A month before he died, the Tsar of Russia commissioned Danish-born naval officer and cartographer Vitus Jonassen Bering, serving in the Russian Navy, to lead an expedition to explore the northeast coast of Asia and the West Coast of America to see if the two continents were connected by land, or was there a sea between them?
The expedition found the answer, but only after having to deal with traveling 6,000 miles overland from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the east coast of Asia and then by sea to the Kamchatka Peninsula.
They’d also have to contend with death, scurvy, mutiny and murder.
A second expedition would cost Bering his life.
The first expedition’s planning had started several years earlier. Suffering with ill-health, Tsar Peter I — Peter the Great — instructed Bering to prepare one or two ships at Kamchatka for the expedition, explore the land to the north and see if it was connected to North America, and were there any European cities there?
If they were to encounter any European ships, learn from their officers as much geography of the region as possible, the Tsar ordered.
Bering recruited Martin Spangberg, a seasoned mariner in the Danish Navy as his second-in-command; adding Russian naval instructor Aleksei Chirikov and warrant officer Peter Chaplin — those two men co-writing the expedition journal.
Vitus Bering was born in the port town of Horsens in Denmark in 1681, and at age 15 went to sea as a ship’s boy. He traveled to India, the Dutch East Indies, Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast — possibly also seeing duty on North Atlantic whalers. In Amsterdam, he completed naval officer training.
Then in 1704, he enlisted in the Russian Navy as a sub-lieutenant, rising to Second Captain within 16 years.
In 1713, Bering married Anna Christina Pülse, daughter of a Swedish merchant, at Vyborg, 80 miles north of St. Petersburg and they had nine children. Only four survived.
The Tsar died on Feb. 8, 1725, while Bering’s expedition team was heading across Siberia — an arduous two-year journey with horses, dog-sleds and river boats (no Trans-Siberian Railway until 1891). They faced the harshest winter in memory.
The expedition started with 34 men, but along the way, recruited more — bringing Bering’s party up to more than 200. Conditions were so bad that “Both men and horses died,” according to historian Orcutt William Frost in “The Russian Discovery of America,” “whilst other men … deserted with their horses and portions of the supplies as they struggled to build roads across difficult marshland and river terrain.”
Martin Spangberg’s party was 685 miles from their destination and could only move their heavily loaded boats a mile a day. When the rivers froze, they transferred the cargo onto sleds and trudged on through blizzards and deep snow as food began to run out.
Bering’s party arrived at Okhotsk in October 1726, where the ship “Fortuna” was being readied to take them to Kamchatka.
In Kamchatka, they built the ship “Archangel Gabriel” armed with four cannons for the exploratory expedition, and by July 1728 they sailed northward.
Upon reaching East Cape, the coast turned westward and there was no land in sight to the north. Bering concluded that there was indeed a sea between the two continents, though he didn’t have solid proof.
He was later criticized for not continuing the search.
Not wishing to face a harsh winter on some desolate shore, he sailed back to Kamchatka, then headed home to St. Petersburg. He was greeted as a hero, given a bonus of 1,000 rubles and promoted to Captain-Commander — a noble rank. His subordinate officers were also honored.
Bering immediately recommended a second expedition. In 1732, he was given command of the Great Northern Expedition. This time — sadly — Russian government interference turned it into a disaster.
Bering was to locate and map the American coast as far as the first European settlement, while other groups under his command were to chart the Siberian coast and determine definitively whether Asia and America were connected.
In addition to the explorations, the government saddled him with a sizable scientific party, and the burden of starting economic development in eastern Siberia. Also, they wouldn’t give him complete authority over his subordinates.
One report said, “Crossing Siberia with the throng of jealous officers, balky workers, and insubordinate scientists became a 3-year nightmare.”
After once again crossing Siberia, Bering established the settlement of Petropavlosk in Kamchatka in 1741, and built two ships — the “St. Peter” commanded by Bering and “St. Paul” by Chirikov — to explore the Siberian east coast and the way to North America.
The founding of the new Siberian settlement was a rocky one.
A report on historian Orcutt Frost’s research said, “The murder of several Russians under Bering’s command by native tribesmen prompted him to send armed men to the north, with orders not to use force if it could be avoided.
“Apparently it could not, because the detachment killed several native Koryaks in the settlement of Utkolotsk and enslaved the remainder, bringing them back south. (Expedition naturalist Georg) Steller was horrified to see the Koryaks tortured in search of the murderers.”
Despite these depressing events of the second expedition, Bering and Chirikov sailed their ships toward America.
They saw Mount Saint Elias on the Yukon-Alaska border and sailed past Kodiak Island.
A storm then separated the two ships. Continuing the exploration alone, Bering sighted the southern coast of Alaska, and a landing was made at Kayak Island or another island nearby. Then more bad weather forced Bering to return quickly to Kamchatka.
On his way back, he discovered some of the Aleutian Islands, but his men were becoming ill and several died — believed to be from scurvy. One of the sailors was buried on an unnamed island, and Bering named the island group Shumagin Islands after him.
Bering too fell ill, becoming weaker each day. Eventually, he could no longer leave his cabin.
On Nov. 4, with a battered ship and ill crew, the St. Peter landed at what are now called the Komandorskie Islands — planning to wait out the winter.
Vitus Bering died on Dec. 8, 1741, and was buried on the island that now bears his name.
Of the 77 officers and men of the St. Peter, only 45 reached Kamchatka — after building a 40-foot boat from the St. Peter wreckage.
Aleksei Chirikov aboard the St. Paul searched for Bering, reaching as far as Baker Island off Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska. He sent men ashore in a longboat — the first Europeans to set foot on the northwestern coast of North America.
He also sighted the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and Adak Island in the western Aleutians, before arriving back at Petropavlovsk on Oct. 12, 1741.
Russian settlements in North America began in 1743, starting with hunting and trading posts in the Aleutians. Fort Ross, 80 miles north of San Francisco and Sitka, Alaska, are the two best known settlements. At one point, there were about 20.
Then fur traders from Canada and the United States moved in as competition.
In 1799, Tsar Paul I issued a charter for the Russian-American Company, giving it a monopoly on Russian ventures in North America. Fort Ross was built in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Native Alaskans — just a year after John Jacob Astor constructed Astoria in Oregon.
With Americans and British Canadians competing for furs and land in the Northwest, and Spain losing its grip on their territories in the West, Russia was having its own troubles maintaining their North America and Hawaii colonies.
Though Russia traded with both British and Americans, they feared one of them would take over Alaska, so they decided to sell the vast territory.
Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov warned, “We must not deceive ourselves and must foresee that the United States, aiming constantly to round out their possessions and desiring to dominate undividedly the whole of North America will take the afore-mentioned colonies from us and we shall not be able to regain them.”
In 1867, President Andrew Johnson authorized the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million ($114,000,000 today) or two cents per acre — negotiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward. Most Americans liked the sale, while critics called it “Seward’s Folly.”
It was a good deal.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
Vitus Bering retired from the Russian Navy at 42 in order not to embarrass his wife Anna. Though his promotions came relatively quickly, he was chagrined when after the Great Northern War of 1721 he was not promoted like other fellow officers. Further humiliation followed when Anna’s younger sister Eufemia married Thomas Saunders who was already a rear-admiral despite having served less time in the navy.
On retiring, he received two months’ pay and the retirement rank of First Captain. Five months later, he was back in the navy and commanding the 90-gun “Lesnoe.” After the first expedition he was promoted to Captain Commander.
Française dans la cour Russe…
Catherine the Great who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796 made French the official language of the Russian Court — continuing Peter the Great’s admiration for things French. It remained the language of the elite until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In some families children were forbidden to speak Russian except on Sundays and religious holidays.
In those days, it was common that most refined and cultured Russians could speak only the peasant form of Russian which they learned from the servants while growing up.
Aleksei Chirikov helped create the maps of the Russian discoveries in the Pacific that were completed five years after the second expedition. In the 1770s, Britain’s notable explorer Captain James Cook would praise the work of the Bering-Chirikov explorations.
Chirikov died of tuberculosis in 1748.
Vitus Bering’s gravesite was discovered on Bering Island in 1991 — 250 years after he died — by Danish archaeologists taking part in a Russian expedition. His grave and those of five seamen were unearthed, and the remains transported to Moscow for forensic investigation, enabling scientists to recreate a bust of the Danish-born explorer. Then his bones were reburied in the original gravesite.
Sale of Fort Ross…
In 1841, the Russians sold Fort Ross to John A. Sutter — famous for his mill in Sacramento, and the 1849 California Gold Rush that was triggered by his employee James W. Marshall who found gold in the American River where they were building the mill.