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Vitus Bering 1681-1741
Vitus Bering — Grim Exhibit
Bering was exhumed simply because no one knew how he looked like.
Horsens Museum

 

Vitus Bering 1681-1741

In 1724, Danish explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering was given the assignment of a lifetime by Russia's Peter the Great.

Bering's task was to discover whether Asia and America had a land connection. Russia's motivation? Possible new trade routes and territorial expansion.

Background Story
to the Image Above

Modern Danish sentiment judged it unsatisfactory that nobody knew the likeness of their hero Vitus Bering.

A well recognized painting, thought to have featured the explorer, turned out to be Bering's uncle, also called Vitus Bering.

There wasn't an image of the man. How was this possible?

And what to do?



Recovering Bering

On August 1st, 1991, a Soviet-Danish group of archaeologists and journalists arrived on Bering Island and, the very next day, begun excavating Vitus Bering's remains, along with the remains of five of Bering's fellow sailors.

Map Location Bering Island
Map Location Bering Island
Google Maps


"We knew where the cabins they had built lay, and we had the expectation that the graves were nearby, but we did not know exactly where they were," remembers Danish archaeologist Orla Madsen, one of the ten Danes that were part of the excavation team that counted 30 people in total.

"Shortly thereafter we found the first bones [...] exactly where we were trying to find the graves. It was the hole-in-one," Madsen says.

Another Dane, Ole Schioerring, reflects on the momentous occasion, "It was a day you will always remember."

This was August 8, 1991. But how could they be so sure that these were the remains of Vitus Bering? According to diaries, Bering was the only one of the six who was buried in a wooden coffin.

There were no trees on the island. "His makeshift coffin was put together out of driftwood and wreckage from his ship, his corpse wrapped in canvas from its sails," Schioerring said.

Their findings were brought to Moscow for examination, after which Victor Zvyaigin, a forensic pathologist, went to work. He reconstructed Vitus Bering's head via educated guess.

Why now, why in 1991?

It had been 250 years since Vitus Bering's death.

Appropriately, all remains were re-buried on Bering Island.

Bering Island Crew Members - Orla Madsen
Gravestones for Bering's Crew Members
Orla Madsen, formerly Horsens Museum

 

The Map of the World in Vitus' Days

Sometimes we take the accuracy of our maps for granted. So let's suppose it's the year 1745, four years after Vitus Bering had died. When we pull out a map, what do we see?

World Map From Circa 1745 by Frederick de Wit
World Map From Circa 1745
Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula by the cartographer Frederick de Wit
We think that California is an island, and we know about Australia and New Zealand, but aren't exactly sure about their coastlines.

Let's zoom in on our vast cluelessness that is the space between Russia and North America:

Map knowledge about Bering Strait
White Space of Ignorance
Cartographers updated their maps based on new geographical discoveries. As illustrated with this map, there was sometimes a significant delay between discovery and map update at the map maker's office.

However, land grabbing and exploiting usually suffers no such delay. As soon as the surviving members of Bering's outfit arrived back home and told their tale, Russians quickly packed their bags and were on their way.

In fact, Cook wrote of his Third Voyage in 1778:

There are Russians on all the principal Islands between this and Kamtschatka, for the sole purpose of furing, and the first and great object is the Sea Beaver or Otter … I never thought to ask how long it was since they got a footing on Oonalaska and the neighbouring isles, but to judge from the great subjection the Natives are under, it must have been some time.


And while we're trying to understand what it was like in those days, what were the chances in those days that you could read?

Literacy Rate 1750

This is an awesome tool by
Literacy Throughout History


Back to Vitus.

 

Was Vitus Bering the First European to Explore Bering Strait?

Nope. In 1648, Russian explorer Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnyov (also spelled Dezhnev) had already sailed through what would become today's Bering Strait. Unfortunately, his discoveries and map drawings (compiled, submitted, read, and archived in 1655 in Yakutsk) didn't get much attention at the time.

Posterity at least gave him Cape Dezhnyov. Here is the map:

Map Location of Cape Dezhnyov (East Cape)
Cape Dezhnyov (East Cape)
Google Map


Incidentally, a member of Bering's Second Kamchatka Expedition, the German historian Gerhard Friedrich Mueller, was also the man who later unearthed Dezhnev's reports in Yakutsk.

In 1719, the surveyors Ivan Evreinof (Evreinoff/Evreinov) and Fedor Lushin (Luzhin) were sent by Peter the Great to discover whether Asia and America are connected. They were back in St. Petersburg in 1722/1723 having been to Kamchatka and the Kurile Islands.

In 1728, eighty years after Deshnev, Bering sailed through the Strait while on his First Expedition.

In 1730, Mikhail S. Gvozdev and Ivan Fedorov went on their expedition that, in 1732, had them sailing through Bering Strait. This expedition also made landfall around what would later be named Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska.

In 1733, Bering went on his Second Expedition, but he did not enter Bering Strait. Instead, he sailed into the Gulf of Alaska (see map below.)

In August 1778, Captain James Cook on his Third Voyage, went up Bering Strait further north than any other explorer before (70°44' N).

 

So, quick recap:

Who Sailed Through Bering Strait and When ?

1648   Deshnev and Popov First official explorers through Bering Strait, yet no credits
         
1719   Luzhin and Evreinov (attempt) They tried but didn't make it to Bering Strait, but they did map the Kurile Islands.
         
1728   Bering Sailed through Bering Strait as part of his First Expedition, but didn't see the American coast
         
1732   Gvozdev and Fedorov Through Bering Strait and made landfall on American soil.
         
1778   Cook Northernmost point of all explorers so far

 

Back to Vitus:

Bering's Life in a Nutshell

Bering was born on August 12, 1681, at Horsens, Denmark. Here is the link to the Horsens Museum, which features a permanent Bering exposition.


:: Bering's Family

His father, a customs inspector and warden in the Lutheran Church, was Jonas Svendsen Halmstad who lived 1637-1719/1720.

His mother was Anne Pedersdatter Bering. She had two younger sisters.

From his previous marriage with his first wife Lisbeth Bendtsdatter, Jonas brought three children into this marriage with Anne: Anna Cathrine, Jonas, and Svend.

With Anne, his second wife, he had two sons: Vitus and Jorgen Christoffer Blymester.

Ten years later, on October 8, 1713, Vitus married Anna Christina Pülse (Puelse)in Vyborg (in today's Russia), which had been taken from Sweden in 1710.

Anna's family was a German-speaking Swedish family. At the time of his wedding, Bering was captain-lieutenant. They had nine children, only four survived childhood.

 

:: Early Years

Vitus' half brothers Jonas and Svend attended the University of Copenhagen, Denmark's oldest university, founded in 1479.

Jonas became a court clerk, and Svend studied theology. Svend ran into legal trouble, participated in a riot, was arrested, and his sentence was commuted to serving 15 years as customs collector in Tranquebar, modern day Tharangampad, India.

Young Vitus decided to come with, earning his fare as ship's boy, and the two took a Dutch vessel direction India in 1696 with a Dutch outfit.

Tranquebar had been a Danish colony since 1620. Here is more from the Danish National Museum on Tranquebar.

Back in the days it had about 3,000 inhabitants. Today around 7,000.

Tranquebar Map Location
Tranquebar Map Location

 

Tranquebar Maps - National Museum Denmark
Tranquebar Maps by National Museum of Denmark

 

:: On Russian Payroll

When Vitus came back home to Europe from India in 1703, Europe was at war. This was the Great Northern War, which was fought 1700-1721.

The same year, 1703, still in Amsterdam, he ran into Niels Olsen, 25 years his senior, a fellow from Norway who had moved to Amsterdam, had changed his name to Cornelius Cruys, and served as admiral in the Russian Navy. This encounter led to Bering's employment by the Russian Navy.

And thus right away, Vitus became a participant in Russia's war against Sweden (Denmark was one of Russia's allies in this war.) However, it seems that Vitus didn't see direct battle.

In a surprising twist of our story, Vitus uncharacteristically opted for voluntary retirement in 1724.

But his retirement lasted only a few months, after which, probably out of a mixture of boredom and no money, he asked to return to active duty. Request granted and Voila, Bering's second Russian Navy career was launched.

And speaking of the Russian Navy:

At the time, the Russian Navy was very appreciative of capable Scandinavian sailors. Tsar Peter the Great, a great naval enthusiast himself, especially welcomed the leading shipbuilders of his time, who came mainly from Denmark and Norway.

One of the Tsar's projects was a map update of his empire, especially with an emphasis on the question whether Asia and America are connected.

In 1719, Peter had sent his surveyors Evreinof (Evreinoff/Evreinov) and Lushin to find out more, but their outfit only made it to the Kuril Islands, which although impressive did not answer Peter's question.

Map Location of the Kuril Islands - Google Maps
Map Location of the Kuril Islands
The Kuril Islands are an 750 miles (1,200 km) long island chain, consisting of 56 islands that run from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia)
to the northeastern corner of Hokkaido island (Japan)
and separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean.
Google Map


Enter Vitus.

 

:: Bering's First Expedition 1725-1730

Also called the First Kamchatka Expedition or Bering's First Artic Expedition

Evreinov and Luzhin returned to St. Petersburg in 1722 or 1723.

Shortly after, on January 3, 1725 (December 23, 1724 Old Style) Russia's Tsar Peter the Great prepared the following orders:

I. At Kamchatka or somewhere else two decked boats are to be built.

II. With these you are to sail northward along the coast, and as the end of the coast is not known, this land is undoubtedly America.

III. For this reason you are to inquire where the American coast begins, and go to some European colony; and when European ships are seen you are to ask what the coast is called, note it down, make a landing, obtain reliable information, and then, after having charted the coast, return.

This is translated from the original Russian, from the book Vitus Bering: the Discoverer of Bering Strait by Peter Lauridsen, member of the Council of the Royal Danish Geographical Society.

You can read it as a Project Gutenberg EBook
 

The date of these instructions is sometimes cited as January 6, 1725. We can't be sure which date is correct, because Peter's original document has not been preserved.

General-Admiral Feodor Matveyevich, Count Apraksin (1671-1728)

February 4, 1725
(January 24, 1725
Old Style)
  In the interest of the expedition, 27 of Bering's 33 men set off. With them 25 wagonloads of materials. Bering himself stayed behind in St. Petersburg to receive their official instructions.
     
February 8, 1725
(January 28, 1725
Old Style)
  Peter the Great died.
     
February 16, 1725
(February 5, 1725
Old Style)
  Vitus Bering received Peter's instructions, which were handed to him by Peter's widow Catherine I. Bering then left St. Petersburg with the rest of his team. The expedition was on its way.

Bering's two right hands were his fellow Dane Martin Spangberg (Spangsberg, or Martin Pedersen Spangsberg or Morten Spangberg, or martyn Petrovich)  and the Russian Aleksey Ilich Chirikov. Both men took part in the First and the Second Expedition.

Of course before anything could be explored, one had to get to the edge of what was already known on a map. The journey from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka was in and of itself a formidable challenge that took three years. Including equipment and supplies.

This trip went via Tobolsk, which Google maps calculates this route as 40 hours by car. Roughly 1,800 miles.

     
May 26, 1725
(May 15, 1725
Old Style)
  They left Tobolsk.
     
July 1727   They arrived at Okhotsk, at the edge of Siberia. They settled in for the winter.
     
July 14, 1727
(July 3, 1727
Old Style)
  Lieutenant Chirikov, coming from Yakutsk, joined. He brought with him an enormous amount of flour.
     
September 1, 1727
(August 21, 1727
Old Style)
  On to Bolsheretsk, a post founded in 1702. By 1727 it had still just 14 Russian houses.
     
March 1728   They crossed the Sea of Okhotsk to arrive on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Once at the edge in Siberia, he built a ship for his crossing to Kamchatka.

So far Vitus had enough challenges with men who had deserted and horses who had died etc. But the real challenge was ahead.

St. Petersburg to Kamchatka / On the Trail of Vitus Bering / Danish Broadcasting Corporation
From St. Petersburg to the Kamchatka Peninsula
On the Trail of Vitus Bering / Danish Broadcasting Corporation


Once arrived on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, they trekked overland to Kamchatka's east coast.

April 15, 1728
(April 4, 1728
Old Style)
  At Lower Kamchatka Post, work begun on building the ship, the Saint Gabriel. Timber had been hauled by dogs, and tar was not available, so they had to make it themselves, which they did out of Larch trees.
     
July 21, 1728
(July 10, 1728
Old Style)
  The ship was complete.
     
July 25, 1728
(July 14, 1728
Old Style)
  Having on board "enough provisions to last 40 men a year," the expedition "sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River out to sea an followed the course laid down by the instructions of His Imperial Majesty Peter the Great."

The actual expedition was on its way.

And here is a picture of the Gabriel:

Bering's ship The Gabriel as drawn by Martin Spangsberg
Bering's ship The Gabriel as drawn by Martin Spangsberg
Kingo Jacobsen, N. (1992). Vitus Bering. Geografisk Tidsskrift, 92.

 

August 21, 1728 (August 10, 1728 Old Style) - Discovery of St. Lawrence Island. They found a few huts, but no people.


August 26, 1728 (August 15, 1728
Old Style) from the logbook:

By August 15 we came to latitude 67° 18' N and turned back because the coast did not extend farther north and no land was near the Chukchi or East Cape and therefore it seemed to me that the instructions of His Imperial Majesty of illustrious and immortal memory had been carried out.

Had we gone on and met with unfavorable winds we might have been prevented from returning to Kamchatka that season, and to have wintered where we were would not have been wise because there was no wood of any kind and the native population does as it pleases, is not under Russian control, and has nothing to do with the Russian tribute collectors.

 

September 13, 1728 (September 2, 1728 Old Style) - They sailed into the mouth of the Kamchatka River and passed the winter in the Lower Kamchatka Post.

June 16, 1729 (June 5, 1729 Old Style) - Having repaired the ship, they left the mouth of the Kamchatka River.

They circumnavigated and chartered the southern part of Kamchatka, then sailed to the mouth of the Bolshaya River, and from there to Okhotsk Post.

They reached the mouth of the Okhota River on August 3, 1729 (July 23, 1729 Old Style), where Bering handed over the ship.

On to Yudoma Cross via horseback, from there by boat down the Aldan River, back onto horseback direction Yakutsk.

Covering the distance from from Okhotsk to Yakutsk took from August 9, 1729 (July 29, 1729 Old Style) to September 14, 1729 (September 3, 1729 Old Style).

On September 21, 1729 (September 10, 1729 Old Style) via boat up the Lena River. Blocked by ice on October 12, 1729 (October 1, 1729 Old Style), therefore forced to spend a part of the autumn in the village of Peleduye.

Onwards on November 9, 1729 (October 29, 1729 Old Style). Arriving at Tobolsk on Jamuary 21, 1730 (January 10, 1730 Old Style).

Onwards on February 5, 1730 (January 25, 1730 Old Style).

On March 12, 1730 (March 1, 1730 Old Style) Vitus was back in St. Petersburg.

 

Hence Bering's first official Arctic expedition set out from the Kamchatka peninsula, and led him through what is today Bering Strait, into the Arctic Ocean.

Map of Bering's First Kamchatka Expedition
Bering's First Kamchatka Expedition
Overland from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka took 3 years alone
Horsens Museum

 

Here you can read the daily logs from Bering's First Expedition as PDF (in Russian) Also included are "brief biographical sketches of Bering and his senior officers from the first voyage."

And this is Bering's own map from his First Expedition. Source: above mentioned PDF.

Bering's map from his First Expedition
Bering's map from his First Expedition
Click to enlarge


Outcome of the First Expedition:

Bering sailed through Bering Strait but had to content with bad weather which made sighting the American coast impossible. However, he made an educated guess that Asia and America are not connected.

What made him think that?

"Sea depths, drift timber, birds etc. had convinced him of the proximity of the mainland."

 

Turned out, his employers wanted something a little bit more solid. Like reaching American soil. So he had to go again.

See map below.

 

:: Bering's Second Expedition 1733-1741

Also called the Second Kamchatka Expedition or the Great Northern Expedition.

To be exact, the Great Northern Expedition is the umbrella term for several voyages made by several Russian teams from 1733 to 1743. Bering's Second Expedition was one of them.

While Russia was now ruled by Tsarina Anna Ivanova, Bering embarked on his second Arctic expedition, starting again from the Kamchatka Peninsula, then into the Gulf of Alaska and back along the Aleutians. He shipwrecked off Bering Island, where he died on December 19, 1741.

As many as 600 men were involved. Spanberg again was the second in command.

Here are his two ships. The St. Peter and St. Paul launched in June 1740.


And here is the map:

Map of Vitus Bering's Voyages - First and Second Expedition 1728 and 1733
Map of Vitus Bering's Voyages
Illustrating: First Expedition 1728-1730 / Second Expedition 1733-1741
Copyright Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Here is more about Ancient Beringia

And here is a map of Ancient Beringia:

Map of Ancient Beringia
Ancient Beringia
Click to enlarge

 

And maybe: Alaska Purchase 1867

 

 


Russian forensics have tried to restore Vitus Bering's face. It can be seen today at Horsens Museum. (Photo: Orla Madsen)

 

Sources

Frank Alfred Golder's Bering's Voyages - An Account of the Efforts of the Russians to Determine the Relation of Asia and America, Volume I and Volume II (1922)

 

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