December 08, 1741 - Vitus Bering Died

From the Book:

A Year of Colonial American Frontier History

Vitus Bering (1681 - 1741) (Note - Many articles list his death as December 19. This is because the Julian calendar was still in use at the time and they use that date. Others use December 8, the Gregorian calendar date. This article uses the Gregorian date.)

A native of Horsens, Denmark Vitus was the son of Anne Pedderdatter and her husband Jonas Svendsen. His parents named him after Anne's brother, Vitus Pedersen Bering. Vitus signed on as a ship's boy at age fifteen and went to sea. During the years, 1694 and 1704 Bering sailed extensively and completed naval officer training in Amsterdam. Bering enlisted in the Russian navy during his time in Amsterdam.

First Kamchatka Expedition

Czar Peter I of Russia appointed Vitus commander of a mapping expedition to determine Russian's eastern boundary and the nature of the North American Continent. The czar had been planning the expedition for many years. Part of his mission was to determine if Siberia and North America connected, or if the ocean separated them.   Departing on January 24, 1726 the expedition departed and traveled overland from St. Petersburg to Okhotsk, a distance of about 3500 miles. Okhotsk is on the eastern border of Russia, its port in the Sea of Okhotsk. The Kamchatka Peninsula is east of the port with Japan and Korea to the south.  Bering's party, after many hardships, completed the mission by July 1729.

Great Northern Expedition

Vitus Bering departed Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski on June 4, 1741. Bering commanded the St. Peter, and his second in command Aleksei Chirikov the St. Paul. On June 20, a storm separated the two ships. Bering continued exploring the area and on July 16, 1741, he sighted Mount Saint Elias. He sent naturalist Georg Steller ashore near the foot of the mountain to record the flora and fauna of this new land.

Georg Steller (10 March 170914 November 1746)

Stellar was a German botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer. Stellar was born to Johann Jakob Stöhler near Windsheim, Germany. He studied science at the University of Wittenberg. After graduation, he traveled to Russia. He learned about Bering's proposed Great Northern Expedition and volunteered to join it. Bering accepted him and he joined the effort in 1738. After separation from Chirikov on June 20, Bering turned the ship east in the belief that he would soon find landfall. Stellar deduced from the sea currents, flotsam and wildlife, that they needed to change course. He argued that he should turn northeast. The course change led to the sighting of Mount St. Elias. Stellar landed on Kayak Island on July 20, 1741. Bering had given him ten hours to observe wildlife and gather information. While ashore, Stellar gathered berries, leaves and other specimens. It was because of Stellar’s return to the ship and the information he gathered that Bering gets “official” credit for Alaska’s discovery and not Chirikov the previous day.

Bering's Death

After Stellar came back to the ship, Bering decided to return to Russia. The crew was sick with scurvy, as was Bering, and storms continued to buffet the ship. Stellar tried to give the crew some of the berries and leaves to eat. He said it would to cure the scurvy, but the officers rebuffed him. Bering, sickened by scurvy, gave over control of the ship to his second in command, Sven Waxell. The stormed forced the crew to take refuge on an uninhabited island in the Commander Islands. Bering died on this island on December 8, 1741. The crew named the island Bering Island in his honor after his death.

Return of the Expedition

The crew spent the winter on the island and built a new ship from the ruined St. Peter. The forty-six surviving crewmembers returned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski in late August, 1742. Upon their return, they found out that Chirikov had returned the year before. He had then mounted a rescue operation in 1741 that came within a few miles of finding them.