This day in 1741 was a pivotal day in the history of exploration, as it marked the earliest recorded landing of Russian sailors on the northwest coast of the North American continent. Under the command of Vitus Bering, Russian vessels crossed what is now called the Bering Strait for the first time, firmly establishing that no land bridge existed between the two continents, and paving the way for the Russian colonisation of Alaska.
The clamour for territorial expansion was not the preserve of the countries of Western Europe, and the Russian Tsar Peter the Great was keen to explore the eastern reaches of his empire in the hope that it would yield growth and wealth. In 1725, the Tsar mustered a group of experienced sailors to undertake a survey of the coast off the eastern peninsula of Kamchatka, over 4,000 miles east of the Russian capital. In command of the expedition was Danish-born Vitus Jonassen Bering, who, following a distinguished military career, was personally appointed by the Tsar.
During this expedition, Bering was able to fill in a number of the “white spaces” on the map of the empire, and for the first time, was able to chart Russia’s Arctic and Siberian coastline. But while considered largely successful, questions remained unanswered concerning the North American coastline, and the Second Kamchatka Expedition was planned, again with Bering at the helm, and this time with substantial resources at its disposal.
Bering and his men journeyed eastwards at the beginning of 1738, tasked with establishing a link between the Asian and North American continents, and surveying the American coastline. This time the party had two ships: Bering captained the St Peter, while his colleague Alexei Chirikov commanded the St Paul.
They set sail from Kamchatka on 4 June 1741, heading southeast. Almost immediately, a dense fog separated the two vessels, leaving Bering and Chirikov in command of their own separate missions. Both vessels sailed “blind” for hundreds of miles, hoping to stumble across the North American coast.
Bering and his crew finally reached what would later be named Kodak Island on 20 August, in the process achieving the first verifiable Russian landing on Alaskan soil. The landing was brief, as almost immediately Bering decided the party, which was running dangerously low on provisions, should return to Russia. After many weeks sailing, and on the brink of starvation, they sighted land, which they believed to be Kamchatka. They went ashore, only to find that they were in fact on a previously undiscovered island, which afforded little in the way of supplies. Bering eventually succumbed to illness and died on the inhospitable island, and was buried by the surviving members of his crew.
Bering’s men eventually returned to Russia, where their commander’s discoveries, along with those of Chirikov, were made public. It started the period of Russian interest on the North American continent, which only ended in 1867 when Alaska was sold to the US for $7.2 US million. For his exploits, Bering was heralded as a hero of Russia, and many geographical features were named in his honour, including the island where he died.
Credit: © Everett Collection Inc / Alamy
Caption: A 1775 map showing Vitus Bering’s exploration routes.