North Central Washington

The Voyages of Bering and Steller in America
Early Sitka

by George Wooten

link to St. Lawrence Island image
St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea off the coast of Russia.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Roussan

I. Bering's First Expedition

Vitus Bering, born in 1681 in Horsens, Denmark, joined the Russian Navy when he was 22 years old. Soon after 1721, Tsar Peter ordered Bering to take charge of an expedition for Siberia, leaving from St. Petersburg, with the primary goal of determining whether Siberia and North America were or were not joined by a land bridge. By the time of the Tsar's death on February 8, 1725, the expedition's first party of 26 men was underway. By March they had gone 1,300 miles to Tobolsk.

After breakup of the ice, they build boats and rafts and went several hundred miles down the Irtysh River, then towed the craft 1000 miles up the Ob and Ket Rivers. They then took an overland route to the Yenisey River, built more boats and towed them upstream to Ilimsk where they overwintered. In the spring, they went overland to the Lena River, built another set of boats, and floated down to Yakutsk. At Yakutsk, the expedition split, leaving first lieutenant Martin Spanberg to continue by boat with the heavy equipment, while Bering went 500 miles overland by horse to Okhotsk.

Siberian winter caught Spanberg with his boats on the Yudoma River, so Spanberg, another determined Dane, set off for overland for Okhotsk across a boggy 2000 foot plateau, hauling the equipment through six foot deep snows and temperatures of 50 below. The native Yakuts helped a little, but then deserted the explorers. Bering finally was able to come to Spanberg's aid and bring back Spanberg and some of his men to Okhotsk in January, but the rest of Spanberg's men and the equipment were stranded till April. At Okhotsk, another ship was built, which crossed to Kamchatka in the summer of 1727. In the winter of 1727-1728, the equipment was hauled 400 miles across the mountains to the east coast of Kamchatka. Apparently, the native Kamchadals were poorly treated by some of the explorers at this stage of the expedition, except for Steller's studying of native ways, an act of compassion that was later to save many lives but ironically cost him his own life.

On the Pacific, they built another ship, the St. Gabriel, by the end of three years on the expedition. They sailed north and with the direction of the native Chukchis, and eventually found and named St. Lawrence Island, after the day whose festivities it's discovery fell upon. They then sailed north for the Bering Strait, and finding no land bridge, sailed back to Okhotsk in the spring of 1729, finally returning to St. Petersburg in March 1730, five years since the beginning of the task set by the Tsar.

II. Saved by Steller

Three years later after his first expedition, Bering was sent back for a more conclusive determination of what lay eastward. He was to survey the Kuril Islands, the Bering Strait (if it existed), the North American west coast, the north coast of Siberia, build facilities such as lighthouses and dockyards, and introduce cattle into Siberia.

The second expedition began with 3000 men just to get to Okhotsk, 3 1/2 years after leaving. The expedition had 30 scientists, including Georg Wilhelm Steller. Steller was born in Windesheim, Germany in 1709, son of a cantor and music teacher. Steller had studied medicine, natural science, theology and botany at Halle. Also on the expedition was Professor Georg Gmelin, and a student, Stepan Krasheninnikov. Although most of the scientists turned back at Yakutsk, Steller continued.

At Kamchatka it took 3 years to build the St. Peter and the St. Paul. The boats eventually sailed for Petropavlovsk in the Gulf of Avacha on the east coast of Kamchatka. At this time, Steller and young Krashennikov explored south Kamchatka by dogsled, collecting plants, animals and minerals. By the time they set sail from Petropavlovsk on June 4, 1741, the north-flowing Siberian Rivers had been followed to the Arctic coast by another party led by Spanberg, who had boated from Okhotsk to the Kurils and Japan, thereby completing one part of the Tsar's orders. Eight years had passed since the second expedition left St. Petersburg. The government of St. Petersburg indicated costs were too high and cut Bering's pay. Bering was aging far beyond his 60 years. Bering commanded the St. Peter, Alexei Chirikov the St. Paul.

The two ships sailed southeast, missing the Aleutians because explorer de la Croyere had erroneously reported land in that direction. The two ships became separated in the fog, but continued onward. On July 26, Chirikov spotted high mountains, probably Prince of Wales Island in Alexander Archipelago. The next day, eleven men went to shore in a long boat to try and land on what was probably Baranov Island, but these and a second party never returned and they were abandoned after a week, partly due to rough water which may have capsized the boats. Sitka Indians had tried unsuccessfully to lure the ship in. So Chirikov sailed back, sighting many of the Aleutian Islands on the way. Twenty men died of scurvy on the return trip, and on reaching Siberia, the other half were prostrate with only half a barrel of water remaining.

On July 28, the other ship, St. Peter, sighted 18,000 foot Mt. Elias. Bering spent ten hours on Kayak Island east of Prince William Sound. In that time, Steller collected, listed or described 143 species of plants, birds and animals. Bering saw smoke and a fireplace, but no natives. The next morning, they set out for Kamchatka, against the wind. After five weeks, the men started to die, beginning with Nikita Shumagin (where there is a small island named after him). Steller, having learned from native Kamchatkans that certain plants cure scurvy, attempted to gather fresh grasses and seaweeds, but the skeptical crew refused to help.

Through October, the St. Peter fought westward, through one storm that lasted seventeen days. The ship's log entries grew confused due to the scurvy. By November, only ten men could move. They were now only 100 miles from Kamchatka in a snowstorm on a tattered ship. Despite Bering's pleas, the men tried to land on Bering Island, and as it lay at anchor, a wind came up and wrecked the ship on the shore. Those who could move brought the living and the dead to shore for protection and burial, constantly fighting off the attacks of wild foxes. Bering died on December 8. At about that time, largely because of Steller, the men began to rally some strength, mostly due to Steller's instructions to eat green plants. By January 1742, with some men hunting otters, seals and birds, the scurvy had halted, but now 32 of 78 men on the St. Peter were dead.

Under commands of Waxel, the men rebuilt an essentially seaworthy 40-foot vessel from the wreck of the St. Peter, improvising wildly with such things as berry juice for caulking the vessel. They sailed in mid August with no space to lie down in. On the third day a massive leak sprouted and the winds calmed, necessitating rowing. The second St. Peter reached Petropavlovsk in two weeks.

Steller's return got him into trouble with Russian authorities for supporting the Kamchadal people. Formal charges were pressed against him, and even though he was adjudicated several months later, that message had not arrived when he crossed the Urals and he was imprisoned forthwith and taken back to Siberian prison. When his release papers finally arrived, he returned back across Siberia in the winter, but at Tyumen, near the Urals, he died of a fever, and his bones were scattered by the wolves.

III. How Sitka came to be American

During the winter of 1814-1815, a standoff developed between Russian Navy Captain Lazarev and Aleksandr Baranov, Governor of New Archangel (Sitka in Alaska). The showdown resulted in a hasty evacuation by Lazarev, leaving Baranov with the surgeon from the ship Savorov, German-born Egor Schaeffer, an unpopular member of the ship's company. Dr. Schaeffer had a degree in natural science as well as medicine; he was a botanist and an accomplished speaker in several languages, of which English, would be of use to Baranov.

Baranov got the idea that Schaeffer would be an ideal emissary to help heal offended feelings between Baranov and King Kamehameha in Hawaii, who needed a physician and would appreciate the value of a scientist there. Schaeffer sailed for Hawaii in the fall of 1815.

Unfortunately for Baranov, Schaeffer took up a secret treaty with Kamehameha's rival, King Kaumualii on Kauai, exchanging rights to a trading station, plantation, and indeed a whole province, for the promise of Russian aid of ships and arms and acknowledgment of Kaumualii as a vassal of Tsar Alexander. Eventually the situation escalated and Schaeffer barely escaped with his life on an American ship to Canton.

Viewing such growing expansion of the Russian and other colonial powers with distrust, United States President James Monroe may have gotten the initial impetus to formulate the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, establishing de facto governments in the New World and discouraging further colonialization. In 1825, Britain signed a similar treaty with Russia, establishing such things as the present demarcation of the Canadian and Russian borders with America, including the present border between Canada and Southeast Alaska.

By 1828, the British Hudson's Bay Company ended up with the upper hand controlling the Canadian region from Columbia to the Russian border. In 1830, a new governor of New Archangel was appointed, an Estonian-German explorer and scientist, Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell. He dealt with the loss of fur trading to the American and British through stimulating exploration and a renewal of important educational, religious and medical services to the colony. In this way, the Russians, through Wrangell, and with support from the powerful native Tlingits, and the British Hudson's Bay Company's Sir George Simpson, struck a contract that excluded the American Hell ships. These ships were so-called that because of the cruel way they had of obtaining furs through subrogation and cruelty to native and European contacts, and from their continued further excursions into the Pacific.

Also during the 1820s, Ioann Veniaminov (nee Ivan Popov) took over the Aleut mission in Unalaska, bringing his wife, son and dreams. The new priest was the first to encourage the teaching of natives in their own tongue, along with education, building trades, religion and navigation. So successful was he that Veniaminov eventually was sent to try and school and convert the Tlingits at New Archangel, at which he was reasonably successful. He was aided by the appointment of a new Governor, Captain Adolf Etolin, in 1840, who rewarded native accomplishments with fair administrative positions. This furthered the Russian presence up and down the coast, and on the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Nushagak Rivers. This period lasted until 1841, when Veniaminov learned of his wife's death and returned to mainland Russia. Meanwhile Etolin banned liquor and established an annual native Tlingit Festival, which sponsored native wares. By 1848, many churches and the Cathedral of St. Michael had been built. Science was respected and valued through minerological, navigational, and hydrological surveys, and the study of native artifacts. In 1859 a college was opened at New Archangel. In 1868, Veniaminov, at 71, was elected Metropolitan of Moscow, which he retained until his death eleven years later, but his church was to continue.

In 1840, the British opened the Opium War against China, which stimulated the Russians to recapture the territory about the Amur River which they had signed off to the Manchu rulers 165 years previously. During 1854 to 1856, Russia enjoined the Crimean War against England and France. In the east, Russia "won" the Battle of Petropavlovsk against British Admiral Price and three British and three French battleships, the first casualty being that of Admiral Price, who shot himself, much to the disgust of the French. Unfortunately, the casualties throughout the country left Russia destitute by the time peace arrived.

Tsar Nicholas died in 1855. Muraviev sailed down the China coast to South Korea and due to his intrepid fortitude, prevailed on the Yi-Shan to sign a new treaty opening Chinese ports to the Russians.

Muraviev believed that eventually America would come to own all of North America, and at this time he conceived the idea of selling Alaska rather than having to eventually yield by force. In March 1857, Grand Duke Constantine wrote Prince Gorchokov, reiterating just this. Gorchakov was willing, if the price were high enough. In 1860, just before the American Civil War, the Russians, represented by Edouard Stoeckl in Washington, got a preliminary offer of five million dollars. At this time, the American-Russian Commercial Company was distributing west coast goods from San Francisco. By the end of the war, however, Alaska was off the market. By 1866, the prospects of continued costs of maintaining the Company led Stoeckel to renew negotiations, which eventually passed the American Senate in 1867, more as a gesture of amity than of any acquisition of perceived wealth in Alaska. By 1868, the US was over a year late in paying up for "Seward's Folly", as neither nation really wanted Alaska. The check was soon signed. New Archangel's name was changed to Sitka. Russians were given the opportunity to keep their land and become American citizens, and the rest left after 126 years of Russian rule.

Under the American rule of Jefferson Davis, Sitka became an unsanitary lawless port. Drunkenness and syphilis spread among the Tlingit. Within ten years Sitka was a ghost town with only twenty families. On October 18 of each year, the anniversary of the transfer is reenacted in Sitka.


  • Alekseev, A. I., translated by Marina Ramsay, ed. R. A. Pierce. 1990. Alaska History No. 34, The Destiny of Russian America, 1741-1867, Limestone Press, Fairbanks, AK.
  • Chevigny, Hector. 1979. Russian America - The Great Alaskan Venture 1741-1867, Binford and Mort, Portland, OR.

Essay compiled by:
George F. Wooten
226 West Second Avenue
Twisp, WA 98856