into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

Dr. Patrick T. Conley is president of the Heritage Harbor Foundation and Rhode Island Historian Laureate


Nor-West, DeWolf


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