“As it was, he died more from hunger, cold, thirst, vermin, and grief than from a disease“ - Vitus Bering

19 December 1741, the Russo-Danish naval officer and explorer Vitus Bering died at the age of 60 on Bering Island off the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Bering Sea.
“As it was, he died more from hunger, cold, thirst, vermin, and grief than from a disease“ (Georg Steller, “Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742“)

A somewhat fanciful  illustration of Bering’s shipwreck on Bering’s Island, dating from the early 19th century

When Tsar and Carpenter Peter the Great returned to Russia from his apprenticeship as shipbuilder in the Netherlands in 1698, he came home with a somewhat longish bucket list. A government reform, building a new capital in some Baltic swamp, fighting the Swedes and Turks, jump-start a modern navy and let his already vast empire partake in the dawning Age of Colonisation. To name but a few of Peter's major milestones. In regards to claiming white spots and overthrow foreign empires, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English had famously begun already to divide up the world among themselves in earnest by the end of the 17th century. However, Peter dreamed of a large chunk of the pie for his tsardom – and, late to the game or not, admittedly with an immense advantage: having a whole continent beyond the Ural in his own backyard. Over and above that, it was nopt too far fetched to think it possible that Asia and the Americas were still connected with a land bridge. And even if Peter was not meant to have the truth discovered about the lay of the land in the North Pacific, he got the ball rolling and his successors began the Russian expansion into Central Asia as well as exploring the coasts on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. In 1725, a few days before the death of Peter the Great, Captain Vitus Bering set forth from St Petersburg on his First Kamchatka Expedition.

A modern imagination of Bering's "St Peter" sighting the coast of Alaska for the first time in 1741

Born in 1681 in Jutland, Vitus Bering belonged to the group of western European naval officers summoned to Russia by Peter the Great to help with the first steps of his new navy, a tradition that would last well into the 19th century, and the Dane Bering fought his ships quite successfully for the Tsar in the Baltic Sea as well as the Sea of Azov against the Turks. Charged with the task to prove the existence of either a land bridge or a strait between Asia and America, he reached Okhotsk in 1728, then the primary Russian trading and naval base on the Pacific shore, after three years of incredible exertions along the seven thousand miles of the Siberian River Routes. Sailing with the “Archangel Gabriel” built on the spot, Bering entered the strait that would one day bear his name in August 1728, but failed to reach Asia’s easternmost point and neither did he discover Alaska. Returning to St Petersburg by land and arriving there in 1731, he was nevertheless promoted and, after it was quite clear that there was no land bridge connecting the continents, charged with his second expedition – to discover America – or at least its northwest. 

A 19th century imagination Bering found dead by his crew

The “Great Northern Expedition” under Bering’s command finally sailed east in June 1741 after ten years of preparations and a logistic disaster in the months before the departure. Accompanied by the German naturalist Georg Steller, Bering’s ships, “St Peter” and “St Paul” initially missed the Aleutians, the two vessels were separated in a storm and Bering’s “St Peter” made landfall in Southern Alaska, while his second-in-command Aleksei Chirikov discovered northern Alaska, what is now called the Aleksander Archipelago, in July 1741, becoming the first Europeans to set foot on Alaskan soil. Leaving their discovery after only a few hours, much to Steller’s dismay, Bering in “St Paul” finally found a few of the Aleutian Islands until the ship was caught in a severe storm and beached on a desolate island, later known as “Bering’s Island”, where the explorer died along with 28 men of his crew. Steller and Bering’s lieutenant, the Swede Waxell, finally managed to get off by a boat build from the wreck of the “St Peter” and finally returned to Okhotsk in August 1742. As soon as their discoveries became known in Kamchatka and the rest of the Empire, fur traders followed in the wake of Bering’s “Great Northern Expedition” and caused an ecological catastrophe among the rich fauna of the Aleutians as well as harassing the indigenous population. Steller’s sea cow, a gigantic member of the sirenia, 30’ long and weighing around 10 tons, probably the largest mammal living in historical times short of a whale, was hunted to extinction in only 23 years after its name giver showed up in the super-sized sirenians' habitat and the rest of the otters, seals, foxes and bears suffered greatly as well. The first permanent Russian settlements in Alaska appeared only a couple of years later and Alaska would remain a Russian dominion until 1867.

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