Shipwrecked Sailors: Armed and Desperate

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The 1808 shipwreck of the Russian schooner Nikolai on the shores of the Quileute nation (in what is today Washington state) is remarkable primarily for its aftermath: the collective efforts of the Quileute, Hoh, and Makah nations to deal with 22 armed and desperate shipwrecked Russian sailors.

In 1808, the Russian-American Trading Company was looking to expand its fur-trading operations south from Alaska into the Oregon Country (modern-day Oregon, Washington, and parts of British Columbia). To do that, they needed a fort. The Company dispatched the Nikolai, a small, two-masted schooner with a crew of 22, to map the Oregon Country, find a good spot for a fort, and do a little trading along the way.

The Nikolai looked similar to this two-masted schooner, and likely had similar rigging.

On October 22, 1808, the Nikolai reached the Olympic Peninsula in what is today Washington state. Here, dense temperate rainforest runs down to the sea, snowcapped peaks scrape the sky, and the shore is littered with cliffs, shoals, and sea stacks to tear out a ship’s belly or bash her to pieces. The locals sailed out in large canoes to meet the ship. They traded their fish for Russian beads and tried to trade sea otter pelts for Russian wool, but the sailors had no wool to trade.

The locals were no fools; they came to these meetings armed with guns, spears, and clubs. They’d already repulsed two European incursions into their territory – one Spanish, one British. They were not going to be surprised by a third. Centuries of raiding between the Quileute and Hoh on one side and the more northerly Makah on the other kept their fighting skills sharp.

On November 13, the Quileute watched the Nikolai run aground on a sandbar near the mouth of the Quillayute river (yep, it’s spelled differently). When the tide went out, the ship was left high and dry: breached and ruined, but intact. The sailors hauled muskets, cannon, and powder onto the beach and set up a defensive perimeter. They were worried and scared. They’d heard terrible stories about the locals. Worse, the Company had just waged an offensive war against the Tlingit nation of Alaska, so the combat veterans among the crew knew just how vulnerable they were.

The shipwreck site is now the location of the Quileute reservation town of La Push. It’s just as intimidating for seafarers as it ever was.

Image credit: Sam Beebe/Ecotrust. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Quileute went down to the beach to talk to the Russians. A Quileute chief whose name is not known tried to parlay with the Russian first mate. They shared a limited language – the Chinook Jargon trading tongue – but neither much trusted the other. Neither the common sailors nor the common Quileute were having any of this talk. The Quileute started stealing from the camp. The Russians threw the Quileute out. The Quileute threw stones. The Russians opened fire. In the ensuing battle, the Russians killed three Quileute and the Quileute wounded almost every single Russian.

The Russians fled south through Quileute lands, hoping to reach a far-off anchorage where another Russian vessel was expected. The Quileute followed, but did not attack. Instead, they warned their allies, the Hoh, that these dangerous men were approaching Hoh lands. The Hoh set a trap for the fleeing Russians. They killed one Russian and captured four, including Anna Petrovna Bulygin, the captain’s wife. The captain was so distraught at seeing his wife captured that he declared his leadership compromised and handed command over to his first mate.

The way south was closed to the Russians, so they fled east up the Hoh river, through the rainforest and into the snow-capped mountains. They had no food. When they stumbled onto Hoh lodges, they stole dried salmon and sometimes left glass beads in payment. Other times, they traded. Once they stumbled upon a lodge whose inhabitants hadn’t fled before their arrival. These locals claimed they had no fish to sell. The Russians threatened the Hoh homesteaders, took what they could, left glass and metal beads as payment, kidnapped two men to serve as porters for the day, gave them both a handkerchief in payment, and let them go.

Image credit: Benjaminrobyn Jespersen

The Russians built a stockade in the mountains and overwintered there. They continued stealing fish from nearby lodges to get by, sometimes paying, sometimes not. By this point, they’d advanced to taking hostages when they didn’t get their way.

In February of 1809, something extraordinary happened. The Makah, the on-again-off-again ancestral enemies of the Hoh and Quileute, asked permission of the Hoh to travel to the Russians and speak with them. Leading this Makah expedition was a chief named Yutramaki or Machee Ulatilla. With him, as an interpreter, was Mrs. Anna Petrovna Bulygin. Yutramaki wanted the Russians to return one of their hostages, who was his sister. The first mate agreed – in exchange for the Makah giving up Bulygin. Bulygin refused. The Makah had treated her well, she was doing fine, and she had no desire to rejoin her countrymen. Instead, she urged the Russians to surrender to the Makah and end this farce.

Five of the fugitive Russians agreed, including the captain (Mr. Bulygin, who was overjoyed to see his wife again) and first mate. The rest were eventually captured. In 1810, a U.S. brig named the Lydia arrived to trade and ransomed all the Russians. In a remarkable effort to keep this narrative thematically consistent, the American skipper took Makah hostages as part of the negotiation.

By the time the crew of the Nikolai returned to Alaska, the moment to build a Russian-American Company fort in the Oregon country had passed. The British were building forts in the inland part of the country, and the Americans had gobbled up most of the trade. The Company took little further interest in the area. The Quileute, Hoh, and Makah had bought themselves another few decades of independence from the West.

Image credit: Roger Mosley

The sudden arrival of shipwrecked sailors can be a great adventure hook in an ongoing campaign, provided the sailors are from a suspicious or hostile group. The fact that, at the start of this story, locals were carrying weapons when trading with the Russians shows the locals saw the Russians as suspect. Certainly, the sailors didn’t do much to remove themselves from the category, what with killing in perceived self-defense, stealing food, sometimes paying for it, and taking hostages.

At your table, if your players usually behave rashly, make the sailors’ origins suspicious, not overtly hostile. An unprovoked all-out fight to the death on the beach is less fun than a session or two of ‘are these guys trustworthy or not?’ If your players tend to be thoughtful and compassionate, make the sailors’ origins explicitly hostile: space pirates, hobgoblins, etc. Otherwise, you might not get the natural caution (sometimes flaring into violence) that makes this historical anecdote so interesting. Either way, keep the sailors’ actions the same: killing in perceived self-defense, trading for what’s offered, stealing what isn’t, taking hostages, and paying for what they stole when they can or when they feel like it.

Do you have thoughts about the wreck of the Nikolai? Have you ever used semi-maurading, suspicious foreigners as villains at your table? Come tell me about it over on Facebook or Twitter!


Source: The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai, by Kenneth N. Owens and Alton S. Donnelly (1985). Contains two primary source narratives, one a Quileute oral tradition, the other by the Russian first mate.


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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