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Prominent Russians: Ferdinand (Fyodor) Wrangel

January 9, 1797 - June 6, 1870

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Admiral, General Adjutant, honorary member of Russia’s Imperial Academy of Science, member of the State Council, Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel was not only an outstanding scientist and seaman who made two world cruises (1817-1819 and 1824-1827), but also a notable public figure and statesman of 19th century Russia. For example, in 1845 he became one of the founders of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society.

Many years of his life were devoted to Russian America. In 1829-1835 he was the governor of all of Russia’s settlements in North America and later became the Director of the Russian-American Company (Russia’s state-sponsored trading company founded in the 19th century to explore the territories of Alaska and the Pacific Coast of North America). He did everything he could to ensure that these lands stayed with Russia. He was known as an active opponent of the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

From 1836 he occupied different posts in the Ministry of the Navy, finally becoming the Minister of the Navy himself (1855-1857).

However, it was his expedition along the arctic coasts of Siberia (1820-1824) that earned Wrangel worldwide fame. In that expedition he discovered the Northern Sea Route and collected vast scientific material. He also concluded that to the north of Cape Billings (then Cape Yakan) there was an undiscovered land. Only some 40 years later, in 1867, an American whaling captain, Thomas Long, discovered an island land in the very place where Wrangel believed there was one. Now it is known as Wrangel Island.

German writer and scientist Georg Hartwig (1813-1880) wrote the following about Wrangel: "The difficulties, which Wrangel had to deal with - his eagerness for scientific achievements, the losses and dangers he suffered, his fearlessness and nerve - all this gives Wrangel the right, along with Franklin and Parry, to stand at the lead of all Arctic explorers.” Wrangel often repeated his motto: “Fanaticism and national hatred are alien to the Russian character.”

Ferdinand Wrangel was born in the Russian city of Pskov into an ancient family of Baltic Germans. His grandfather was a Chamberlain at the Emperor’s court. However, he refused to swear allegiance to Catherine II and lost his fortune. After fleeing abroad, Ferdinand’s parents were left without any means of support and had to send their son to relatives. Once, the family where he lived was visited by Ivan Fyodorovich Kruzenshtern, a prominent Russian seaman and explorer. The stories that Kruzenshtern told about his wonderful journeys across seas and oceans towards the coasts of Kamchatka and America amazed the boy. This lasting childhood impression defined the whole of Ferdinand Wrangel’s life – all he could think of was a career in the Navy.

His parents died in 1807 and 10-year-old Ferdinand was sent to the Sea Cadet Corps in Saint Petersburg (other sources say that he started studying in 1810). At the Cadet Corps he made friends with Pyotr Anjou, who would become another famous Russian seaman and admiral. The two of them were the best students of the Corps: Wrangel the first, Anjou – the second.

In 1815 Wrangel graduated from the Cadet Corps as a warrant officer. He and Pyotr Anjou spent the first two years of their service in Revel (now Tallinn, Estonia). Together they rented a flat in the suburbs. The young men dreamed of distant shores, but were extremely short of money and every day ate “shchi” (Russian national cabbage soup) and “kasha” (porridge) cooked by an old sailor, as they could not afford anything more. Even tea was served only when they had guests.

The turning point of Ferdinand Wrangel’s life came in 1817, when he was 20 year old. Then a warrant officer of the “Avstroil” frigate, Ferdinand found out that the famous circumnavigator Vasily Golovin was preparing another around-the-world cruise on the “Kamchatka” sloop. The young man did not waste time – he secretly left his ship and with 15 rubles in his pocket headed for Saint Petersburg. There he found Golovin and with great effort managed to persuade the famous seaman to take him on the voyage. Vasily Golovin made Ferdinand Wrangel the junior watch officer of the “Kamchatka” and even settled the problem of Wrangel’s walkout from the military ship.

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The “Kamchatka,” a 39.6-meter long sloop with 130 crewmen on board, pulled anchor in August 1817. The sloop was to deliver various naval and military equipment and other necessities to the Russian area of the Okhotsk Sea, hic was impossible to reach by land. The commander, Vasily Golovin, also had to explore the Russian-American Company’s lands off the North-West coast of America and define the geographical locations of several Russian islands and settlements in North America. The circumnavigation was a great school of life for Ferdinand Wrangel, who saw both foreign lands and the difficulties of a seaman’s life.

The expedition made stops in British Portsmouth, Brazil’s Rio-de-Janeiro, Peru’s Callao, Russian settlements in North America, the Sandwich Islands where they met men who had seen James Cook’s death, the Mariana Islands (Guan), the Philippine Islands (Manilu), the Island of Saint Helena where Napoleon I of France was imprisoned, then again Portsmouth and finally Denmark’s Copenhagen. During the trip Wrangel used his free time to study navigation, nautical astronomy and common geosciences. The captain’s whole library was at his disposal.

Ferdinand Wrangel returned to Russia two years and ten days later (in 1819) as a lieutenant. He had greater prospects in life than ever, as his persistence, diligence and thirst for knowledge made a good impression on Vasily Golovin and it was upon Golovin’s recommendation that the 22-year-old Wrangel was appointed the head of an expedition to explore the arctic coasts of Siberia, his first journey under his own command.

Though the northern coasts of Siberia and some of the neighboring islands had been explored by Cossacks and manufacturers in the 17th century and, in some part, described by naval officers and geodesists, the existing naval maps did not satisfy the requirements of modern geography. Also, the expedition had to check local legends about lands to the north of Siberia’s coasts. Russian authorities decided to send “two naval officers with assistants, provided with various means to discover the alleged lands in the Ledovitoye More (“Icy Sea”, the former name of the Arctic Ocean) and to describe in detail the coasts of Siberia to the east of the Yana River.” Ferdinand Wrangel became the head of the Kolyma expedition, while his colleague Pyotr Anjou led the Yana expedition. Wrangel had five assistants, including warrant officer Fyodor Matyushkin (a close friend of Aleksandr Pushkin), navigator Kozmin and Doctor Kiber. While preparing for the expedition in the winter of 1819/1820, Wrangel studied astronomy, physics and mineralogy in Derpt (now Tartu, Estonia).

In May 1820 Wrangel came to Irkutsk and was met by the general-governor of Eastern Siberia, Mikhail Speransky, who was ordered to lend any possible assistance and protection to the expedition. Speransky wrote to his wife: “I have received a total of two parties of young officers to make discoveries in the Ledovitoye More [Arctic Ocean]. These days I am sending them on their trip to the white bears. There are, indeed, signs of a big island, or maybe a land, connecting Siberia and America.” He joked that “some day it will be possible to walk from Irkutsk to Boston or Philadelphia.”

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Ferdinand Wrangel spent four years in the Far North, exploring the coasts from Kolyma Creek to Kolyuchinskaya Bay in spring and summer and spending winter in Nizhne-Kolymsk. By the end of the fourth year Wrangel had not only mapped around 115 geographical objects with high precision but also collected valuable information about the nature, climate and population of this region. It was discovered that the Arctic Ocean was not completely covered with ice, which meant that there was a possibility to establish a northern communication route by sea (the future Northern Sea Route). Ferdinand Wrangel also discovered that there was no land to the north of Siberia’s coasts at a convenient distance and once and for all overturned the rooted beliefs about a land connection to North America.

However, based on peculiarities of the local climate and the characteristics of ice movements, Wrangel suspected there was a land in front of Cape Billings (then Cape Yakan). Unfortunately, severe weather conditions never let him approach it close enough to check his conclusions. Only a few years before his death Ferdinand Wrangel found out that American whaling Captain Thomas Long had found his dreamland, and that it was called Wrangel Island.

After returning to St. Petersburg in July 1824 Ferdinand Wrangel was awarded the Order of Vladimir, 4th Class (for “continuous civil and military service”). He was not allowed to organize another expedition to the North, and Vasily Golovin offered him to become captain of the “Krotky” (“The Gentle”) transport ship, made to deliver various supplies to Kamchatka. Ferdinand Wrangel could not refuse an opportunity to head his second circumnavigation, which lasted from August 1825 to September 1827. For his service Wrangel was awarded the Order of Anne, 2nd Class, and promoted Naval Captain of the 2nd Rank and then appointed Commander of the “Elizabeth” frigate.

Very soon Ferdinand Wrangel’s life became inseparable from the history of Russian America. At the beginning of 1829 he accepted a proposal to become the main governor of Russia’s settlements in North America, as this post promised a more autonomous sphere of activity. At the same time he was promoted Naval Captain of the 1st Rank and then set off to the administrative centre of Russia’s settlements in North America – Sitka. During the five years that Wrangel spent in North America he thoroughly studied Russia’s territories off the northwestern coast, including their resources and potential and created the Sitka Magnetic Observatory.

Wrangel came to Sitka a married man. He fell in love with his future wife, Elizaveta Vasilyevna Rossilgnon (1810-1854) during one of his visits to Revel. Elizaveta Vasilyevna was an exceptionally beautiful girl, but she found something in the short and not very attractive Ferdinand Wrangel and accepted his offer of marriage. They were married in 1829, right before Wrangel’s departure, and the young woman decided to accompany her husband to his post in North America (she became the First Lady of Russian America and American merchants later called their ships “Lady Wrangel”). It was a difficult journey for Elizaveta, who was expecting a baby. After crossing the whole of Eurasia and the Pacific Ocean they came to Sitka with a little girl. However, after a short time Wrangel’s daughter died from disease. All in all the Wrangels had nine children: sons Vasily (1831-1894), Pyotr (1840-1899), Ferdinand (1844-1919) and daughters Elizaveta (1842-1926) and Eva (1850 - after 1882); two more daughters and a son died in infancy. In 1835 Wrangel and his family left Sitka, visited Russia’s Ross Colony in California, crossed Mexico from San Blas to Veracruz and in 1836 returned to St. Petersburg.

Wrangel knew that the Ross Colony brought nothing but debts and sooner or later it would be abolished, so in Mexico he held negotiations with the country’s authorities about the possibility to buy a fruitful valley which extended to the South of the Ross Colony. In return Mexico wanted to establish official diplomatic relations with Russia. Wrangel knew that it would be a difficult job to convince Russia’s Emperor to do that. Reporting about the situation to Emperor Nicholas I Wrangel mentioned Prussia, which had signed an advantageous trade agreement with Mexico through its general consul without officially recognizing country. However, the Emperor interrupted him, saying: "Prussia puts gain before honor; I, on the contrary, have it the other way around." As a result, Russia soon ceased to maintain the Ross Colony.

After returning from America Ferdinand Wrangel was promoted to Rear Admiral (4th senior rank in Russia’s Table of Ranks) and in August 1836 he headed the Department of ship timber. While maintaining this post, Wrangel was also appointed manager of the Russian-American Company’s settlements in 1838. From 1840 on he was Chief Director of the company, but in 1849 he resigned due to “disagreements” with the Minister of the Navy Aleksandr Menshikov.

Wrangel settled with his family in his Roela estate on the territory of today’s Estonia. During this period of his life he actively cooperated with the Imperial Academy of Science, the Paris Academy of Science and the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, created by him and his associates back in 1840. However, the quiet life did not last long. In 1854 Wrangel’s wife died and, inconsolable for his loss, he decided to resume service.

It was the time of the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) and Ferdinand Wrangel immediately was appointed as Head of the Hydrographic Department, then as Chairman of the Commission on the Revision of Maritime Criminal Law and, in 1855, Chairman of the Scientific Committee and Navigators’ Inspector. That same year Wrangel was promoted to Minister of the Navy and became a member of the Committee for Siberia and then a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Coasts of the Baltic Sea.

Everywhere he worked Wrangel sought to “put things right.” He improved the work of the Navy library and press-house, made the “Navy Collection” the leading magazine in the Russian Empire, created a technical committee within the Ministry, introduced a system of appointing naval officers as mayors in ports of the Black and Azov Seas and wanted to create a merchandise transport fleet on the Black and Caspian Seas.

In 1856 Wrangel was promoted General Adjutant and Admiral. In June 1857 due to health problems he was dispensed from his Ministerial post and appointed a member of the State Council. At this last, and perhaps most honorary post, Wrangel took an active role in preparing the reforms of Alexander II.

In 1864 Wrangel’s health deteriorated and he had to resign. After two years spent in Italy for medical treatment he finally settled in Roela. While in Italy he wrote to Fyodor Matyushkin: “My friend, artists and poets which surround me cannot describe the sea the way I feel it to comfort me, and I remember a poem by Nekrasov: ‘Clear as the foreign sea can be, light as the foreign land can be, they cannot dispel our grief or our Russian sorrow.’” (Как ни светло чужое море, как ни светла чужая даль, им не рассеять наше горе и нашу русскую печаль).

In the spring of 1870 Wrangel decided to visit the places of his childhood. On his way back to Roela he stayed at his brother’s house. There he died from heart attack at the age of 73. His last notes, finished several hours before the death, related the history of the creation of the Russian Geographical Society.

Among Ferdinand Wrangel’s main works are: "Sketch of the Way from Sitka to Saint Petersburg” (1836); "Historical Review of Travels Across Ledovity Ocean" (1836); and "Journey Along the Northern Coastline of Siberia and the Ledovitoye More" (1841).

The list of geographical locations bearing his name include: Wrangel Island (the arctic island north of Chukotka he failed to discover), Wrangell Island (a pacific island in the Alexander Archipelago, off the coast of Alaska), Wrangell, Alaska (a city on Wrangell Island and one of the oldest non-native settlements in Alaska), Cape Wrangell of Attu Island (the westernmost point of Alaska (and the US), Mount Wrangell (a volcano in Alaska), Wrangell Volcanic Field, named after Mount Wrangell, the Wrangell Mountains, named after Mount Wrangell, Wrangellia Terrane (a Triassic oceanic plateau in southern Alaska, southwestern Yukon and British Columbia). [Wrangell is a German style of spelling this name].

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