Two Shipwrecks

A Tragedy, A Hoax and the Making of the Modern World

by Jason Roberts

In 1834, a fifteen-year-old Japanese boy washed ashore, barely alive, on the wild Pacific coast of North America. Immediately enslaved by an indigenous tribe, he was sold the following year to passing fur traders for the price of a pile of blankets. While recovering at a remote trading post, the boy attended the first, and only, school in the entire Pacific Northwest. There he became an object of fascination for another student of the school: the twelve-year-old grandson of the chief of the Chinook tribe.

By an astonishing coincidence, both boys would prove to be linguistic geniuses. Both would leave their native cultures behind, assuming Western identities. Then both would ultimately transcend those identities, becoming true citizens of the world. Their lives would comprise an inadvertent, improvised collaboration, with both becoming instrumental in changing the fate of nations. One would die rich, showered with honors. The other would die in poverty, all but forgotten. Yet his last words would be a prayer of thanks for the grandness of his adventure.

This is the story of the intertwined destinies of John Matthew Ottoson (1818-1867) and Ranald “Toll” MacDonald (1824-1894), known in their earlier lives as Otokichi and Prince Comcomly. A story of lifelong obsessions, near-madness and survival in lands beyond the sea. Of two shipwrecks - one real, one faked - that together, transformed history.