EXPLORERS: Captain Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) and Captain Alexei Ilyich Chirikov (1703-1748)

FROM: Hørsens, Denmark (Bering); Russia (Chirikov); sailed on behalf of Russia

IMPORTANT DATES: First Kamchatka Expedition organized in 1725; returned 1730; Second Kamchatka Expedition departed in 1733; entered north Pacific in 1740; expedition ended in 1743

VOYAGE: sea, horse and cart, portage and river

VESSELS: Sviatoi Gavrill (Saint Gabriel), First expedition; Sviatoi Petr and Sviatoi Pavel (Saint Peter and Saint Paul), Second expedition

POTENTIAL PURPOSE: territorial and resource claims, charting, geological, and other scientific findings; search for passage/continental connection to North America
EXPLORERS: Captain Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) and Captain Alexei Ilyich Chirikov (1703-1748)

FROM: Hørsens, Denmark (Bering); Russia (Chirikov); sailed on behalf of Russia

IMPORTANT DATES: First Kamchatka Expedition organized in 1725; returned 1730; Second Kamchatka Expedition departed in 1733; entered north Pacific in 1740; expedition ended in 1743

VOYAGE: sea, horse and cart, portage and river

VESSELS: Sviatoi Gavrill (Saint Gabriel), First expedition; Sviatoi Petr and Sviatoi Pavel (Saint Peter and Saint Paul), Second expedition

POTENTIAL PURPOSE: territorial and resource claims, charting, geological, and other scientific findings; search for passage/continental connection to North America

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Video

A Map Showing the Routes Taken by Captain Bering and Captain Chirikov

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Vitus Jonassen Bering was born in Hørsens, Denmark, in August of 1681. His father, Jonas Svendsen, worked with the government of the town, which sits on a seaport on eastern Jutland, the Danish peninsula. Bering’s mother, Anna Bering, was part of a well-known and accomplished family, although neither parent came from a naval background. Bering entered service for the Dutch East India Company as a teenager, and in 1703 sailed to the East Indies, returning to Amsterdam. In 1704, he was invited to serve as a lieutenant in the navy of Peter the Great of Russia, a common placement for Danish officers. Between 1715 and 1720, he rose from a fourth to a second ranking captain, but was not promoted following the war between Russia and Sweden, which ended in 1721. He gave the Russian navy an ultimatum in 1724: if he did not reach the rank of first captain, he would resign his commission. He left for his estate in Vyborg, Finland. Czar Peter contacted Bering, now 43 years of age, in August of that year, requesting that he lead the First Kamchatka Expedition of exploration. When he returned, he was sent out to the Pacific a second time. He died on expedition in 1741, at the age Read More
Vitus Jonassen Bering was born in Hørsens, Denmark, in August of 1681. His father, Jonas Svendsen, worked with the government of the town, which sits on a seaport on eastern Jutland, the Danish peninsula. Bering’s mother, Anna Bering, was part of a well-known and accomplished family, although neither parent came from a naval background. Bering entered service for the Dutch East India Company as a teenager, and in 1703 sailed to the East Indies, returning to Amsterdam. In 1704, he was invited to serve as a lieutenant in the navy of Peter the Great of Russia, a common placement for Danish officers. Between 1715 and 1720, he rose from a fourth to a second ranking captain, but was not promoted following the war between Russia and Sweden, which ended in 1721. He gave the Russian navy an ultimatum in 1724: if he did not reach the rank of first captain, he would resign his commission. He left for his estate in Vyborg, Finland. Czar Peter contacted Bering, now 43 years of age, in August of that year, requesting that he lead the First Kamchatka Expedition of exploration. When he returned, he was sent out to the Pacific a second time. He died on expedition in 1741, at the age of 62.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

An Illustration of Captain Bering

An Illustration of Captain Bering

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Alexei Ilyich Chirikov was born in 1703 in Russia. He attended the Russian Naval Academy and graduated in 1721. He then served as an instructor of cadets at the academy. Just four years later, in 1725, he was appointed as lieutenant for an expedition under Captain Bering. Chirikov sailed on both the First and Second Kamchatka Expeditions in 1725 and 1733, with Bering on the Sv. Gavrill on the First and as commander of the Sv. Pavel on the Second. Chirikov earned a reputation for courage and common sense during the expeditions, and launched a mission in 1742 to find the Sv. Petr when Bering went missing. He survived the expedition and returned to Russia to receive his promotion to kapitan-komandor and to be presented to the Empress Catherine. He contributed to the preparation of expedition charts before his death from tuberculosis in Moscow in November of 1748.
Alexei Ilyich Chirikov was born in 1703 in Russia. He attended the Russian Naval Academy and graduated in 1721. He then served as an instructor of cadets at the academy. Just four years later, in 1725, he was appointed as lieutenant for an expedition under Captain Bering. Chirikov sailed on both the First and Second Kamchatka Expeditions in 1725 and 1733, with Bering on the Sv. Gavrill on the First and as commander of the Sv. Pavel on the Second. Chirikov earned a reputation for courage and common sense during the expeditions, and launched a mission in 1742 to find the Sv. Petr when Bering went missing. He survived the expedition and returned to Russia to receive his promotion to kapitan-komandor and to be presented to the Empress Catherine. He contributed to the preparation of expedition charts before his death from tuberculosis in Moscow in November of 1748.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

An Illustration of Captain Chirikov

An Illustration of Captain Chirikov

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


This excerpt comes not from the writings of Bering, but from the account of the Kamchatka Expeditions by Gerhard Friedrich Müller, a German member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. Müller travelled to Siberia on the Second Kamchatka Expedition but turned back for St. Petersburg before the ships left Okhotsk.  In 1758, he published the only official account to come out during the 18th century.  It was based upon the reports of expedition members Spanberg, Walton, Stellar, Waxell, Captain Chirikov, and the expedition maps and logs delivered to the Admiralty College.  The passage recounts the events of early November 1741, as the scurvy-ridden crew of the Sv. Petr drifted helplessly in the north Pacific.

“The continual rains now began to turn to hail and snow.  The nights became ever longer and darker, and with that risk increased because they could not for a moment be certain about the safety of the ship.  At the same time an almost complete lack of fresh water developed.  The few people who were on their feet could no longer endure so much work.  They excused themselves with this impossibility and wished for t Read More

This excerpt comes not from the writings of Bering, but from the account of the Kamchatka Expeditions by Gerhard Friedrich Müller, a German member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. Müller travelled to Siberia on the Second Kamchatka Expedition but turned back for St. Petersburg before the ships left Okhotsk.  In 1758, he published the only official account to come out during the 18th century.  It was based upon the reports of expedition members Spanberg, Walton, Stellar, Waxell, Captain Chirikov, and the expedition maps and logs delivered to the Admiralty College.  The passage recounts the events of early November 1741, as the scurvy-ridden crew of the Sv. Petr drifted helplessly in the north Pacific.

“The continual rains now began to turn to hail and snow.  The nights became ever longer and darker, and with that risk increased because they could not for a moment be certain about the safety of the ship.  At the same time an almost complete lack of fresh water developed.  The few people who were on their feet could no longer endure so much work.  They excused themselves with this impossibility and wished for themselves only an early death – which they saw as inevitable – and much preferable to such a miserable life.

The ship remained for a few days without any government.  It lay like a log on the water and was left naked to the winds and waves, wherever these wanted to drive it.  No strictness could have been used against the despairing crew … some allowed themselves to be persuaded to remain on deck and they resolved to work as long as it was possible for them.

This was the condition of the ship when, early in the morning of 4 November, they began to sail toward the west without knowing in what latitude they were or how far they might still be from Kamchatka.  How could they know this, since it had not been possible to take observations in such a long time?  Consequently the ship’s reckoning, since it remained so long without correction, must have daily increased in uncertainty.  However, a westerly course was the only one by which they could still hope to get back to Kamchatka.  And how glad they were soon after that when, at eight o’clock in the morning, they were able to see land!”


© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, intended to expand and modernize his country, and became a supporter of scientific and exploratory endeavours.  Peter sent an overland expedition across Siberia in 1719, which returned in 1723 with information about the Kamchatka Peninsula and some surrounding islands. He then ordered an expedition to determine whether Asia and North America were joined, or were two separate lands, as well as if there were European ports on the other side.  Czar Peter died just weeks before Captain Vitus Bering and his lieutenant Alexei Chirikov set out in 1725 from St. Petersburg. Their expedition party crossed Asia with 75 carts, using horses and travelling the Vologda and Lena rivers. 

They built the ship Sv. Gavrill at Okhotsk and finally set sail on July 14, 1728.  They sailed along the Asian coast to 65º 30´ North latitude, at which point most believed they had proved the separation of the two continents. They proceeded to 67º North latitude, in the midst of what would later be named the Bering Strait.  They did not encounter the mythical Gama Land depicted on Deslile’s maps, circulating at t Read More

Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, intended to expand and modernize his country, and became a supporter of scientific and exploratory endeavours.  Peter sent an overland expedition across Siberia in 1719, which returned in 1723 with information about the Kamchatka Peninsula and some surrounding islands. He then ordered an expedition to determine whether Asia and North America were joined, or were two separate lands, as well as if there were European ports on the other side.  Czar Peter died just weeks before Captain Vitus Bering and his lieutenant Alexei Chirikov set out in 1725 from St. Petersburg. Their expedition party crossed Asia with 75 carts, using horses and travelling the Vologda and Lena rivers. 

They built the ship Sv. Gavrill at Okhotsk and finally set sail on July 14, 1728.  They sailed along the Asian coast to 65º 30´ North latitude, at which point most believed they had proved the separation of the two continents. They proceeded to 67º North latitude, in the midst of what would later be named the Bering Strait.  They did not encounter the mythical Gama Land depicted on Deslile’s maps, circulating at the time.  After wintering on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the expedition returned to Okhotsk and was back in St. Petersburg in March of 1730.  They had sailed east and come just short of making a sighting of the North American coast.

Now ruled by Catherine the Great, the Russian government intended for the Second Kamchatka expedition to travel as far south as Mexico.  Chirikov noted that the distance would be much too great for a single expedition season, and the Admiralty College accepted his recommendation.  Once again, the expedition was to sail east to the Pacific coast of North America and see who, and what, in terms of furs, metals and other resources, was there.  Bering left St. Petersburg in April of 1733.  The gruelling cross-Siberian journey was repeated with three parties, which, including soldiers and scientists, totalled 500 people.

An advance party had already begun construction of two new vessels when Bering arrived at Okhostk in 1737.  In September of 1740, seven and a half years after first setting off from western Russia, Bering and Chirikov sailed the Sv. Petr and Sv. Pavel around the Kamchatka Peninsula to winter in Avacha Bay.  On June 4, 1741, they headed east.  Within two weeks the vessels were separated.  Chirikov returned to Kamchatka on October 10, 1741.  The surviving crew of the Sv. Petr returned on August 27, 1742: the crew rested for eleven months before making the return crossing to St. Petersburg, where the expedition officially ended in 1743.


© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

A Model of the Sv. Petr

A Model of the Sv. Petr, courtesy of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The First Kamchatka Expedition of 1725-1730 required years of preparation and provided new geographical information for the Russians.  Bering had entered the strait that now bears his name but had not reached the North American coast.  However, the expedition had established basic facilities at the fishing port of Okhotsk, disproved the existence of Gama Land, and made an accurate guess that Asia and North America were distinct continents.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition of 1733-1743 had scientific as well as imperial intentions. After the Sv. Petr and Sv. Pavlov were separated in mid-July, Chirikov sailed east and Bering’s crew spotted mountains, naming the highest peak St. Elias. Between the 18th and the 20th of July, both Chirikov and Bering had, separately, reached North America.  Bering, fearing diminishing supplies and poor sailing conditions for the rest of the voyage, granted German botanist Georg Stellar and other scientists who had come on the lengthy journey just one single day to work ashore.  They stopped at other islands, interacting and making some small trade with the local peoples with the aid of an indigenou Read More

The First Kamchatka Expedition of 1725-1730 required years of preparation and provided new geographical information for the Russians.  Bering had entered the strait that now bears his name but had not reached the North American coast.  However, the expedition had established basic facilities at the fishing port of Okhotsk, disproved the existence of Gama Land, and made an accurate guess that Asia and North America were distinct continents.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition of 1733-1743 had scientific as well as imperial intentions. After the Sv. Petr and Sv. Pavlov were separated in mid-July, Chirikov sailed east and Bering’s crew spotted mountains, naming the highest peak St. Elias. Between the 18th and the 20th of July, both Chirikov and Bering had, separately, reached North America.  Bering, fearing diminishing supplies and poor sailing conditions for the rest of the voyage, granted German botanist Georg Stellar and other scientists who had come on the lengthy journey just one single day to work ashore.  They stopped at other islands, interacting and making some small trade with the local peoples with the aid of an indigenous translator from eastern Siberia.  On August 30, the Sv. Petr sat at anchor off the Shumagin Islands off the Alaskan coast, and in early September they sailed the south side of the Aleutians, trying to get back to Kamchatka before the winter set in.

Chirikov sailed the Sv. Petrov back to Kamchatka in October, but Bering and the Sv. Petr were immobile, as almost the entire crew had scurvy.  Bering’s men landed on an island and, after Bering’s death, managed to build a small vessel from the wood of the Petr, which was too large to re-float and sail with the diminished crew.  The ship’s carpenter had also perished with scurvy, but the sailors managed to craft a small vessel and made their way back to the Siberian coast when the winter passed.


© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Chart of the Russian Expedition

Chart of the Russian Expedition to North America 1741, published by the Royal Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg circa 1760

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Captains gave their lives to their expeditions, devoting themselves and basing their reputations on their duties and explorations.  Often, they also suffered from illness contracted while at sea, or, like Magellan, Cook, Clerke, La Perouse, and Bering, they died before they could return home.

By the autumn of 1742 on the Second Kamchatka expedition, Vitus Bering had, like most of his crew, developed a serious case of scurvy.  The condition of the crew of the Sv. Petr was so poor that they could not sail the ship, and had all but given up hope of surviving when they ran aground on an island on November 5. It had a stream with fresh water, but no wood for constructing shelter.  The sandy hills of the island formed cave-like depressions, and it was decided that those still able to move would remove the sick crewmembers from the ship to try to return them to health.  Many died during or soon after being moved onto land.  Captain Bering, now in his 60s, suffered greatly and was carefully carried to his own sand-shelter, where the ship’s doctor tried to assist him.  Bering died on December 8, 1742, under sand and snow on the northe Read More

Captains gave their lives to their expeditions, devoting themselves and basing their reputations on their duties and explorations.  Often, they also suffered from illness contracted while at sea, or, like Magellan, Cook, Clerke, La Perouse, and Bering, they died before they could return home.

By the autumn of 1742 on the Second Kamchatka expedition, Vitus Bering had, like most of his crew, developed a serious case of scurvy.  The condition of the crew of the Sv. Petr was so poor that they could not sail the ship, and had all but given up hope of surviving when they ran aground on an island on November 5. It had a stream with fresh water, but no wood for constructing shelter.  The sandy hills of the island formed cave-like depressions, and it was decided that those still able to move would remove the sick crewmembers from the ship to try to return them to health.  Many died during or soon after being moved onto land.  Captain Bering, now in his 60s, suffered greatly and was carefully carried to his own sand-shelter, where the ship’s doctor tried to assist him.  Bering died on December 8, 1742, under sand and snow on the northern Pacific island.  It is said that the sand rolled in to slowly bury him as he died, but that he refused to let anyone clear it away for the little warmth it provided.

In 1991, archaeologists travelled to the site of that terrible winter, on what was named Bering Island in the captain’s honour.  They excavated Bering’s remains, and a forensic scientist in Moscow reconstructed the captain’s face based on his skeleton.


© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

A Bust of the Captain Bering

A Bust of the Captain Bering, courtesy of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

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