Dire Straits: Bering's deadly exploration of the Pacific

The first European to navigate the icy waters between Asia and North America gave his life in pursuit of exploration.

Bering (left) and Chrikov in 1741. Painting by Igor Pshenichny, 1989. Central Naval Museum, st. Petersburg.
Photograph by Fine Art/Album

Although Siberia feels far away to many Americans, it actually sits only about 55 miles from Alaska, which is separated from Asia by the glacial waters of the Bering Strait. The man for whom that narrow passage was named played a vital role in Russia’s early 18th-century attempts to expand into North America. Among the very first Europeans to lay eyes on the coast of Alaska, Vitus Jonassen Bering is credited as commanding the first crew to cross from Asia to north western America in modern history, in circumstances of extraordinary hardship and heroism. (See also: The Bering Sea, where humans and nature collide.)

Despite serving several tsars and tsarinas, Bering was not a Russian, but a Dane. He was born in 1681 in the Danish port of Horsens. Rather than head off to university when he was a teenager, he instead signed up to go to sea. Young Vitus sailed on several Dutch and Danish voyages before signing up for the Russian Navy in 1704.

The timing was perfect for a young seaman with talent and ambition. In the 1690s Peter the Great had started building up the Russian Navy as part of his plan to modernize his vast but socially and technologically backward country. Esteemed for their seamanship, Denmark’s sailors were well respected, which explains Bering’s quick ascent through the ranks and his close working relationships with the tsar’s most respected admirals.

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