|Owens, Kenneth N., ed. The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai. Translated by Alton S. Donnelly. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), 2001. xviii, 110 pp. $12.95, £8.95. ISBN 0803286155.
The rather expansive activities of the Russian-American company comprise a fascinating and vital, albeit lesser-known, chapter in the history of discovery, exploration, and exploitation in the northern Pacific basin. This brief book, The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai, edited by Kenneth N. Owens and translated by Alton S. Donnelly, makes a valuable contribution to expanding our understanding of those activities. Owens is a professor emeritus of history at California State University, Sacramento, and the editor of John Sutter and the Wider West (1994). Donnelly is a professor emeritus of history at SUNY, Binghampton, and coeditor of A History of the Russian-American Company (1978). This is an updated edition of the manuscript originally published under the same title by Western Imprints, The Press of the Oregon Historical Society, in 1985.
In late September 1808, the Russian-American Company schooner Sviatoi Nikolai (St. Nicholas) sailed from New Arkhangel (Sitka, Alaska) southward along the northwest coast on a voyage of exploration and trade and to find a location for a permanent Russian fur trading post on the mainland south of Vancouver Island in the Oregon Country. Five weeks later in November the Sv. Nikolai was wrecked in a storm on the Washington coast just north of the mouth of the Quileute River. Twenty-two Russians and Aleuts survived the initial disaster, and fifteen of them were eventually ransomed from the Indians in 1810. The rest had meanwhile perished.
This volume contains the complete texts of two extremely interesting and revealing narratives by survivors of the grounding, preceded by a thorough introduction. The first and longest is by a Russian, Timofei Osipovich Tarakanov, “the Company’s supercargo on the voyage” (p.5), as recorded and published by his rescuer, Russian Navy Captain V.M. Golovin. The second and shorter is an Indian account derived from the Quileute oral tradition of which it was a part for almost a hundred years before it was written down by Ben Hohbucket, a Quileute folk historian, in 1909. This is the first time that the two have been brought together and published in their full lengths in one volume. There is some overlap between them, and together they offer a unique record of some of the tragic and heroic events proximate to this shipwreck.
As mentioned above, the editor’s introduction to these two related documents is quite extensive and helpful to the reader. It is in fact just about as long as the two accounts combined. Together with the appendix and extensive notes, the introduction nevertheless is exceedingly valuable historically, historiographically, and methodologically. The maps and specially prepared illustrations also contribute to the book’s appeal, though on occasion the editor and translator are given to hyperbole. For instance, in the preface they boldly state, “If placed within its international context, the Sv. Nikolai’s 1808 voyage has significance for Russian expansion in North America that might be compared, for example, to the 1540 expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado on the northern borderlands frontier of New Spain” (pp. xiii-xiv). This opinion is then several times reiterated in the introduction. Similar to the entrada of Coronado? Perhaps more so to that of some years earlier of Pánfilo de Nárvaez and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Neither did the course of the Russian North Pacific empire change drastically as result of the failure of the voyage of the Sv. Nikolai. Thus, as acknowledged in the introduction (p.5), in 1812 Fort Ross was founded on the northern California coast near the mouth of the Russian River.
These minor shortcomings aside, The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai is a worthwhile, intriguing book. It should be a good and even a fun read for anyone with some attraction to and understanding of the history of discovery, exploration, and Native American contact.
The University of Texas at Arlington