Book on a Friday: the Russian Exploration of America (pt. 2)

Welcome! Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Part one is here.) We left off with the death of Yermak and defeat of his Cossack warriors at the hands of Kutchum Khan’s Tartar forces on the banks of the Irtysh, Siberia.

800px-ob_watershedAs usual, quotes are in “” rather than blockquotes.

“Tartar hostility checked southward expansion, but the rivers invited progress toward the north, while their interlocking tributaries facilitated eastward advance. In common with other frontiers this one advanced irregularly rather than phalanx-like. Around Lake Baikal, for example, Buriat resistance was so stubborn that progress was greatly retarded and Irkutsk was not founded until 1651. In the meantime an ostrog had been built on the Lena in 1632, and traders had pushed on to the waters of the Pacific at Okhotsk in 1639, to the Amur by 1643, and to the Anaduir by 1649. The Kamchatka peninsula was reached in 1650, but the hostility of the natives delayed its occupation for half a century. …

russia-far-eastern-region-map-1“The waves of the North Pacific wafted to Kamchatka some intimations of America: trunks of tall firs and other trees not to be found on the bleak Siberian coast, an occasional dugout canoe, whales with strange harpoon heads imbedded in their back. Land-birds came from the east and went away again. Among the Chukchi in the Anaduir district were a few peculiar women, wearing walrus ivory lip-plugs and speaking a foreign tongue.”

EvX: I believe the “Anaduir” district is now the Anadyrsky District. The Chukchi people live in one of the world’s coldest environments, and traditionally lived similarly to other arctic peoples, like the Sami (Lapps):

aleutsandrelativesdna eskimoandneighborsdnaThe Chukchi are traditionally divided into the Maritime Chukchi, who had settled homes on the coast and lived primarily from sea mammal hunting, and the Reindeer Chukchi, who lived as nomads in the inland tundra region, migrating seasonally with their herds of reindeer. The Russian name “Chukchi” is derived from the Chukchi word Chauchu (“rich in reindeer”), which was used by the ‘Reindeer Chukchi’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘Maritime Chukchi,’ called Anqallyt (“the sea people”).

The Chukchi of far north eastern Russia are closely related to the Eskimo people of Alaska. Their neighbors, like the Selkups and Evens, are more closely related to the Aleutian people.

Back to Caughey:

“Cartographers, in the meantime, exercised their speculative faculties in plotting an island of continental proportions in the North Pacific. They called it Terra de Jeso or Gama Land, and according to popular belief, it was rich in gold and silver. A companion idea, that of the Strait of Anian, caught the fancy of Peter the Great and impelled him, as one of his last official act, to send out an expedition in search of the Northeast Passage. From several who volunteered the czar selected Bering, a Danish sailor who had enlisted in the Russian navy in 1704 and had risen rapidly from the ranks because of his bravery, excellent seamanship, and experience in the East and West Indies.

mysterious, non-existent blob-land
Go explore the mysterious blob-land near Kamchatka!

“Peter’s instructions to Bering were to go to Kamchatka, to build one or two boats, to sail north to determine whether or not America was connected to Asia, to sail to some European settlement in America  or to speak to a European ship in those waters, to make a landing, to draw up an account and prepare a chart, and to bring them back to St. Petersburg.”

EvX: Wikipedia has nothing on specifically “Terra de Jeso” or “Gama Land,” but it does mention “Joao-da-Gama-Land,” which is clearly the same thing, on the page about Bering’s expeditions. Joao-da-Gama-Land, however, does not have its own page. (Go forth, my friends, and make one!)

Peter’s directions were much easier given than filled:

“The overland journey to Kamchatka was itself a stupendous task. Leaving St. Petersburg at the end of January, 1725, Bering traveled to Tobolsk, down the Irtysh, up the Ob, across a long portage to the Yenisei, and up the Tunguska and Ilima to Ilimsk where he had to tie up for the winter on September 29th. the next season’s journey began with a descent of the Lena to Yakutsk. Her Bering divided his force into several groups, the largest of which went overland by pack train to Okhotsk. Cold set in earlier than usual and all the horses were lost, and because they did not reach Okhotsk in time to provide food for their cattle, he had to butcher them. … The division under Spanberg had greater difficulty. These men attempted a part water route. When their boats froze in, they struggled on with hand sledges, often with no other provender than the carcases of Bering’s horses. Relief parties came back to their assistance early in 1727, but by no means all of the men or materials arrived at Okhotsk even then.

“During the winter Bering had built a boat…. he transported his party across the Okhotsk Sea to the mouth of the Bolshaya River on the inner side of the Kamchatka peninsula. But when ascent of this stream proved impossible for the small boats built for the purpose, sledges were resorted to for crossing of the peninsula. …

“For his stupendous achievement in crossing Russia and Siberia and constructing and equipping the St. Gabriel at Kamchatka, Being has received just encomiums of praise. But in connection with his voyage to Icy Cape he has been stigmatized as a common ship captain, devoid of the explorer’s instinct, and unfit to lead a scientific expedition into the Arctic. He went far enough to assure himself that Asia and America were not connected, but not far enough to acquire convincing proof. It was left for Captain Cook a half century later to clarify the question of the width of Bering Strait and for Baron Wrangell a century later to prove positively that the continents are separate.

“Four more winters passed before Bering reached St. Petersburg to make his report. The Empress was favorably impressed and ordered a second expedition to carry out the rest of the original instructions. This time Bering attacked the task with appreciably diminished enthusiasm…

“Not until 1741 could the actual voyage begin. On june 4th of that year the two vessels Bering had built at Okhotsk sailed from Petropavlovsk, Chirkoff and seventy-five men on the St. Paul, Bering with an identical number on the St. Peter. Their plan was to sail southeast to 46 degrees where they expected to find Gama Land, then to turn northeast to America, north to 66 degrees, the latitude of Icy Cape, then due west to determine the width of Bering Strait.”

To be continued…


3 thoughts on “Book on a Friday: the Russian Exploration of America (pt. 2)

  1. Re: relation between Chukchi, Eskimo, and Aleut, not sure if you’re talking about genetic or linguistic relation, but Eskimo-Aleut is a very established language family, and while Chukchi, if memory serves, is at best loosely related to some other Siberian languages… (By “loosely” I mean that the least controversial classifications just group the non-turkic/Mongolian/Uralic Siberian languages into a group for convenience but no explicit genetic relationship… That said, without being currently up-to-date with Siberian or Native American linguistics research, I don’t know what the current state of things is, but there are definitely unreasonably conservative people in historical linguistics… And I mean “conservative” purely in relation to the academic field, not politically)

    Fun fact: female Chukchi speakers have a slightly different phonology than male speakers… It would be a bit like if in English, women said “cat” and “sat” the same, but not “rat”, while men pronounced “rat” and “sat” the same, but not “cat”… (Actual phonemes involved are different)


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