Empires In The Northwest


Southward the insatiable promyshleniki ran into resistance from the Chinese in Outer Mongolia. One countermeasure used by the Orientals was the stopping of all shipments of tea, silk, and medicinal herbs into Russia. Quickly the tea-thirsty Russians pulled the promyshleniki back behind the border and negotiated a treaty that designated an official boundary point where Russian traders would be allowed to meet Chinese caravans from beyond the Gobi Desert. Since by Chinese law only silver or fur could be received in exchange for the caravans’ goods, fur became the principal base of Siberia’s silverless economy.

Meanwhile the eastern wilderness of Siberia, including the gigantic peninsula of Kamchatka, remained mysterious land. The primitive Chukchi of the northeast Asian coast, for example, did not seem to know that a continent reached its end in their territory; and so long as the promyshleniki found a profitable supply of sable, they did not care where they were, scientifically speaking. The Russian throne, however, had passed, toward the close of the Seventeenth Century, into the hands of a man who did care. He was Peter the Great, westernizer of his nation and almost the first Russian to have any interest in creating a workable navy.

One of Peter’s last acts, as he lay dying in agony from the effects of his mammoth debaucheries, was to call out of self-imposed retirement, late in 1724, one of his sulky foreign naval officers, a methodical, heavyset, 44-year-old Dane named Vitus Bering. Bering was ordered to go across the almost trackless continent to Kamchatka, build a vessel where neither shipways nor supplies existed, discover whether a land bridge linked Asia to America, and then explore the coast of the neighboring continent. If the Dane chanced to find the Northwest Passage along the way so much the better; for the dying Peter was tantalized by the possibility that his non-seafaring nation might accomplish what had eluded the great maritime countries of the world.

Nearly three and a half years of staggering labor and dreadful suffering passed before Bering at last launched his sixty-foot vessel, the St. Gabriel , from the eastern coast of Kamchatka, and bore northward, hugging the shore line. One month and a dozen degrees later, the hitherto north-trending coast swung sharply westward. Bering now guessed that he had passed the farthest reach of Siberia. But it was a guess only. To quiet his scientific conscience he sailed northward two more days, to 67° 18’. No land was visible. Afraid to continue lest unfavorable winds result in fatal delay, he jumped to the conclusion that America and Asia were not joined, then turned back. Though on the return journey he reportedly stayed well out to sea, he failed to see, in the dense mists, the new continent he was supposed to examine.∗

∗History has been kind to Vitus Bering. Bering Strait was probably discovered by a Cossack, Simon Dezhnev, who embarked from the Arctic coast in 1648, eighty years before Bering’s trip. Bering’s was the official venture, however, and so it is by his name that the strait is known. Also, immediately after Bering started home for St. Petersburg, an untrained army officer named Michael Gvosdev took the St. Gabriel within sight of Alaska. But again the trip was unofficial; again there was no proper credit.

On March 1, 1730, five years after his departure from the capital city, Bering returned to St. Petersburg. There the academicians pointed out from the comfort of their studies how inconclusive his findings were. Intensely annoyed, the Dane stubbornly demanded that a second expedition be dispatched to check on what he said.

Surprisingly enough, his record considered, Bering was given charge not only of this expedition, but of three more interlocking ones as well. Before he had time even to be bewildered, he learned that he was now supposed to study the natural resources of Siberia, chart the entire Arctic coast, explore from Kamchatka southward toward Japan and eastward toward the mythical continent of Gamaland. Finally, he was directed to look into the matter of America.

Five hundred and eighty laborers, mechanics, priests, soldiers, traders, scientists, and whatnot were assigned to him. Many, Bering included, took along their wives and children. Out in the wilderness more hundreds of reluctant natives had to be impressed for transporting food and clothing, books and instruments, necessities and trivia. Scores of barges had to be built at each waterway, thousands of pack horses readied at each portage. Local officials, appalled at the requisitions placed upon them, had to be won or forced into compliance. Bering’s own men bickered and dueled among themselves, built up resentments among the natives, bore tales to their commander, sought his favors, and then intrigued behind his back.

Not until 1740, seven years after leaving St. Petersburg, was the Dane able to cross the Sea of Okhotsk to the new port of Petropavlovsk on the eastern coast of Kamchatka Peninsula, jumping-off point for America. Along the way one of his supply barges ran aground, losing its cargo. As a result Bering in the St. Peter and his lieutenant, Alexei Chirikov, in a companion vessel, the St. Paul , left Avacha Bay with only five months’ supply of food aboard instead of the two-year quota on which they had counted.