Exploration Friday: Russia in the New World, pt 3

Welcome back. Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Parts one and two are here.) When we left off, Vitus Bering and his crew had struggled (twice!) across the expanse of Siberia, built a boat, and set out in a futile quest to fin Joao-da-Gama-Land, which doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. Bering’s quest, however, does:

The Great Northern Expedition … was one of the largest organised exploration enterprises in history, resulting in mapping of the most of the Arctic coast of Siberia and some parts of the North America coastline, greatly reducing the “white areas” on the maps. The endeavour was initially conceived by Russian EmperorPeter I the Great and implemented in practice by Russian Empresses Anna and Elizabeth. …

With over 3,000 people directly and indirectly involved, the Second Kamchatka expedition was one of the largest expedition projects in history. The total cost of the undertaking, completely financed by the Russian state, reached the estimated sum of 1.5 million rubles, an enormous amount for the period. This corresponded to one sixth of the income of the Russian state for year 1724.[1]

“Shortly after they foreswore hopes of finding this mythical continent, a storm gave Chirikoff [commander of Bering’s second vessel] excuse to separate from the St. Peter. He sailed east and sighted land on July 15th, apparently just off Latuya Bay. … Chirikoff brought the St. Paul as close to shore as he dared. He saw timid natives in two canoes, but they refused to come near. His only alternative was to sail for Kamchatka. On the way he skirted the Aleutian Islands, anchoring at one of them on September 9th These natives were almost as timid as those seen along the mainland, though they did bring some skins of fresh water. Scarcity of water and supplies and the sickness of most of the men necessitated returning to Avatcha, whee anchor was dropped on October 10th.

1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering's second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands
1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering’s second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands

“Bering, in the meantime, had wasted time and energy in additional search for Chirikoff and for Gama Land. Then he set his course northeast and then north, sighting land on the fifteenth or sixteenth of July in the vicinity of Mt. St. Elias. One day was spent taking on fresh water at a nearby island, while Steller the naturalist made a hurried study of botanical and zoological specimens and deduced what he could of the human inhabitants by examining a shellheap,the remains of a fire with bones scattered about, and an abandoned habitation. The general irritability of the entire group showed itself int he cross purposes of Steller and Bering. The naturalist had the better of the repartee, remarking “that this long and expensive expedition had been planned in order to fetch American water to Asia, and that ten hours of exploration corresponded to the ten years of preparation,” but the commander had his way and the return voyage was begun forthwith.

“Wet and stormy weather with the winds usually contrary slowed their westward passage. They spent forty days going from Kayak to the Shumagin Islands. Over Steller’s protest the boat crew loaded brackish water here, though good was available, and consequently the scurvy became more virulent. Beyond the Shumagin Islands the weather was still worse, with veering and uncertain winds, interspersed with wild storms from the west. According to their reckonings they were almost to Avatcha when land was sighted early in November.”

800px-a_new_and_accvrat_map_of_the_worldEvX: Note that this voyage, begun in 1741, occurred before John Harrison perfected his Marine Chronometer in 1761, and so Bering and his men had no accurate way to measure their longitude at sea. “Reckoning” here is likely dead reckoning–that is, an estimation based on speed and direction. This is a very difficult way to reckon your position across hundreds or thousands of miles of stormy ocean with any accuracy, as many a drowned sailor has learned.

“For some time Bering had been so ill that he was not actually in command. He urged that they struggle on to Avatcha, but the other officers and the men insisted upon putting in at this bay, convinced that they could sail or walk to Avatcha after the sick had recuperated. …

“A short foray inland convinced Steller that this was an island and not Kamchatka,…. Not all of the scurvy victims improved, and by January 8th, thirty lives had been lost including that of the commander.

“Bering Island, on which they were wintering, was quite bleak and dismal. … in the spring they attacked with zest the task of constructing a smaller vessel out of the wreckage of the St. Peter. … with prayers to St. Peter the forty foot craft was launched on August 8th, and five days later the forty-six survivors embarked. …

“They sighted the Kamchatkan shore after three days’ sail, but contrary winds delayed them another ten days in reaching Avatcha. their arrival was the occasion for great rejoicings, and the icon of St. Peter in the church at Petropavlovsk was adorned with silver by some of the saved men. It has been insinuated, however, that those who had given Bering’s men up for lost and had appropriated their belongings were not so elated over their return. …

“the Russian government kept the reports of his explorations secret, and as late as 1750 a scholarly paper was read before the Academy at Paris to prove that he had not reached America. Not until considerably later did extravagant admirers come to call him a “Russian Columbus.” But an immediate sensation was created by the make-shift fur clothing worn by the returned castaways. Chinese merchants at Kamchatka offered what seemed fabulous prices for these sea-otter pelts, initiating thus an interest in this fur trade. For a century thenceforth the sea-otter was to be the magnet attracting Europeans to the North Pacific.”

EvX: And cue the fur rush.

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7 thoughts on “Exploration Friday: Russia in the New World, pt 3

      • This might be one of those things that’s hard for us to understand in the 20th/21st century… After all, when there are perfectly good and cheap artificial materials to keep us warm and comfortable, it’s easy to say there’s no reason to kill a cute fluffy animal for its fur/pelt, but as much as I dislike the idea of even killing annoying animals, let alone cute ones, I also am extremely sensitive to fabrics, as was one of my grandfathers (which makes me suspect it’s genetic, as I spent very little time with him), so I think if I’d lived a few centuries ago, I probably would’ve ignored my moral qualms to spend the winter not itching like crazy, if I had the means to do so… (And, I think it’s a fair comparison, ethically, to wearing cotton 200 years ago–what people would accept to be comfortable in the summer, rather than winter, but still…)

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