On October 25,  we had very clear weather and sunshine, but even so it hailed at various times in the afternoon. We were surprised in the morning to discover a large tall island at 51° to the north of us.
Georg Wilhelm Steller, Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742, trans. by M. Engle and O. W. Frost (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988): 119.
Thus wrote the naturalist-physician, Georg Wilhelm Steller, about his first encounter with Kiska Island in the Aleutian Islands chain of present-day Alaska. Steller’s journal was kept according to the Old Style (Julian) calendar, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1752, so his October 25 is November 5 by twenty-first-century reckoning. His entries provide a detailed firsthand account of the final voyage of the navigator and explorer Captain-Commander Vitus Jonassen Bering.
Bering was born in 1681 in Horsens, Denmark, but served with the Russian fleet for thirty-eight years. Under Tsar Peter the Great, Bering led an expedition from 1725-30 to explore northeastern Siberia and purportedly to determine if Russia and North America were connected by a land bridge. Having learned that North America and Russia were not connected, Bering undertook a second exploration, lasting from 1733-43. The Great Northern Expedition sought to secure a Russian foothold on the North American continent. In June 1741, Bering set sail on the St. Peter, with fellow navigator Aleksei Chirikov commanding the St. Paul. The two soon were separated by a storm at sea. Chirikov searched futilely for Bering, but headed home after losing two scouting parties of his own men.
After a futile search for the St. Paul, Bering’s men made the first European discovery of the northwest coast of America on July 16, sighting coastal mountains on the northern Gulf of Alaska coast which he named the St. Elias Mountains. By mid-September, Bering had set a return course when, ill with scurvy, he became too weak to command his ships. He and his men took refuge on an uninhabited island. Survivors of Bering’s ship finally came ashore in November on land they believed Kamchatka; their journals reveal an extraordinary tale. Bering died in December, but the survivors took advantage of the abundant sea life and natural resources and returned to health by eating whale blubber, and the meat of sea otters and “sea cows,”—the latter having seaweed-nourished meat.
Fur-trading possibilities soon hastened the colonial settlement of Alaska and the Aleutians. The Russian-American Company, led by Grigorii Shelekov and encouraged by Tsarina Catherine the Great, established a Russian outpost on Kodiak Island in 1784. The Russian Orthodox Church founded its first Orthodox mission in North America in 1794.
The online exhibition In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures examines the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian America from 1794 to about 1915. It explores issues of commerce, the relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to native Alaskans, and the preservation of the Aleut, Eskimo, and Tlingit languages.
The Native peoples of the greater Aleutian Islands region are the Unangax̂ , also know as the Aleut. It is estimated that native peoples have lived in the Aleutian Islands region for at least 10,000 years, and in greater Alaska for at least 15,000 years. Kiska Island, which is part of the Rat Islands, is said to have been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. All of the Aleutian Islands, including Kiska, had been densely occupied by native peoples long before Europeans or Americans made contact. In fact, reports describe an attack on the shipwrecked crew of the Sv. Kapiton vessel in 1758.
Native customs remained strong in Alaska after U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased this territory from Russia in 1867. However, in 1948, the Cold War halted centuries of native travel back and forth across the Bering Strait. Only after the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow summit in 1988 did the “Friendship Flights” from Nome to Provideniya allow Alaska natives once again to share their mutual culture. At this time, other economic, scientific, and cultural exchanges also recommenced.
- Explore Meeting of Frontiers, a bilingual, multimedia English-Russian digital library that tells the story of the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Search on the term Bering to see many items related to the captain-commander’s voyages.
- View the online exhibition The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated. Prokudin-Gorskii photographed architecture, ethnic diversity, and people at work on the eve of WWI and the coming revolution.
- One of the principal features at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York was the “Alaskan or Esquimaux Village.” Search on the term eskimo or esquimaux in Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and the World’s Pan-American Exposition, 1901 to find reenacted scenes of life in the north, such as the Esquimaux Game of Snap-the-Whip.
- To see images of Russian Orthodox churches, native peoples, and native villages, view the Harriman Alaska Expedition album in the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement.
- Search on the term Alaska in the following collections for more related images and stories:
- Explore the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center dedicated to the study of Arctic peoples, cultures, and environments.