Wrangell’s Trip Through the Russian River Valley

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Admiral Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel
Admiral Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel

In the summer of 1830, Ferdinand P. Von Wrangell made a long and difficult journey across Siberia accompanied by his wife and infant daughter, to cross the North Pacific to New Archangel (Sitka). This was Von Wrangell’s third visit to Russian-America. In 1836 he returned to Russia by way of Mexico. He tried unsuccessfully to negotiate and enlargement of Russian possessions in California. He visited the tribes of Northern California during this trip.

Languages Examined

So long as there will not be put together a dictionary with etimologic discernement or judgement, and all these languages examined, nobody should rely on the assurances of the savages that they (their languages) are perfectly differing one from another. It may be that their different languages are only different branches from one primitive language, and all tribes are the members of one people or nation. The very same reasons which produce the mutual alienation of such a multitude of different tribes, living in very near distances one of another, formed also other characteristic lines or sketches of these savages.

Feeding principally on acorns (the chase, or hunting of animals is more a pleasure for the men, than a means of subsistence or livelihood) wild chestnuts, and on grains of different herbs, they can not unite in populous societies and must to find food for themselves, leave the too much increased settlements, and lead a wandering, rambling life; even those who live constantly in some large settlement, built on some advantageous places, are obliged to collect their supplies on a very large scale. Such a manner of life, accustomed them to change their places continually, not permitting a superfluity in their supplies of eatable provisions, turn aside the cares, and supports the bodily activity, must nourish a natural inclination in the native Americans for independence and reflects in their plays, songs, music, and in the very handiwork’s, even in such objects which they use for their ornament, as head dress, girdles, necklaces, made mostly from feathers of a different form revealing not only an inventive faculty of the mind, but even some fineness in taste, their languages, the melody of the voices, and the tunes of their songs are agreeable or pleasant for the ear, and void of those sad or dejected monotony and unclear, difficult to pronounce, guttural syllables, which we find in the songs and languages of the Indians, Aleuts, all Northern native Americans, and the Schuksteks, – living near the North Coasts. For their dances, though, they appear as savages, but the play of imagination or fancy even there strike agreeably the impartial observer. Their attires, motions, chorus of the singers, the very decoration of the forests, give the spectacle or show the character of a kind of wild poetry (poetic wildness) by no means brutal as by the Northern Indians (Koloshi). Accustomed with want, and finding in their grove of oaks or forests and valleys all necessary to support life, though they rejoice in things, which they receive from the troublesome Europeans, however, not otherwise as with constraint for the acquirement of which they even sacrifice their liberty for a short time. Tobacco, beads, clothing, all what they receive, they immediately put up in the play of even and uneven Numbers, undergoing the caprice of Fortune. Loosing all, they regret the loss of the precious things, but only because they have nothing more to lose in the plays and with a joyful spirit occupy the places in the choirs of singers, accompanying all plays and dances. Food from vegetative substances, a mild climate, and the very manner of life has formed the temperament of these savages mostly weak sanguinary (not blood-thirsty). They love songs, dances, plays, they are soft hearted and not revengeful, murder is very seldom between them.

In civil wars fearlessness and force are esteemed. Enemies taken as prisoners, they do not kill, but at the end of the quarrel are exchanged, never are turned to slaves, as the Kiloshi (Northern Indians) and other savage tribes do. Their children they love tenderly, subordination is patriarchally observed between them, and all younger members of the same tribe, honor with due preference, old age, experience, skillfulness to handle the bows. The esteem not seldom is transferred from the father to the son, but the power of the chief over others is of not much account. He who wishes to leave the family village and go to other places has full liberty to do so.

Being astonished with the great advantages of the Europeans, armed with deathful weapons and on their horses overtaking the swift chamois, these savages seem timid. This timidity is explained by one mindedness in opposition or contrast to that sharp wit, with which the Spanish christian loving Pastors understood to drive these poor people to their missions in whole herds or droves, treating them as beings not worth the name of men. Nobody can be more unjust than similar conclusions. Contrary nature has bestowed these savages with good intellectual and soul capacities; in the missions they soon learn the artifices and craftiness of their teachers, easy acquire different handicrafts and mechanical works, daring and skillful ride on horses and speak the Spanish language.

Finding no use whatever in all these elements of civilization, destroying or making them lose their liberty, the savages lose no opportunity to conceal themselves again in their forests. Being peaceful from nature, and timid against their enemies, such powerful ones as the Europeans seemed to them at first, the savages learning afterwards that they were also such men as they themselves. But more unfeeling and more unjust, were aroused and inflamed by the spirit of revenge, destroying herds, leading horses away, attacking the missions and giving up to pillage. However, punishing by death only those who especially had exasperated them by cruelty, per example, some angry Padre.

This very revenge does not go out o f the boundary of philanthropy with these savages, and is not similar to that brutal ecstacy which signalizes the Kiloshi (Western Indians along the Sea Coast, transl. remark) killing all exclusively with the sharp dagger in similar attacks, in whose veins only flows European blood, even little children.

Comparing the savages of California with Koloshi(Northern Sea Coast Indians) ought not to be forgotten, that the latter are secured in their subsistence or livelihood by the inexhaustible pasture for millions of people: the Sea or Ocean, and those living along its Coasts, could gather themselves in populous societies,

and in their canoes (boats) easy communicate with their neighbors. From this the feeling of nationality must necessarily sooner be developed, the attachment for the possession of treasures, increased, the spirit of industry revive each and all. The right of the strong took that aspect of cruelty, by which the Koloshi distinguish themselves, but for this they have lost all agreeable qualities, preserved in full freshness by the Savages of California.

Settlement of Ross

I have seen the Americans living in the surroundings of the settlement

Ross (in latitude 38°30″N) in narrow passages of the mountains,defiles from all sides encircling it, and in the valleys, laying behind the first ridge to the east, along which flows the river Slavianka, discharging herself in the sea about 7 miles to the south of, the mentioned settlement.

After taking of the grain (wheat and barley) from the steep declivities of the mountains, and after finishing other necessary agriculture labors at Ross, we

undertook a trip to the valleys. One of my guides was wounded with an arrow by a savage in the ear a year before this, in the same valley, where we intended to travel.

Several of the savages of the same tribe not long since made an attack on the nearest to San Francisco mission of the Spaniards and plundered it. Such splendid exploits suggested or instilled some esteem for the savages and we agreed to render them the deserved honour, to surround us with a guard of honor and arming us with loaded pistols. In this manner, the calvacade, excluding us three, consisted of 21 horsemen, in that number of Russians, 2 pakats, 6 Aleuts, 4 American vaqueros, and 2 interpretors with quivers filled with arrows behind the back. September 10 we were drawing to the mountain on the Bodega road. In this time of the year the horses are exhausted from the frequent riding on them and very lean from the scanty food. In the bay of Bodega 15 miles from Ross, there is a brick yard and a store for storing from the ships of the Co. arriving with cargoes for the settlement of Ross where there is no anchorage. The road from Ross to Bodega is cut through the woods and leads over the mountains one half further along the shores of the sea and woodless deserts, hardly to be seen in the neighborhood of Ross, where by great droves of horned and other cattle all the grass already dried up from the long duration of the summer heat were gone out. This obliged us to drive before us led horses in such a number as our men needed, and above this two mules packed with road provisions or supplies for about 4 days.

Crossing the River Slavitinka near her mouth, now washed up with sand, we turned to the left, to, the mountains, leaving the sea behind our backs, and made our way through cavities, forests, and thickets to places more even and less overgrown and though we rode by trail beaten out by the savages, who travelled by it from the valley to the sea shore to collect the testaceans for food, however we did not meet any of them. At last, and coming to a large overgrown with grass valley, we heard loud singing voices, the interpreters hurried away in advance to recognize friend or enemy meets us. Our own impatience to see the inhabitants of these lonely places, made us speed after our avantguard and in full gallop we all surprised an old woman of these American tribes, gathering some kind of herb corns in her basket plaited from fine roots. From fear she was stupified, not without difficulty we ascertained that behind the nearest thicket there are living several families of these Americans, who without doubt, had already noticed us at this time concealed themselves, fearing to fall into the hands of the Spaniards, not seldom riding out to catch the savages to convert them to the Christian faith, and that gathering the corns for food, sung out of her full throat, to disperse and drive off the evil spirits, always obeying the voice, repelling a hundred times in the mountains. Assuring the old woman that her voice did not attract evil intented people, we left her in peace and continued on our ways. The first night we stopped on a considerable collected plain valley between several hills, on the shore o f a little river, falling in the Slavianka under branched oaks. The warm mild air, the clear sky, the moonlight night, the bivouac fires, and herding of the horses in the high grass, all this presented a picture agreeable to the imagination and the feeling. The piercing and shrill howls of the jackals disturbed the harmony of nature, but with the beginning of daylight all became quiet, and we hurried forward with impatience to reach the famous valleys spoken of in Ross and to meet their inhabitants. Soon the places became wider and enlarged, extended fields with rich vegetable earth, covered with fat grasses, opened themselves one after another, but nowhere even a race of inhabitants. Suddenly we perceived on the far edge of the valley a winding stream of smoke: the interpreters and vaqueros concluded that there must be a village of many American natives and with some fear communicated to us this information. The smoothness and spaciousness of the place permitted our whole army out o f 5 nations to unroll by front and gallop with loose bridles so as not to give time to the savages to conceal themselves in the bushes.

Advancing and nearing, we behold a wretched miserable tree and not the least sign of the presence of people, further beautiful groves of oak as an English park, were changing with fields of grass, and at last we rode up to the river Slavianka which during the summer season is dried up in several places, there where we were crossing it or fording, it, she was not broader than 5 fathoms and not deeper than three feet. Arranging ourselves on her left shore in the bushes to dine, we heard voices drawing near to us from the savages closing or shutting out behind ourselves the horses which were left grazing, we sent the interpreters to meet the comers, who it proved were friendly visitors, attracted to come here with the desire to see us. Their number was about 15 men. Their wives and children remained in the village nearby. From them we learned that the villains (Sotoyomis) who took revenge on the Spaniards for the violation of the tranquillity of these peaceful inhabitants of these valleys by pillaging the mission of the savages, were for the most part white men from the mission of the savages, have placed themselves in ambuscade behind inaccessible bushes beyond the large valley in front, where they are ready to repulse any attack of their enemies. Our guides meanwhile learned that one highly esteemed chief of these American tribes, had been at Ross, and being treated kindly by the Russians is at present here in the surroundings: I wished to see him, and asked our guests to inform him of our arrival. The eldest chief chose one young lad as a messenger; this one throwing off his light cover or girdle, taking up his box in his hands, was lost out of sight in so short a time that we had no opportunity to recompense him with small presents for his willingness of service. The open, joyful, unanxious outlines of their faces of these savages, and their kind intercourse pleased me very much; we invited them to visit us in our night bivouac and they promised to find out wherever we would stop. Yet before evening arrived we reached the very largest valley; at the beginning there is no wood or forest, and even like a table, covered by fat, fragrant grass, and viewless (immense) in her broadness (wideness) was not less than 40 versts, here mountains from the right and left presented itselves to the view, their acquainted perimeter made us remark the nearness of our settlement Ross, where from they are viewed; In a direct distance through impassable ridges and gaps we were now not more than 25 versts from Ross, though we had made in a round about way, about 75. The Slavianka here pressed herself more to the Western mountains, and a small river, winding herself in the middle of the valley falls into her. We turned aside, and directed our way back through the fields, lying at both sides of the rivulet. The night overtook us in one of those beautiful groves of oak, by which here and there the plains are variegated. Our horses nearly drowned in the fragrant, high grasses which covered these plains. The bivouac fires in the camp twined between the dark green oaks of a hundred years. Deep silence surrounded us in these so generous gifted by nature places, and hardly had the night watchers, the jackals, begun their complaining howling, as at our bivouac fires appeared our friends the native Americans. Receiving from us tobacco, biscuits, beads, they sat down in circles with their countryman our interpreters and vaqueros, and took up their favorite and it can be said their constant occupation, whenever circumstances permitted, the play of even and uneven numbers. The two players sit one opposite another, on the sides of each are the choirs of singers, and the sweet melodies of their voices is only interrupted by the short and loud exclamations of the guessing or winning player, the antagonist, who endeavoring to conceal the true number of small sticks, which he holds in the hand behind his back, made very similar and different motions with both hands, with one beating time to the song on his bosom. The play always continues to the time, when all and everything is clean lost by one of the players. This play interested our guests and the vaqueros during the whole night, even to the very morning.

Village of our Friends

I wished to see the village of our friends; they hurried to inform their relatives of our visit and then led us about ten versts, walking ahead with such easiness and to the view (eye) imperceptible swiftness, that to follow their steps, we were obliged to follow them on horseback trotting. Behind bushes and dried up channels, we found on sandy ground the village of the native Americans. They consisted of from 5 to 6 families, interrelated between themselves. From white water willow’s rods, put in the ground, the wives of these savages had built their temporary asylum or place of refuge. With such a taste, which astonished me in a very agreeable manner, the leaves of several shades and size of the willows, which are found here in great variety, gave a joyful view and rural simplicity from the opening to the top hut, and the opening for entering was trimmed with branches, with special care; several huts were aired by interior openings. The leafes were yet preserved in all their freshness, but before they are dried up, the inhabitants leave the huts, the women take the little children (infants), and utensils on their backs, and carry them by sustaining the burden from the forehead by means of straps. The men show the new place and order is again (anew) created, so that after a few days these huts can be abandoned.

The women and old men were taken by surprise and fear by our appearance, and seemingly desired that we would leave them in peace. However, all were kind and showed in detail the property of their poor husbandry. In a few baskets were preserved the supply of dough from pounded acorns, thin gruel from the grains of wild rye, and other herbs, and fish caught in the rivulet. The savages catch the fish, by strewing on the water a powder, received from a root, called here Soap Root, from which the fish becomes insensible, and floats up to the surface of the water. The game hunting belongs as a matter of business to the men, but weaving, sewing, and thread making, as also all hard or difficult labours are put on the women. To this division of obligations, probably we must describe the curious phenomenon that the wives of the native Americans generally are stronger built than the men, who are of fine stature, and a well proportioned system of all their members.

The Indians told us that during the summer season, neither the fogs or rains did disturb the constant cleaness of the sky in these valleys. The air was always mild, and changing very little. But in the winter the rains are pouring down, the Slavianka steps out of her shores, and overflows all the lower plains and places and gives them new force and strength for vegetation. The forests here principally consists of oak of three kinds, laurel or bay tree, red or ash tree, and a tree called at Ross wormwood tree, but which is the real strawberry (erdbeerenbaum in German). Grass is here very varying and fragrant, of the animals we saw wild Goats the glutton, and jackal, but there is no doubt that here are found all the same animals which are naturally to all upper California.

By these informations our short acquaintance with the wild inhabitants of the plains of the Rivulet were limited. But in the settlement of Ross I had occasion to see them often and therefore it will be permitted to me to express here some opinion, received from this people and the very county they inhabited made upon me.

By the direction of the mountains, rivers, positions of the Lakes, and similar natural boundaries has been formed a separate natural bound. All over upper California, inhabited by savages, differing in their languages, and maybe in their origin, though the character of the climate and the productions of the country, the manner of living and the same step or level of children, on which all these tribes are yet found, justifies the probability of the supposition, that in their customs, manners, and characters there must be remarked a mutual similarity. The Bodega American Indians with difficulty understand the language of those, who live on the plains of the river Slavianka, and the Savages who are living to the North of Ross, do not at all understand them. Behind the first chain of hills surrounding the plains from the Eastern side are roving or rambling other tribes, unknown to all others, and in one Mission San Carlos (about Monterey) there are counted eleven tribes of American Indians, speaking so many different languages, brought there from the surroundings.



MLA Source Citation:

Von Wrangell, Ferdinand Petrovich. Indians of Upper California: Wrangell's trip through the Russian River Valley, 1834. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/wrangells-trip-through-the-russian-river-valley.htm - Last updated on Jul 2nd, 2013


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