7/1/11 - russia colonizes america

In today's excerpt - the expeditions of Vitus Bering, after whom the Bering Strait is named, were part of a successful Russian effort to colonize America in the early 1700s. Russia's dominion a vast portion of North America ended over a century later with the U.S. purchase of "Alaska" from Russia under the administration of President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward—a transaction known as "Seward's Folly":

"The expedition of Vitus Bering known as the second Kamchatka expedition was inspired by the progressive reforms of Peter the Great and continued by his widow, Empress Anna Ivanovna.

"The second Kamchatka expedition was one of the most ambitious scientific and exploratory expeditions ever undertaken. Based on Bering's sober proposal to follow up on the inconclusive results of his first voyage in search of America a decade earlier, the second expedition was designed to show Europe the grandeur and sophistication of Russia. By the time Bering saw his final instructions in 1731, they had swollen to such grandiose proportions that he scarcely recognized them. He would be at the head of a virtual army of exploration: a few thousand scientists, secretaries, students, interpreters, artists, surveyors, naval officers, mariners, soldiers and skilled labourers, all of whom had to be brought to the eastern coast of Russia across eight thousand kilometres of roadless forests, swamps and tundra, along with tools, iron, canvas, food, books and scientific implements.

"Once he arrived in Kamchatka, Bering was supposed to build two ships and sail east to America, charting the North American Pacific coastline as far south as California, in addition to charting the coasts of Kamchatka and the Arctic Ocean and establishing astronomical positions throughout Siberia. Concurrently, he was to build another three ships and survey the Kuril Islands, Japan and other areas of eastern Asia. These were his most reasonable and practical instructions. His orders also called for him to populate Okhotsk with Russian citizens, introduce cattle raising on the Pacific coast, found elementary and nautical schools in the distant outpost, construct a dockyard for deepwater ships, and establish iron mines and ironworks for smelting ore. Not surprisingly, despite Bering's Herculean efforts, these tasks would not be completed for generations.

"On June 5, 1741, Bering's two ships slid out of the makeshift dockyards at Petropavlovsk, lurched into the grey, choppy waters and hoisted sails. ... For almost a month, it was a dreary and uncertain voyage; the voyagers saw nothing but sky and sea until July 16. Then, their first view of America: a mighty, snow-dusted spire shrouded in fog. It towered over a vast range of smaller mountains, snug against the coast as far as the eye could see, with endless forests of green emerging into view through the mist. ...

"After exploring several islands, encountering a variety of native peoples and its passengers realizing the enormous size of the new lands to the cast, Bering's ship was wrecked on an island off the Russian coast. Scurvy took hold during the voyage and killed many of the crew as well as Bering himself. The island where they spent a wretched winter eking out a miserable existence is now known as Bering Island, after the doomed captain."


Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 by Stephen R. Bown


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