The Discovery of Alaska
Vitus Bering was born in 1681 while growing up in the Danish town of Horsens. From the time he
was a small child, Bering had a love for the sea. He began sailing while very young and quickly
learned the sea. |
Bering later joined the Russian Navy. Vitus worked very hard and was able to quickly rise to the position of Captain. He also greatly impressed Peter the Great of Russia during his work. Later Vitus retired to his home in Finland.
Not long after he was called back by Peter the Great to take command of the Siberian expedition. The purpose of this expedition was to determine once and for all whether Asia and North America were joined. Bering was to find and chart America's northwest coast.
After much planning and hard work Vitus Bering and his crew took off from St. Petersburg, Russia. The expedition's initial progress was rapid, and by the end of March the ship had reached the Siberian town of Tobolsk. Here they continued to store up on more supplies and prepare for what they planned to be only a seven week journey. They had no idea of the geography of the area that lay ahead of them. After much preparation they set sail on their voyage.
Bering, however, was aging and tired easily. It made it difficult for him to endure the rough seas and long days. After much sailing, Bering in command of the St. Peter, set their course southeast because others on board insisted that land was to be found in that direction. Unfortunately, as they sailed this route they were mistakenly heading toward Hawaii which was thousands of miles away. By the time Bering had altered his direction to the northeast, they had sailed hundreds of miles south while missing the entire Aleutian chain.
On July 26, Chirikov (a crew member on the ship) wrote, he and his men spotted "some very high mountains, their summits covered in snow, their lower slopes, we thought, covered in trees. This we thought must be America." They were right. The St. Peter had reached an island in the Alexander Archipelago, probably Prince of Wales Island, on Alaska's southeast coast. It had taken virtually ten years to reach this point. A member of the crew, a German naturalist, Georg Steller, was recorded as being the first white man to step on Alaskan soil. This occurred on July 13, 1941.
A lack of fresh water forced Bering and his crew to return to Russia. As they journeyed home they were able to pass the Aleutian chain that they had missed on their earlier voyage. Their supplies dwindled and ran out forcing them to attempt a landing on a remote island. Severe winds blew them into the rocks and their ship was wrecked. At this time, most of the crew including Vitus Bering died of scurvy. Some of the remaining sailors survived by feeding on fish and seals. Later they built a boat from the shipwreck and sailed back to Russia.
Photo by: Alaska State Musuem
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