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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Government  >  Making of Alaska
The First Europeans
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Some written accounts claim that the first Europeans to establish a settlement in Alaska were two Russian explorers -- Semyon Dezhnev and Fedot Alekseev -- as early as 1648. However, there is little existing proof of those stories, and actual credit for the "discovery" of Alaska is given to Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator for the Russian navy, who sighted Alaska in 1741 and would die on the return leg of his discovery voyage for Czar Peter the Great.

On June 4, 1741, two ships sailed eastward from northern Siberia to determine whether North America and Asia were joined, or if other lands lay between them. While Vitus Bering commanded the St. Peter, second-in-command Aleksei Chirikov piloted the St. Paul. Heading into the unmapped region, the ships became separated on June 20 and never found each other again. Chirikov, aboard the St. Paul, officially first sighted Alaska at Prince of Wales Island on July 15. However, according to Bering's writings, he could make the same claim, spotting what is now Mount St. Elias during a break in the clouds on July 15. When Bering's account was later published, it became clear that he alone saw the mountain that day; others in the crew had their doubts.

"We saw land as early as July 15," he wrote, "but because I was the first to announce it, and because, forsooth, it was not so distinct that a picture could be made of it, the announcement, as usual, was regarded as one of my peculiarities; yet on the following day, in very clear weather, it came into view in the same place."

On July 20, the St. Peter made landfall at Kayak Island, just east of Prince William Sound, and while crew members went ashore for fresh water, Bering allowed his shipboard zoologist, physician, and botanist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, a mere 10 hours on land to collect as much data and samples as possible. He rejoined the crew at the end of the day amid threats to reboard immediately or be left behind. The frustrated Steller would later write, "Whoever stops to consider how much one man, without assistance, can accomplish in ten hours on a small island would easily see that my failure to discover any minerals is not due to carelessness or laziness on my part."

Steller was certainly anything but lazy. His collecting frenzy was a remarkable scientific achievement, and he reboarded with sketches and samples of previously unknown birds, mammals and plants, including raspberries and a jay that would later be known as the Steller's jay. He is also credited with discovering a now-extinct sea mammal called the Steller's sea cow on the voyage homeward. That leg of the journey was ill-fated, however, and the sailors ran aground on a island off the Siberian coast. There Bering and almost half the crew would die. Nine months later, the survivors, including the zealous naturalist Steller, would build another vessel from the wreck of the St. Peter and set out for home. The St. Paul, under Chirikov's leadership, had safely returned to Petropavlovsk the previous October.

The returning ships had proof of the riches that lay to the east: sea otter pelts more dense and luxuriant than any seen before. With the news of unequaled opportunity in a new land, the first of many rushes to exploit Alaska's resources began.

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Gallery of Images
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Map of Bering's voyage
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"A map of the new northern archipelago discovered by the Russians in the Seas of Kamtschatka & Anadir"
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View of St. Peter and St. Paul from Kamchatka
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Bust of Vitus Bering
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Vitus Bering

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