A Great Danish Explorer of North America - Vitus Bering

  • August 05, 2022
  • August 05, 2025
  • 4 sessions
  • August 05, 2022 (CDT)
  • August 05, 2023 (CDT)
  • August 05, 2024 (CDT)
  • August 05, 2025 (CDT)


Vitus Jonassen Bering (baptised 5 August 1681 - 19 December 1741),  also known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering, was a Danish cartographer and explorer in Russian service, and an officer in the Russian Navy. He is known as a leader of two Russian expeditions, namely the First Kamchatka Expedition and the Great Northern Expedition, exploring the north-eastern coast of the Asian continent and from there the western coast on the North American continent. The Bering Strait, the Bering Sea, Bering Island, the Bering Glacier and the Bering Land Bridgewere all named in his honor.

Vitus Bering was born in the port town of Horsens in Denmark to Anne Pedderdatter and her husband Jonas Svendsen (a "customs inspector and churchwarden") and was baptized in the Lutheran church there on 5 August 1681.  He was named after a maternal great-uncle, Vitus Pedersen Bering, who had been a chronicler in the royal court, and was not long deceased at the time of Vitus Jonassen Bering's birth. The family enjoyed reasonable financial security, with two of Vitus' elder half-brothers both attending the University of Copenhagen. Vitus however did not and instead signed on at age 15 as a ship's boy.  Between 1696 and 1704, Bering travelled the seas, reaching India and the Dutch East Indies while also finding time to complete naval officer training in Amsterdam.  He would also claim later (and, it seems, not without some supporting evidence) to have served on Danish whalers in the North Atlantic, visiting European colonies in the Caribbean and on the eastern seaboard of North America.  It was in Amsterdam, however, that in 1704 and under the guidance of Norwegian-born Russian admiral Cornelius Cruys, Bering enlisted with the Russian navy, taking the rank of sub-lieutenant.  He would be repeatedly promoted in Peter the Great's rapidly evolving navy, reaching the rank of second captain by 1720. In that time, it appears he was not involved in any sea battles, but commanded several vessels in potentially dangerous missions, including the transport of a ship from the Azov Sea on Russia's southern coast to the Baltic on her northern coast.  His work in the latter stages of the Great Northern War (ending in 1721), for example, was dominated by lightering duties.

Vitus Bering's expedition is wrecked on the Aleutian Islands in 1741 (Unknown Artist)

On 8 October 1713, Bering married Anna Christina Pülse; the ceremony took place in the Lutheran church at Vyborg, only recently annexed from Sweden. Over the next 18 years, they had nine children, four of whom survived childhood. During his time with the Russian navy – particularly as part of the Great Northern War – he was unable to spend much time with Anna, who was approximately eleven years Bering's junior and the daughter of a Swedish merchant. At the war's conclusion in 1721, Bering was not promoted like many of his contemporaries.  The omission proved particularly embarrassing when, in 1724, Anna's younger sister Eufemia upstaged her by marrying Thomas Saunders, already a rear-admiral despite a much shorter period of service. In order to save face, the 42-year-old Bering decided to retire from the navy, securing two months' pay and a notional promotion to first captain. Shortly after, the family – Bering, his wife Anna, and two young sons – moved out of St. Petersburg to live with Anna's family in Vyborg. After a period of joblessness lasting five months, however, Bering (keenly aware of his dependents), decided to reapply to the Admiralty. He was accepted for a renewed period of active service the same day. By 2 October 1724, Bering (retaining the rank of first captain he had secured earlier in the year) was back on the sea, commanding the ninety-gun Lesnoe. The Tsar would soon have a new command for him, however.

Taking to the seas at the age of 18, Bering travelled extensively over the next eight years, as well as taking naval training in Amsterdam. In 1704, he enrolled with the rapidly expanding Russian navy of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great). After serving with the navy in significant but non-combat roles during the Great Northern War, Bering resigned in 1724 to avoid the continuing embarrassment of his low rank to Anna, his wife of eleven years; and upon retirement was promoted to First Captain. Bering was permitted to keep the rank as he rejoined the Russian navy later the same year.

He was selected by the Tsar to captain the First Kamchatka Expedition, an expedition set to sail north from Russian outposts on the Kamchatka peninsula, with the charge to map the new areas visited and to establish whether Asia and America shared a land border. Bering departed from St. Petersburg in February 1725 as the head of a 34-man expedition, aided by the expertise of Lieutenants Martin Spangberg and Aleksei Chirikov. The party took on men as it headed towards Okhotsk, encountering many difficulties (most notably a lack of food) before arriving at the settlement. From there, the men sailed to the Kamchatka peninsula, preparing new ships there and sailing north (repeating a little-documented journey of Semyon Dezhnyov eighty years previously). In August 1728, Bering decided that they had sufficient evidence that there was clear sea between Asia and America, which he did not sight during the trip. For the first expedition, Bering was rewarded with money, prestige, and a promotion to the noble rank of Captain Commander. He immediately started preparations for a second trip.

Having returned to Okhotsk with a much larger, better prepared, and much more ambitious expedition, Bering set off for an expedition towards North America in 1741. While doing so, the expedition spotted Mount Saint Elias, and sailed past Kodiak Island. A storm separated the ships, but Bering sighted the southern coast of Alaska, and a landing was made at Kayak Island or in the vicinity. Adverse conditions forced Bering to return, but he documented some of the Aleutian Islands on his way back. One of the sailors died and was buried on one of these islands, and Bering named the island group Shumagin Islands after him. Bering himself became too ill to command his ship, which was at last driven to seek refuge on an uninhabited island in the Commander Islands group (Komandorskiye Ostrova) in the southwest Bering Sea. On 19 December 1741 Vitus Bering died on the island, which was given the name Bering Island after him, near the Kamchatka Peninsula, reportedly from scurvy (although this has been contested), along with 28 men of his company. - Wikipedia

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