Vitus Jonassen Bering

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Vitus Jonassen Bering


Danish Explorer

One of the most celebrated endeavors of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century exploration was the search for the Northwest Passage, a route between Europe and Asia via the frozen seas north of Canada. Less famous was the quest for the Northeast Passage, or a means of navigating between the furthest eastern extremities of Asia and the western tip of North America. Perhaps the greatest figure in the search for the Northeast Passage was Danish navigator Vitus Bering. Sent on two expeditions by the Russian czars, he explored Russia's Far East and the offshore islands of Alaska, and proved the existence of a passage between Asia and North America.

Born in Horsens, Denmark, in 1681, Bering grew up around the sea, and as a young man joined the Dutch navy. At that time Holland had a vast international empire, and his work gave the young Bering an opportunity to see the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). Eventually he joined the Russian navy, then a recent creation of Czar Peter the Great, and took part in the Great Northern War (1700-21) between Russia and Sweden. His bravery so impressed Peter that in 1725 the czar commissioned him to lead an eastern expedition.

Leaving the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, Bering and his crew traveled overland across Siberia, bringing with them the materials for building a boat. They arrived at the Sea of Okhotsk, which separates the Russian mainland from the Kamchatka Peninsula, in 1727. There they built a boat and sailed across to Kamchatka. They then sledded across the peninsula to its east coast, where they built a second boat, the Gabriel.

In the summer of 1728, Bering sailed up Kamchatka's east coast and beyond, almost to the extreme northeastern tip of the Asian continent. To the east he saw a large island, which he named St. Lawrence (now part of Alaska), but he could go no further north due to the ice. Therefore he turned southward, spending the winter of 1728-29 in Kamchatka before ultimately making his way back to St. Petersburg.

At the royal court, Bering persuaded the Czarina Anna to commission a second voyage, and in 1733 he took charge of what was dubbed the "Great Northern Expedition." Due to a number of delays, however, it was only in 1740 that the expedition set sail from the east coast of Siberia. When the earlier expedition arrived at the Sea of Okhotsk, Bering had been 46 years old; now he was nearly 60.

This second expedition was much larger, with several scientists on board, and therefore Bering took two ships: the St. Paul, of which he was captain, and the St. Peter, with Alexei Ilyich Chirikov (1703-1748), who had sailed on the first voyage, at the helm. They waited out the winter of 1740-41 on the east coast of Kamchatka, at a base they called Petropavlovsk after their two ships. Later a town would spring up on the site and become the largest city on Kamchatka.

The two ships finally sailed on June 5, 1741, and were quickly separated. Chirikov and his crew made it to North America and sent out two reconnaissance boats that never returned. Ravaged by scurvy, they limped back to Petropavlovsk a few months later. Bering and the rest of those aboard the St. Paul were less fortunate.

Sailing south and then east, on July 17 he caught sight of the American mainland at Mount St. Elias. Later he sighted many of the Aleutian Islands, but by then Bering and the others were suffering the effects of scurvy. Their ship wrecked on a barren island along the eastern coast of Kamchatka, where they suffered miserably during the winter that followed. Bering was among the casualties, dying on December 8, 1741. In the following August, the few survivors made it back to Petropavlovsk. Today the island where Bering died is known as Bering Island, and the passage between Siberia and Alaska is called the Bering Strait.