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Semyon Dezhnyov Finds the Bering Strait—Eighty Years before Bering

Semyon Dezhnyov Finds the Bering Strait—Eighty Years before Bering


In 1728 Vitus Bering (1681-1741) discovered the strait that bears his name, a body of water just 53 miles (85 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point, which separates the Asian and North American land masses. But Bering was not the first European to pass through the Bering Strait: Semyon Ivanov Dezhnyov (c. 1605-1673), a Cossack whose surname is sometimes rendered as Dezhnev, had done so 80 years before, in 1648. Dezhnyov, however, did not know what he had accomplished; nor, thanks to a number of factors—not least of which was czarist secrecy concerning Russian exploration efforts—did the rest of the world.


In an attempt to compete with Spain and Portugal as trading powers during the sixteenth century, both England and Holland launched efforts to locate the Northeast Passage, a sea route from Europe through the Arctic Ocean to East Asia. These attempts would meet with disaster, and in fact it would not be until the nineteenth century that anyone managed to successfully traverse the icy seas above Siberia. By then sailors had long since recognized that the Northeast Passage was only for adventures, and as a trade route had no value. But a number of unintended effects resulted from the effort to discover the passage, among them the growth of trade with Russia and subsequent Russian efforts at exploration.

A 1553 English expedition led by Hugh Willoughby (d. 1554) had proved a failure, but in the course of it his chief pilot, Richard Chancellor (d. 1556), had landed at the port now known as Archangel and traveled over land to Moscow some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). The result of this contact was the formation in 1555 of the Muscovy Company, an English enterprise aimed at Russian trade. The Muscovy Company prospered for nearly a century, but in 1649, Russia's czar ended its trading privileges.

By then Russia itself had become heavily involved in trade and exploration, and no doubt the czar's action resulted from a desire to keep more of the profits in Russian hands. From the late sixteenth century, Russians had begun seeking routes eastward, through the largely unexplored regions of Siberia, but here again government control proved an impediment to exploration—only this time the exploration was being conducted by Russians. Thus in 1616 and 1619, the czar closed an Arctic trade route via the Gulf of Ob.

Meanwhile, in 1581-1582, the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich (d. 1584 or 1585) had crossed the Urals, conquering the Tatar khanate of Sibir and thus opening the region to Russian fur traders. In the years that followed, a number of Russian adventurers explored riverine routes, though because most rivers in Siberia flow generally north-south rather than east-west, these could only take them so far in their quest to reach the Pacific. By 1633 Cossacks were using the Lena and Kolyma rivers, which they bridged by overland travel, to ply the route between the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

It is important to note that at this point, no one knew where the northeastern corner of the Asian land mass ended, and where the northwestern portion of the North American one began. For all anyone knew, in fact, the two could be connected—as indeed they were 20,000 to 35,000 years ago, when the Ice Age caused a drop in sea level, and permitted the migration of the Siberian tribes who later became known as Native Americans. This knowledge, too, lay far in the future when Dezhnyov set off on his voyage in 1648.

By then in his early forties, Dezhnyov had spent much of his career in Siberia, where he served the czar in posts at Tobolsk and Yeniseysk. In 1638 he moved to Yakutsk, the principal Russian post along the Lena in eastern Siberia, and it may have been during this time that he took a native Yakut wife, with whom he had a son. He moved still further east, to the Yana River, in 1640-1641, and during the following winter took part in an expedition along the upper Indigirka River led by Mikhail Stadukhin. In 1643 he followed the river to its mouth on the Arctic, then sailed east to the Alazeya River. A year later, he was on the lower Kolyma.

Up to this point, Dezhnyov had followed the established path of Russian explorers, traversing north-south rivers to the Arctic, then sailing a little further east to the next river. In 1647, Fyodor Alekseyev Popov invited him to take part in a voyage from the mouth of the Kolyma to that of the Anadyr. Since the former river empties into the Arctic and the latter into the Pacific, this meant that they would have to round the eastern tip of Siberia. The attempt failed, however, as heavy ice in the region prevented them from completing the voyage.

The two men set out again in June 1648 with seven boats and more than 100 men. They reached the mouth of the Kolyma in July, and soon afterward rounded what is sometimes called the East Cape. The latter is also known as Mys Dezhneva, or Cape Dezhnev, and though they did not know it, they had just passed the easternmost tip of the Asian continent. Nor did they realize that they had crossed from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean, thus proving that Asia and North America are two separate land masses.

At the time, the men had far more pressing concerns on their minds. They had already lost four of the boats, and after entering the Pacific, another was lost. The remaining two boats landed, and were promptly attacked by native Chukchis. As a result, Popov was wounded—his boat was later lost as well—and Dezhnyov became commander of the expedition. Finally Dezhnyov, his crew now reduced to just 25 men, landed south of the Anadyr River. More men died in an attempt to travel up the Anadyr during the winter, and only when summer came was Dezhnyov able, with his 12 remaining men, to make the journey.

Halfway up the river, Dezhnyov and his crew built a fort, which became Anadyrsk, the focal point of later Russian exploration in eastern Siberia. They were finally met by Stadukhin, who had reached the Anadyr overland from the Kolyma, in 1650. The meeting was not, however, a happy one: by then Dezhnyov had begun collecting tribute from the local tribes—a practice typical of Cossacks in Siberia—and Stadukhin was jealous of his profits.

Two years later, in 1662, Dezhnyov sailed down the Anadyr to the Gulf of Anadyr, where he found a large pile of walrus tusks. He returned to Moscow in 1664 with tales of large treasures of ivory to be gained in the Far East, and this spawned further exploration efforts. By 1666 he was back in Yakutsk, but eventually returned to Moscow, where he died in 1672 or 1673. Later his son served Vladimir Atlasov in the conquest of Kamchatka.


Though he was celebrated in his time, word of Dezhnyov's findings gradually assumed the status of legend rather than fact. Only in 1736 did German historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller, studying archives at Yakutsk, uncover evidence of the groundbreaking expedition. Much had happened in the meantime: Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) had taken an interest in eastward exploration, and in the year of his death commissioned Bering to make his historic voyage. In 1733 Russia launched one of the greatest efforts in the history of Arctic exploration, the decade-long Great Northern Expedition. The latter, in which Bering himself perished, resulted in the mapping of virtually all of the Arctic and northern Pacific coastline.

By the time of the next notable venture into the Bering Strait, by Captain James Cook (1728-1779) during his crew's last voyage (1776-1780), Dezhnyov's role in discovering the Bering Strait had been recognized. In 1898 the Russian government named the easternmost point of Asia Mys Dezhneva in his honor, but he was never accorded full worldwide recognition for his efforts.

During the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Bering Strait acquired new significance as a strategic barrier between the two superpowers. Some observers noted a physical irony in the existence of the Diomede Islands, two tiny spots of land discovered by Bering in the strait that bears his name. In this place, the Soviet Union and the United States, so widely separated by ideology, were geographically at their closest point: just 2 miles (3 kilometers) separates the Russian Big Diomede from the American Little Diomede.

With the end of the Cold War, the waters of the Bering Strait again became peaceful, with disputes confined chiefly to questions over fishing rights. By the end of the twentieth century, an international group with a site on the Internet called for the construction of a tunnel under the Bering Strait, which would once again link the Asian and North American land masses.


Further Reading

"Bering Strait Tunnel Project." (August 17, 2000.)

Fisher, Raymond H., ed. The Voyage of Semen Dezhnev in1648: Bering's Precursor. London: Hakluyt Society, 1981.

Lantzeff, George V., and Richard A. Pierce. Eastward toEmpire: Exploration and Conquest on the Russian Open Frontier, to 1750. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1973.

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