On July 28, 1741, Vitus Bering, the Danish explorer at the Russian service, for the first time reached the Alaskan shore as part of his state-ordered expedition to explore Russia’s Eastern borders and finding the land bridge between Asia and North America.
Peter the Great, the Russian Emperor, wanted to map his vast lands to the East and, if possible, extend the geographical knowledge about the New World. In 1725 Vitus Bering was selected to chart Siberia’s northern coast and search for a land bridge to America. Having joined the Russian Navy in 1703, he already distinguished himself during Russia’s war with Sweden.
In the course of the first expedition, starting in 1725 in St. Petersburg and reaching Okhotsk after a two-year-long trek through Siberia, Bering discovered a series of islands and gulfs, and mapped almost 2200 miles of the eastern coast of the sea, later to be named after him. He never reached the American coast, a fact which did not bother Bering at the time, since the major objective of the quest – that is detecting that America and Asia had no land bridge – had been completed. The data collected by Bering had later been extensively used by all Western cartographers.
After the first expedition, the government’s appetite for exploration grew, so in 1733, Bering set out for another one, to seek trade routes to Japan. Instead, he discovered Alaska.
For this expedition, he recruited a vast crew of soldiers, boatmen, carpenters, naval officers, and scientists. Upon reaching Okhotsk, Bering’s team spent three years building ships and an entire port city, Petropavlovsk, named after the two newly-built ships, “St. Paul” and “St. Peter”. On July 4, 1741, Bering and his closest associate Chirikov set off for North America. Several days later, as the unusually thick fog had settled on the ocean’s surface, the two ships lost each other. For three days Bering looked for Chirikov, until he finally gave up the search, changing course north-east and entering Alaskan waters. In mid-July, land was sighted on Chirikov’s ship, which must have been the Prince of Wales Island, while Bering, in the meantime, had reached the Kayak Island a day later.
Still at sea, Bering spotted a mountain top, which he called Saint Elias, the first sight of the American land. Bering, however, wasn’t very thrilled at his discovery as he had been very ill.
The ship doctor, Georg William Steller, upon landing on the Kayak Island, had collected samples of herbs to help the crew fight scurvy. The unknown species of wildlife and vegetations made the crew conclude they had reached the North American continent. The shortage of food, however, forced the crew start the return trip the very next day. On the way back, Bering also discovered and mapped a number of islands. During his stop on the Alaskan Peninsula, he first met the Aleuts, one of the Alaskan native tribes.
Though suffering significant losses, Chirikov’s ship did make it to the port of Petropavlovsk, while fierce storms drove Bering’s ship off course, to the Komandorskie Islands, forcing the sailors to spend winter on the isle which now bears Bering’s name. The ship was wrecked while Bering died with many of his crew. As the spring came, the surviving 46 marines built themselves a tight little boat from the wrecked St. Paul to come back to Petropavlovsk, steering the boat with oars, while everyone already thought they were dead.
Chirikov made another attempt to reach America in 1742, but was banned by imperial order. This decision put a temporary stop to expanding the Russian mission in Alaska. All the maps and data gathered about the region were never published and kept secret by the imperial administration, and the names of Bering and Chirikov were unknown to the public. Neither they nor their greatest discoveries had for long been acknowledged by the Russian people.
In the late 18th century the English explorer James Cook fully recognized Bering’s contribution to geography and was the first one to suggest naming the straight between Chukotka and Alaska after the great explorer. In 1874 the Russian-American Company erected a cross on Bering’s grave site on the Komandorskie Islands. In 1991, on the eve of the 250th anniversary of Bering’s and Chirikov’s voyage, a special archaeological squad was organized to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of the Bering Island.