Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
H.M.S. Sulphur on the Northwest and California Coasts, 1837 and 1839: The Accounts of Captain Edward Belcher and Midshipman Francis Guillemard Simpkinson. Edited by Richard A. Pierce and John H. Winslow. Materials for the Study of Alaska History, No. 12. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1979. Illustrations. Index. Map. 144 pages. No price given.
Reviewed by Winston L. Sarafian, Ph.D., Director of Library Services at Oxnard College, author of Russian-American Company Employee Policies and Practices, 1799-1867 (1970).
In December 1835, two English survey vessels, the H.M.S. Sulphur and her consort, the Starling, left England. Assigned to explore thousands of miles of Pacific coastline, innumerable islands, reefs and shoals, these two vessels proceeded to the west coast of South America and sailed northward to Panama where, in February 1837, Captain Edward Belcher assumed command of the expedition. Four months later these vessels reached San Blas from where they sailed to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, Prince William Sound, the southern coast of Russian America (Alaska), New Archangel (Sitka), Nootka Sound and thence to San Francisco and Central America. In 1839, these ships made a second voyage to the same regions.
In this volume editors Richard A. Pierce and John H. Winslow include Belcher’s and Simpkinson’s descriptions of Russian America, the northwest coast of North America and California in the late 1830s. Belcher’s account is taken from his two-volume Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, during the Years 1836-1842, originally published in 1843, and Simpkinson’s report is from his manuscript journal in the University Library of Cambridge University. Both men’s accounts dealing with California were published in 1969 in H.M.S. Sulphur at California, 1837 and 1839. In Pierce’s and Winslow’s edited volume, Simpkinson’s report on Russian America and British Columbia is published for the first time.
Belcher gives invaluable information on the Russian colonial capital of New Archangel in 1837 when the governor general’s mansion was being rebuilt and the nearby Tlingits were recovering from the ravages of a smallpox epidemic. He describes the Russian Orthodox Christian missionary, loann Veniaminov, later Metropolitan Innokentii, Governor General Ivan Kupreianov, Sitka society, Chief Maquinna of Nootka Sound, Mexican California and a boat trip up the previously unexplored Sacramento River. Two years later Belcher recorded glimpses of Kodiak, Fort Vancouver, Fort Ross and Santa Barbara. Simpkinson supplements his chief’s account with candid observations on native American life.
Well illustrated with pictures, maps and drawings, informatively foot-noted and indexed, Pierce’s and Winslow’s volume provides a unique view of Russian America, British Columbia and California in the late 1830s. This reviewer recommends the book to researchers and general readers of North Pacific history, geography and anthropology.