The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel
Vitus Bering

discoverer of the strait between Alaska and Russia

possible portrait of Vitus Bering

Vitus Jonassen Bering was born in Horsens, Jutland (now Denmark) in 1681. He went to sea as a young man, and learned navigation on Dutch and Danish ships, traveling to both Danish East Indian and West Indian colonies.

In 1703, Bering enlisted in the fledgling Imperial Russian Navy. He subsequently distinguished himself in both the Great Nordic War and Russo-Turkish War, and by 1725 had reached the rank of Commander. In 1718 he married Anna Christina Piillse of Viborg, Karelia. Apart from a single brief visit to Denmark in 1715, Bering never saw his native country again.

Kamchatka Expedition

In late-1724, Tsar Peter I put Bering in charge of an expedition charged with trekking overland across Siberia to the eastern coast of Russia, from which it was to explore and map the lands (or waters) between Russia's eastern border and the North American continent. The expedition set off from St. Petersburg on February 5, 1725, and had reached the Siberian town of Tobolsk by the end of March. After building up a considerable store of supplies, the expedition set out again on May 15. What was expected to be a seven-week overland journey ended up taking considerably longer, and the expedition did not reach the eastern coast of Siberia until 1728.

After reaching the coast, Bering had a ship built, which carried the expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula, where another ship was built. On July 25, the expedition put out to sea through the mouth of the Kamchatka River and cruised northward along the shore. The ship eventually reached a point where land could not be seen on either side, leading Bering to conclude that North America and Asia were separated by water (what is now known as the Bering Strait). He then sailed back to his departure point, from which the expedition made the overland trek back to St. Petersburg, which was reached in the summer of 1730.

Great Nordic Expedition

Soon after returning to St. Petersburg, Bering began drawing up plans for another expedition to the east, one which would involve considerably more people and have much more ambitious motives (including the possible establishment of a colony on the western edges of North America). Empress Anna Ivanova supported Bering's proposal, but the political situation in Russia was tense at that time and she was unable to financially support such a venture. Her position had finally stabilized by the end of 1732, and by 1733 Bering had put together an expedition consisting of about 10,000 soldiers, boatmen, carpenters, naval officers and scientists, plus many of their families, including his own. This expedition was then split into several smaller parties, each of which was charged with exploring a different area of Siberia.

Bering and his part of the expedition left St. Petersburg in 1733, and reached Okhotsk (on the Kamchatka Peninsula) in 1735. Bering then spent three years building ships and a support city, and was joined by his wife in 1739. He then spent another two years having a supply base built at what is now the city of Petropavlovsk, from which he set sail with two ships on June 4, 1741. The two ships lost sight of each other due to heavy fog on June 20. The ship commanded by Lieutenant Aleksey Chirikov made it to what is now Sitka and saw natives in the area, but never went ashore, and returned to Petropavlovsk in October.

Not knowing what happened to his other ship, Bering continued his own voyage. Upon reaching an island off the southeastern coast of Alaska (Prince of Wales?), he allowed German naturalist and physician Georg Wilhelm Steller to spend about 10 hours studying and recording the flora and fauna before ordering the ship to resume its voyage. The expedition then sailed down the southwestern coast of Alaska Bay to the Alaskan Peninsula and then south of the Aleutian Islands. Along the way the crew caught sight of a volcanic peak, which he named Mount St. Elias (a name it still has today). One of the sailors died and was buried on an island that was later named after him (Shumagin Island). With supplies running low, Bering decided on August 10 not to spend the winter in America, but to head back to Kamchatka.

Blown off course by fierce winter storms and with a crew so seriously afflicted by scurvy that only three men were able to work on deck, Bering's ship finally sailed within sight of land on November 4, 1741. With their sails and rigging already splitting apart from repeated storms, the exhausted crew so wanted this to be Kamchatka that many thought that they spotted the landmarks of the peninsula from which they had sailed over a year before. The ship was hurled up on the only stretch of beach along a coastline otherwise dominated by rocky cliffs. While scouting for food it was determined that the men were on an unknown island, not the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The crew spent the winter on the island, living in driftwood huts that were dug into the sand. Thirty men succumbed to scurvy and starvation on the island, including Bering. The survivors eventually built a boat from the wreckage and, on August 17, 1742, set out from what is now called Bering Island. They reached Petropavlovsk on August 26.

map of Bering's voyages



Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel

This page was last updated on 08/19/2018.