Vitus Bering's Explorations of the Far Northern Pacific

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Vitus Bering's Explorations of the Far Northern Pacific


On voyages in 1728 and again from 1733 until 1741, Vitus Bering (1681-1741) explored the northernmost reaches of the Pacific Ocean. On these voyages he discovered (rediscovered, actually) the Bering Strait, which separates Asia from North America. He also mapped large portions of Russia's north and east coasts as well as north-westernmost North America. Because of his work, Russia was able to lay claim to Alaska, a long stretch of the North American Pacific coast, and the fur trade encompassed by this area.


European exploration of North America started on its east coast, primarily because the nations conducting this exploration were on the Atlantic Ocean and this was the easiest path for them to follow. Because of this, the western coast of North America was explored primarily by the Spanish (who had crossed Central America to the Pacific Ocean), but they did not generally explore north of San Francisco Bay. Voyages to the north were blocked by ice and poor weather, severely limiting exploration in this direction. As the eighteenth century opened, the coast of America's Northwest was completely unmapped and unexplored by Europeans.

Europeans were, however, interested in exploring this area. The major seafaring nations wanted an east-to-west sea passage across North America, which they hoped would enable them to find a shorter route to the Far East. Russia, however, was another story. While Britain, France, and Holland tried to push across the top of North America in search of the Northwest Passage, Russia wanted to open a Northeast Passage that would link the Russian West to its ports and potential trading partners in the East. So Russian explorers pushed towards the Pacific from the other direction.

In 1648, a Cossack sailor named Semyon Deshnyov sailed with seven ships through the Bering Strait from north to south, becoming the first European to do so. However, accounts of his voyage were lost for several decades, long enough for Bering to receive credit for this discovery.

More than seventy years later Peter the Great became intensely interested in finding a sea passage between Russia and North America. In 1725 he sent Vitus Bering, a Dane serving in the Russian Navy, on a voyage of discovery. Setting off from the Kamchatka Peninsula, Bering sailed north along Russia's east coast, mapping the shoreline as he sailed, and passing successfully into the Arctic Ocean. Although this proved conclusively that such a passage existed, it was exceedingly foggy and he never actually sighted North America. Because of this, there were those who still questioned his discovery. Not until 1732, when others in the Russian Navy made the same transit in good weather and sighted land to both east and west, was Bering's discovery finally accepted.

The next year, Catherine the Great gave Bering command of a more ambitious expedition, the Great Northern Expedition of 1733-1743. This expedition, one of the largest ever mounted, employed over 1,000 people in exploring and mapping northeast Russia, the American Northwest, parts of the Russian Arctic coast, and the northern Pacific coasts of Russia and North America. The expedition was both phenomenally expensive and successful, returning staggering amounts of scientific information, maps, and other useful knowledge.

In 1741, towards the end of the Great Northern Expedition, Bering and his crew became stranded for the winter on what is now called Bering Island, not far from the coast of Kamchatka. There, Bering and most of his crew died of scurvy, other diseases, and injury during the long Arctic winter. The expedition continued for another two years, returning with maps of the Russian Arctic and Pacific coasts, theAleutian Islands, and much of the American Pacific coast.


The first and most fundamental result of Bering's journeys was Russia's formal claim to what is now Alaska and much of the Pacific Northwest. Because her ships reached these areas before any rival European powers, Russia was able to claim the land and all its wealth, establishing small colonies and stations on many islands and the Alaskan mainland. Here the Russians traded and trapped for valuable furs and skins, fished the waters, and hunted seals and whales.

Russia governed its North American territories for over a century. In 1867, however, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward bought them from cash-poor Russia for what is now recognized as a ridiculously low price: $7 million. At the time, the sale was publicly ridiculed and the territory was referred to as Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox. It would be another three decades before this opinion changed, when gold was discovered.

Russia had settled colonies in Alaska to collect furs and fish, just as the British and French had done in North America. This trade was lucrative and, in some years, perhaps a thousand ships would dock at various colonies to exchange supplies for trade goods. However, even in the late nineteenth century, nobody thought it possible that the frozen expanse held anything other than game or lumber.

Then the discovery of gold in Alaska sparked a gold rush, bringing thousands of people into the territory in just a few years. Over the next decades, other minerals were found as well, culminating in the discovery of huge petroleum reserves on the Alaskan north coast. Gold and oil made Seward's Folly a vital part of the American economy, while its location near Russia gave it exceptional strategic value.

Little of this came without conflict, however. At first, the conflict was a curious one: Russia wanted to sell Alaska badly, but the U.S. had no desire to purchase it. At this time, the conflict was between opposing sides in the U.S. Congress. When it was finally purchased, Congress then refused to appropriate money to pay the final bill for months. Then, feeling it a worthless land of polar bears and glaciers, Congress refused to maintain the new territory, letting it languish instead.

The first international dispute came in 1881, when the U.S., Canada, and Britain began wrangling over fishing and sealing rights in the Bering Sea. Claiming the entire sea as territorial waters, the U.S. tried to exclude other nations from hunting and fishing in them. An international arbitration body decided decided against the U.S. in 1893, ruling that the Bering Sea was open to all nations. In 1911 the U.S., Canada, and Japan signed a further agreement on seal hunting in the Bering Sea. Japan withdrew in 1941, leaving the U.S. and Canada with an interim agreement that was revised in 1956 to include the Soviet Union.

During World War II, the waters first explored by Vitus Bering proved to be of military importance. Trying to draw American attention away from Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Navy staged diversionary raids near the Aleutian Islands. These attacks continued throughout the war, and included a Japanese invasion of some islands. During the Cold War, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea were important for both American and Soviet navies. Nuclear submarines on both scientific research and military missions routinely passed through the Bering Straits to patrol beneath the Arctic icepack. In fact, at least one class of Soviet ballistic missile submarines was designed specifically to operate under the ice, breaking through if necessary to launch their missiles against NATO. These were pursued by U.S. attack submarines, although such pursuits were difficult in the noisy waters beneath the drift ice.

In the mid-1990s Russian nationalists began clamoring for the return of Alaska to Russia. In a state of shock after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was increasingly seen as a poor and almost pathetic former power. This led to a nationalistic backlash as opportunistic politicians attempted to ignite nationalist passions in the hearts of Russians. Among the wild claims made was that Alaska was most properly a part of Russia because Russians had discovered and settled it first. Noting the low price of purchase, these politicians claimed that Alaska had been stolen from the Russian people and should be returned. Whether driven by political ambition, sincere nationalistic feeling, economic calculation, or a combination of the three, these claims obviously went nowhere.

Bering's initial voyages of discovery resulted in riches that he could not even have guessed when he first set forth to explore the Russian Far East. Although he did not realize it, his maps and discoveries in the Bering Sea, and along the Russian and American Pacific coasts, would lead to economic gain, military confrontation, political dispute, and more.


Further Reading


Fisher, Raymond. Bering's Voyages: Whither and Why. 1977.

Michner, James. Alaska. New York: Random House, 1988.

Steller, Georg Wilhelm, and O.W. Frost. Journal of a Voyage With Bering 1741-1742. Stanford University Press, 1993.