Vitus Bering

Vitus Bering (1681-1741), a Dane in Russian employ, led two major exploratory expeditions that significantly expanded knowledge of the northern Pacific region.

Vitus Bering was born in the Danish town of Horsens in the summer of 1681. He became a lieutenant in the Russian navy in 1704, and during the Great Northern War he served in both the Black and Baltic seas. In January 1725 Peter I asked Bering to command the first Kamchatkan expedition, the aim of which was to determine the extent of the Siberian mainland and its relationship to North America.

Bering led the expedition over 6,000 miles of wilderness and reached Okhotsk on the Pacific coast on Sept. 30, 1726, nineteen months after leaving St. Petersburg. The group built ships and sailed to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The ship Gabriel was built there, and on July 14, 1728, Bering began his first exploration. The Gabriel sailed northward, rounding East Cape on August 14. Since the Asiatic coast trended westward and no land appeared to the north, Bering decided that he had fulfilled his mission; he turned back at latitude 67° 18' to avoid wintering on a desolate and unknown shore. The expedition spent the winter at Kamchatka, where Bering saw numerous signs indicating land to the east. But bad weather during the following summer frustrated his attempts to locate this land, and the expedition returned to St. Petersburg in March 1730.

Great Northern Expedition

Since Bering had not explored the coast of Siberia beyond East Cape, critics claimed that he lacked courage and initiative and pointed out that the relationship between Asia and America remained a mystery. In defense Bering proposed another exploratory mission, and in 1732 he was given command of the Great Northern Expedition. But what began as a fairly modest proposal was unrealistically inflated by the government. Bering was to locate and map the American coast as far as the first European settlement; other groups, coordinated by him, were to chart the Siberian coast and determine once and for all whether Asia and America were connected. Not only was Bering encumbered by a sizable scientific party, but he was also ordered to initiate economic development in eastern Siberia. Hopelessly overburdened, he was given full responsibility but was denied complete authority over his subordinates.

The first detachments left St. Petersburg in February 1733. Crossing Siberia with the throng of jealous officers, balky workers, and insubordinate scientists became a 3-year nightmare. By 1740 preparations at Okhotsk were completed, and the expedition sailed for Kamchatka, where it spent the winter. Bering set out in June 1741 with two ships, but the ships were soon separated and Bering continued alone on the St. Peter. He changed his course to the north and sighted land on July 16. A few days later he landed on what is now Kayak Island; but physically and morally exhausted and fearful of being trapped by contrary winds, Bering turned back toward Kamchatka.

The party sailed erratically southwestward, charting landfalls on the way. By the end of August, Bering was too ill to leave his cabin, and the first of many deaths among the crew occurred. On November 4 the coast of one of what are now called the Komandorskie Islands was sighted. With a battered ship and many sick men, Bering decided to winter on the island. Though he grew weaker each day, he continued to guide his men until his death on Dec. 8, 1741. He was buried on the island which now bears his name.

Forty-five of the 77 officers and men of the St. Peter eventually reached safety in 1742. The various parties of the Great Northern Expedition obtained significant geographic and scientific information: the strait, now named for Bering, dividing Asia and America, was discovered; the Siberian coast from the White Sea to the Kolyma River was charted; and the coast of America from Prince of Wales Island to the Komandorskie Islands was entered on the map.

Further Reading on Vitus Bering

The most authoritative and interesting work on Bering is F. A. Golder, Bering's Voyages: An Account of the Efforts of Russians to Determine the Relation of Asia and America (2 vols., 1922-1925). Peter Lauridsen, Vitus Bering: The Discoverer of Bering Strait (1889), is an apologia and strongly biased, but it is valuable as one of the first Western accounts to use Russian sources. Robert Murphy, The Haunted Journey (1961), is a popular work. An account of the expedition by the man who succeeded Bering is in Sven Waxell, The American Expedition, with an introduction and notes by M. A. Michael (1952). A short account is in Clarence C. Hulley, Alaska, 1741-1953 (1953; rev. ed. entitled Alaska, Past and Present, 1958).