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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Russian Discovery

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Bering, Chirikov, and Gvozdev


Although Danish by birth, Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) spent most of his adult life in the Russian navy. In 1725, shortly before his death, Peter the Great instructed Bering to prove definitely that Siberia was separated from North America and to find the nearest European settlement in the New World. During the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-30), Bering and his assistant lieutenant, Aleksei Chirikov (1703-48), sailed north along the coast of Kamchatka, and in August 1728 passed between the two continents. Convinced of the existence of a large landmass to the east, the Russian government decided to form a second expedition that would explore this territory. Sailing in two ships, Bering and Chirikov landed at several places along the Aleutian Islands and the coast of the North American mainland between June and September 1741. On the return voyage, Bering's ship was forced to land on one of the Commander Islands east of Kamchatka where he and many of his crew died of scurvy.

Unlike the expeditions of Bering and Chirikov, the exploration of the Alaskan coast by Mikhail Gvozdev has not entered into popular history. Motivated as much by the desire to discover new sources of fur as by scientific curiosity, Gvozdev and his crew reached the shore of the North American mainland in late August 1732. Although strong winds prevented them from landing, they were able to learn about the "Big Land," as it was called, from native Alaskans who rowed out to their ship. Information about this voyage was recorded in the logbooks of the pilot, Ivan Fedorov, and in the reports of Gvozdev to the Admiralty Board in St. Petersburg.

Spain and Russia in the West

Responding to the exaggerated fears voiced by Father Jose Torrubia and others, Spain extended its presence along the Pacific. Establishing missions and presidios throughout California, the Spanish reached as far north as Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) in 1787. Preoccupation with Russia caused Spain to underestimate British and American advances, which increased once John Ledyard announced the high prices received for furs in China.

Jose Torrubia

[The Muscovites in California, or rather, Demonstration of the passage from North America recently discovered by the Russians and of the ancient one of the peoples who migrated there from Asia] Rome, Jose Torrubia, 1759. LC Rare Book Collections.

Born in Granada, Spain, in 1698, Jose Torrubia entered the Franciscan Order in 1714. He was sent to the missions in the Philippines in 1720 and remained there for some 13 years, serving as the president of the convent of Polo, as a book evaluator for the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and as secretary general of the Franciscan provinces in the Philippines. After a two-year assignment in Madrid, Torrubia was sent as missionary to Santo Evangelio province in Mexico, where he befriended the well-known historian Jose Antonio Villasenor. Known for his astute powers of observation and writing talent, Torrubia was appointed chief archivist and chronicler of the Franciscan Order in 1752. He wrote volume nine of the general chronicles of the Order, providing detailed information about the missions in the Far East and the Americas. In the midst of compiling volume ten, he took time off to compose one of his most important works, I Moscoviti nella California. In English, the full title is The Muscovites in California or Rather Demonstration of the Passage from North America Discovered by the Russians, and of the Ancient One of the Peoples Who Transmigrated There from Asia.

Whereas Torrubia's numerous other publications appeared in his native Spanish, I Moscoviti nella California was written in Italian, probably because at that time he was residing in Rome as the commissary general of the Franciscan Order at the Holy See. Despite the language, I Moscoviti nella California was read widely in the Spanish-speaking world and had an important impact on Spanish foreign policy.

Torrubia viewed the Russian exploration and colonization of the Pacific coast of North America as a serious threat to New Spain, ignoring the much greater threat of English penetration into the region. Thus Torrubia contributed to the Spanish court's misapprehensions about Russian intentions in North America, which distracted Spain from the real threat. Despite this strategic blunder, Torrubia's work was remarkable for its comprehensiveness in tracing the history of Russian exploration of the Far East and North America and for popularizing the theory that the Americas had been peopled from Siberia via Alaska. In the book's dedication to Friar Clemente da Palermo, Torrubia writes:

"Being at present, as it happens, occupied, in order to satisfy my office of General Chronicler of the Order, in the formation of the tenth volume of our Chronicles in which I have to speak of the Founding of the great Province of the Holy Gospel of Mexico and as a consequence of the first inhabitants of America I have gathered authentic and very singular documents in order to prove that the transmigration to those countries was done by the peoples who inhabited that part which now is called Russian Tataria, I did not hesitate to adhere to the referred system of the Academy, while I am convinced that the Russians or the Muscovites can easily enter by land to our North America, and arrive by sea to California."