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.)
Call of the ocean
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.
After declaring himself emperor in 1721, Peter mulled several grand imperial projects, many of which were never realized before his death in 1725. But one question obsessed him to the very end of his life: Were Asia and North America linked by land, or divided by sea?
Just before his death in February 1725 (January in the old, Julian calendar, which Russia still used), Peter issued instructions to Bering: He must venture to the farthest reaches of Siberia and sail up the coast until he reached North America. “Then go to some European colony; and when European ships are seen, you are to ask what the coast is called...then, after charting the coast, return to Russia.”
The first voyage
Since the time of the European Voyages of Discovery, the existence of a northwest passage had been the subject of much speculation and the lure for many fruitless expeditions before Bering.
Ironically Bering was not the first European to pass through the strait. In 1648 a Russian, Semyon Dezhnyov, sailed through the passage. His report of his journey was lost in a government archive in Yakutsk. It did not resurface until 1736, several years after Bering had been credited with the discovery. (See also: Yakutsk: See Life in the World's Coldest City.)
Bering’s expedition took the long, overland journey to Russia’s Pacific coast. The trek was torturous: Many members of his expedition almost died from famine but survived by chewing on leather straps. Only in 1728, having overcome colossal difficulties of supply and construction, did Bering and his crew embark on a ship called the St. Gabriel. They reached the island of St. Lawrence and found no land bridge linking Asia and North America. Instead, they sailed through a strait separating the two continents. Thick fog prevented the explorers from glimpsing land on the North American side.
Returning to St. Petersburg after this important but inconclusive first expedition, Bering was given little time for respite before being asked to go back. When Russia’s empress Anna (Peter’s niece) ordered that he undertake a second trip across Siberia, the Dane accepted.
Back into the fray
The Great Northern Expedition (1733-1742), as it would later be called, was an exploratory project on a vast scale. With nearly 1,000 total participants, seven separate expeditions launched under different leaders. The overall aim was to map the eastern limits of Siberia and the North American coastline as well as document the regions’ botany, ethnography, and astronomy.
After yet another arduous overland journey, Bering arrived for the second time in his life at the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia. This time, he had a larger crew, including the German scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who made numerous botanical and zoological discoveries on the journey.
After many initial setbacks, the construction of two ships set to sail east was completed. In early June 1741 (according to the western, Gregorian calendar), Bering embarked from Kamchatka, commanding the St. Peter while Lieutenant Aleksey Chirikov commanded the St. Paul. There was considerable confusion and disagreement about the course they should take. (See also: Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.)
Later in June, a dense fog and violent storm separated the two ships. Chirikov’s St. Paul waited for a few days and searched in vain for Bering’s ship before continuing without it. In July, Chirikov sighted the North American coastline. He sent some of his men ashore in small boats, but they failed to return. Believing it too dangerous to go ashore and running low on resources, Chirikov decided to return to Siberia and left Bering’s ship to its fate. The St. Paul finally made it back in October with only half of its original crew intact.
Meanwhile, Bering’s vessel, the St. Peter, had taken a northeasterly route in the hope of finding land. On July 16, the crew spotted a great, snowy mountain range rising majestically above a wooded coastline: the St. Elias Mountains that stand on what is now the border between Canada and the United States. Following the coast, they landed on an island (now named Kayak Island) to obtain provisions and, in so doing, became the first Europeans to set foot in Alaska. The company did not linger on the island; the naturalist Steller allegedly sniped that 10 years of preparation yield only 10 hours’ worth of findings. Nonetheless, the naturalist devoted many hours to surveying and documenting life on the island. (See also: Climate change batters this Arctic island–can the community cope?)
Shipwrecked and stranded
The explorers continued their journey, but soon scurvy began to take its toll. In September, seeing that winter was drawing in, Bering, who had fallen ill, decided to return to Kamchatka. At the end of September a storm surprised the St. Peter and almost wrecked it. They managed to keep the vessel afloat, but with most of the crew already laid low they struggled to make way in the heavy seas.
In November 1741 they anchored at what is now Bering Island, a small desolate island about 100 miles from the Kamchatka Peninsula. Another storm damaged the St. Peter, leaving the men with no choice but to over winter in makeshift shelters. Bering perished on December 19 and was buried by his men. In spring 1742 Chirikov embarked on a rescue mission to find Bering’s crew. They sailed close to Bering Island, but did not stop there. Foul weather forced their return, and the St. Peter’s crew remained stranded.
Vitus Bering died and was buried on Bering Island. In 1991, when his body was exhumed, experts found that scurvy did not kill Bering as previously thought. The findings do not pinpoint an exact cause of death, but they do confirm the accounts of crew member Georg Steller, who noted that Bering suffered from hunger, fatigue, and cold.
More men perished amid the hostile conditions on the island, but the survivors were able to build a boat. In September 1742 they finally made it back to the Kamchatka Peninsula and brought back information on the indigenous peoples and the rich supply of otter and fur seals.
Bering’s expedition paved the way for Russian colonies in North America. By 1784 Russia had established a fur-trading colony near present-day Kodiak. The exploitation of resources triggered frequent resistance from the indigenous peoples. In the19th century Russia lost interest in the colony. In 1867 it sold the territory to the United States for $7.2 million.
Even if Bering’s name was not immediately well known after his death, it lives on in the various places that bear his name now: an island, a glacier, a strait, even a sea. His name has also been given to one of humanity’s most important geological features: the former land bridge between Asia and North America that existed during the last ice age, and which had once allowed humans to cross, on foot, back and forth from continent to continent.