Russian Voyages to Alaska Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Russian explorers and scientists mounted expeditions to the northern Pacific, surveying and occupying the region. These excursions paved the way for the later Russian settlement of Alaska.

Summary of Event

After a Cossack discovered the Chukotski Peninsula—the easternmost “nose” of Siberia Siberia —in 1648, reports about Alaskan Trade;fur fur traders led people to believe that water divided North America from Asia. The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm convinced Czar Peter the Great Peter the Great in 1716 to send an expedition eastward to confirm its existence. Peter undoubtedly was interested for scientific and imperial reasons, but also because Siberian furs were bringing less state revenue than earlier and he wished to rejuvenate this trade. In 1719, he dispatched two men to explore the Kamchatka region Kamchatka region, Russia , located on the eastern shore of what is now the Bering Sea, across from Alaska. Although the expedition of Evreinov, Ivan Ivan Evreinov and Luzhin, Fedor Fedor Luzhin failed to show that America lay near the Kuril Islands, both were praised for locating them in relation to Japan and Kamchatka. Peter gave the next expedition more precise instructions. [kw]Russian Voyages to Alaska (July, 1728-1769) [kw]Alaska, Russian Voyages to (July, 1728-1769) [kw]Voyages to Alaska, Russian (July, 1728-1769) Exploration;Alaska Alaska, exploration of [g]American colonies;July, 1728-1769: Russian Voyages to Alaska[0730] [c]Exploration and discovery;July, 1728-1769: Russian Voyages to Alaska[0730] [c]Colonization;July, 1728-1769: Russian Voyages to Alaska[0730] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;July, 1728-1769: Russian Voyages to Alaska[0730] Bering, Vitus Jonassen Chirikov, Aleksei Ilich Spanberg, Martin Gvozdev, Mikhail Spiridonovich Fyodorov, Ivan Krenitsyn, Pyotr Kuzmich Levashov, Mikhail Dmitrievich Shelikov, Grigori Ivanovich Steller, Georg Wilhelm Trapeznikov, Nikifor Sindt, Ivan

The most important person associated with the early voyages to the North Pacific was Vitus Jonassen Bering. Although Danish, Bering became a captain commander of the Russian fleet, first under Peter and later under Empress Anna. From his native seaport of Horsens, Denmark, Bering had traveled to the East Indies in 1703. Recruited as a sublieutenant for the young navy of Czar Peter, Bering engaged in Russia’s wars in the Baltic, Black, and Azov Seas. By 1720, he had beem promoted to captain second class. Desirous of greater rewards, he retired from service in 1724 to live on his Vyborg estate, only to be recalled by Peter later that year. Peter elevated him to captain first class and, heeding the advice of Admiral Peter Sievers, another Dane, entrusted Bering with the difficult mission to determine whether America was connected with Siberia. Days before his death on January 28, 1725, Peter gave his personal instructions for this mission, which called for Bering to sail east to America’s coast and then south to the nearest European settlement.

Bering’s party made the arduous Siberian journey, then built a ship, the Saint Gabriel, in Kamchatka. Aleksei Ilich Chirikov and Martin Spanberg, Spanberg, Martin another Dane, were officers with Bering when the ship was launched in July, 1728. In August, they discovered Saint Lawrence Island, and after discussing the option of returning to Kamchatka, they proceeded northward. The ship passed through the strait that would bear Bering’s name at 67° 18′ north latitude. On their return, they discovered Big Diomede Island, but the fog was so heavy that Bering could not see the Alaskan shores 25 miles away. In September, Bering arrived at Kamchatka to spend the winter, only to put up sails again in June in search of land to the south and southeast. Failing that endeavor, he returned to Saint Petersburg.

When Bering arrived in the capital on March 30, 1730, his reception was warm, but he soon fell prey to petty politics at the Admiralty. He was certain that he had discovered the strait—as he had—but failed to appreciate the need for proof. As a result of indefatigable labor by the senate secretary, Ivan Kirillov, Anna was persuaded to send Bering on another, more ambitious, mission to the East. Bering was instructed by the senate to map the Siberian rivers, including the Amur, and the Pacific coast of Siberia before proceeding to America. This Great Northern Expedition Great Northern Expedition (1733-1742) (1733-1742) was to include six hundred sailors, five hundred guards, and up to two thousand laborers to haul supplies. Beginning his journey across Siberia in 1733, he found the assignments overwhelming. Forty men died before setting sail, and expenses mounted far in excess of expectations. At Okhotsk, workers constructed two ships, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which sailed to Kamchatka in November, 1740.

A Kolyma Cossack, Cossacks Shestakov, Afanasy Afanasy Shestakov, had organized another expedition to the East in 1726 and left for the North Pacific in 1732. Led by Ivan Fyodorov and Mikhail Gvozdev, a land surveyor and former student at the Moscow Navigation School and Naval Academy, they sailed to the Bering Strait. Parts of the Asiatic and American coastlines were charted Land surveys by Gvozdev as his ship circumnavigated Big Diomede and, on August 21, sighted Alaska, thinking it another large island. Inclement weather prevented the crew from disembarking. Gvozdev’s report of this discovery was ignored and not dispatched to the Admiralty until 1743. On June 4, 1741, Bering, on the Saint Peter, and Chirikov, commanding the Saint Paul, set sail to the south, with specific orders to find and claim the American coastline. Within days, fog became so heavy that the ships separated, although both had changed course to the northeast. When on July 15, Chirikov sighted land in the Alexander archipelago, fifteen of his crew went ashore, never to return. More would later die of scurvy. Before Chirikov returned to Kamchatka on October 10, he had discovered several islands, including Kayak Island.

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A German naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, Steller, Georg Wilhelm kept a journal of the voyage of the Saint Peter. Catching sight of Alaskan mountains, Bering laid anchor near the Copper River, where Steller and some crewmates spent a few hours looking for ore and flora. Bering discovered Kodiak Kodiak Island and other islands, but severe storms and a shortage of fresh water forced him to return. En route, he discovered what he called the Shumagin Islands before a storm wrecked his vessel as they anchored on November 6 at an uninhabited island. Bering died December 8 on the island that bears his name. Although thirty of his seventy-seven men died of scurvy, Scurvy the survivors built another ship from the remains of the Saint Peter, reaching Avacha Bay on August 26, 1742.

Chirikov had gone back to sea in May in search of Bering. After reaching Attu Island, he returned to Kamchatka in July, later taking part in the charting of Russian discoveries in the Pacific Ocean, including the capes in Kyusha Island, the Anadyr Gulf, and Taui, Guba, and Atka Islands. An underwater peak in the Pacific Ocean was named after him.

After 1743, the government tired of expensive voyages and allowed merchants to organize their own expeditions. For two decades, private voyagers exploited the Aleutians rather than sailing eastward to the American mainland. Traders pooled their resources into small venture companies and, with permits from the state, exploited all the Aleutian Islands, sending 10 percent of their furs to the state treasury. One merchant from Irkutsk, Nikifor Trapeznikov, promoted eighteen such voyages from 1743 to 1764.

Authorities could not allow persistent reports of abuse, Genocide even slaughter, of indigenous peoples to go unheeded. Some traders seized all local women and children as hostages, and the natives supplied them with food. This concern, and the desire to map all discoveries of the merchant adventurers, led Catherine the Great Catherine the Great to send expeditions to Alaska after 1764. One was led by a Baltic German, Sindt, Ivan Ivan Sindt, who was with Bering’s second expedition, but his work proved unsatisfactory, even fraudulent. Catherine then dispatched Mikhail Dmitrievich Levashov and Pyotr Kuzmich Krenitsyn eastward. Viewing their roles as cartographers, in 1764 they sailed for the Aleutians from Kamchatka and continued east to Alaska. Forced to winter on separate islands and defend against hostile native inhabitants, they returned to Kamchatka in 1769. There, Krenitsyn drowned in a river. Levashov compiled a useful ethnographic description of the natives of Unalaska and Unimak. His charts of the Aleutians proved accurate in relation to each other, but the islands were placed too close to Kamchatka.

Vitus Jonassen Bering is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in what is now the Bering Sea. He would die there one month later.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)
Significance

Although the expeditions never achieved all that officials had desired, the northern Pacific waters became Russian. Okhotsk became a base for the Russian navy, and Bering’s settlement at Avacha Bay became the port of Petropavlovsk. The Great Northern Expedition amassed a prodigious amount of scientific data, including Steller’s treatises on plants, fruits, insects, sea otters, fish, and the languages of the native peoples. More expeditions would be undertaken, but Russia’s interest in Alaska was transformed in 1784 when Grigori Ivanovich Shelikov established the first Russian settlement in the Americas, on Kodiak Island.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barratt, Glynn. Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1981. A closely written narrative with special insights into the politics, grand and minor, of the expeditions and their participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Lydia T. Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004. A history of the Russian presence in Alaska, describing the fur trade, the relationship of the Russians with the Native Americans, and other aspects of Russian frontier life. Black maintains the Russian expansion in Alaska was the culmination of centuries of social and economic change. Includes foldout maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dmytryshyn, Basil, E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughn, and Thomas Vaughn, eds. and trans. Russian Penetration of the North Pacific Ocean, 1700-1799. Vol 2. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1988. Contains a valuable introduction to many translated documents about the explorations of Siberia and America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frost, O. W. Bering: The Russian Discovery of America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Frost uses newly discovered materials, including personal letters and evidence derived from the discovery of Bering’s grave, to examine the personality, life, and voyages of Bering and his uneasy relationship with naturalist Georg Steller.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golder, Frank A. Bering’s Voyages. 2 vols. New York: American Geographical Society, 1922-1925. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1968. The definitive study, with documents, of the earliest expeditions to North America, viewing these voyages in the perspective of Russia’s traditional eastward expansion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Starr, S. Frederick, ed. Russia’s American Colony. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. Especially valuable essays by B. P. Polevoi and James R. Gibson on differing Russian and American views of the early explorations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steller, Georg Wilhelm. Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742. Edited and with an introduction by O. W. Frost. Translated by Margritt A. Engel and Frost. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A beautifully written account of science, politics, and personalities, by the naturalist who accompanied Bering on his second voyage.

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