Bust of Vitus Bering

Vitus Jonassen Bering 1681 -1741

Vitus Jonassen Bering was one of the world's most famous explorers. He was born in Horsens, Jutland (Denmark) in 1681. He went to sea as a young man and began a long career as a seaman. In 1703, Bering enlisted in the newly formed Russian navy. He moved to Russia, where he married and had children. Apart from a single visit to Copenhagen in 1715, Bering never saw Denmark again.

The First Kamchatka Expedition (1725 - 1730)

Having distinguished himself during Russia's war with Sweden (The Great Nordic War), Bering was promoted from second lieutenant to commander.  In 1725, he was selected by Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) to explore far northeastern Siberia and seek a North East Passage. These were uncharted waters, and the easternmost extent of Russia was unknown. Some thought that Asia and North American were connected.  Bering left St. Petersburg on February 5, 1725. Moving men and supplies across Siberia, he reached Okhotsk in two years.  There a ship was built that carried the expedition across to the Kamchatka Peninsula.  On Kamchatka they constructed another ship, Gabriel, and prepared for sea. In the summer of 1728, Bering sailed north through what we know now to be Bering Strait. During this expedition, the American coast was shrouded in fog and invisible to Bering and his crew. On August 13, he rounded the northeast corner of Asia. Bering was convinced that he had sailed far enough north to establish that Asia and North America were not connected, proving the existence of the North East Passage.  The expedition returned to Kamchatka and the following year made an abortive search for land to the east.  Bering returned to St. Petersburg in 1730, where he was criticized for not actually having seen the American coast.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733 - 1743)

The second Kamchatka Expedition, also called the Great Nordic Expedition, was perhaps the largest scientific venture the world has ever known. It included 10,000 men, who in a series of sub-expeditions, were to chart the Russian-Siberian coast and the west coast of North America as far south as Mexico, carry out scientific research of the enormous area, send ships to American and Japan, and generally promote Russian commercial and territorial interests. Bering was commissioned as leader and overall organizer. Returning to Okhotsk in 1735, Bering had local craftsmen Makar Rogachev and AndreiKozmin, build two vessels, the St. Peter and St. Paul.  During construction, he explored northern Siberia. In 1741, he commanded the St. Peter while Aleksei Ilich Chirikov (d.1748) commanded the St. Paul. They set out from Okhotsk, rounded Kamchatka, founded the town of Petropavlovsk, and then sailed eastward to America. En route, the vessels were separated by a storm. Bering sighted the St. Elias Mountains on the northern Gulf of Alaska coast on July 16. The scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller led a landing party to Kayak Island or the vicinity. Forced by adverse conditions to return to Kamchatka, Bering sailed past Kodiak Island, discovered some of the Aleutian Islands.  Bering was afflicted with scurvy and became too ill to command his ships.  They were driven to refuge on an uninhabited island in the Commander Islands, which they mistook for the coast of Kamchatka. Here they spent the winter living in driftwood huts that were dug into the sand.  On December 19, 1741, Bering died on the island that would bear his name. Nearly half his company met the same fate. The few survivors managed to reach Kamchatka in the summer of 1742.

Bering's grave is found

Recreation Image of Vitus Bering

Along time passed until the value of Bering's explorations became apparent.  Captain James Cook was a future explorer who verified and benefited from Bering's discoveries. Although Vitus Bering is world famous, the exact nature of his appearance is unknown. A few portraits exist, but there are doubts about their authenticity. This was a primary reason for establishing a Russian-Danish research team that was to find and excavate Bering's grave and subsequently recreate his face from the cranium. The research team consisted of Russian archaeologists and forensic physicians as well as Danish archaeologists from Hoarsens Museum.

In August 1991, Bering's grave and the graves of five other seamen were discovered. The remains were transported to Moscow where they were investigated by forensic physicians who succeeded in recreating Bering's appearance. In 1992, Vitus Bering and the other seamen were buried again on Bering Island.

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[Last updated: 2008-12-23]