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Peter the Great
Peter the Great

In 1654 Russian merchant Fedot Alekseyev sailed east from the Kolyma Peninsula of Siberia in search of the Pogicha River, believed to be rich in walrus tusks, sable furs, and gold. Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnyov went along to collect the yasak, or tax on the fur trade. The yasak amounted to one-tenth of the furs obtained by merchants and a somewhat smaller percentage of furs traded by indigenous peoples. On this voyage, Dezhnyov was the first person to sail from the Arctic into the Pacific via what is now called Bering Strait. However, his report of the discovery was apparently never forwarded to the central government. Thus Tsar Peter the Great did not know whether Siberia was joined to North America. Shortly before his death in 1725, Peter the Great posed the question to Captain-Commander Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in the service of Russia. Bering sailed to find out, rediscovering Bering Strait in 1728, but because of heavy fog, he failed to sight North America.

In 1733 the Russian government appointed Bering to head a great expedition to inventory Siberia’s resources and establish trade with Japan. He was also to explore the American coast. Bering set out for America from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, on Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, on June 8, 1741, in two ships: the Sviatoi Petr (Saint Peter), which he commanded, and the Sviatoi Pavel (Saint Paul), commanded by Aleksey Chirikov. Each ship had several scientists aboard. On June 20 the vessels became separated. On July 15 Chirikov sighted land, probably Prince of Wales Island. Bering, who was farther north, came upon Kayak Island the next day. He could see a great mountain in the distance, which he named Saint Elias because July 16 was St. Elias’s Day. Georg Wilhelm Steller, the ship’s surgeon and a noted German scientist, went ashore on Kayak Island to gather plants to help crew members suffering from scurvy.

While ashore, Steller gathered artifacts, plant specimens, and a few birds and concluded that the ship had reached North America. Chirikov returned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski on October 8, 1741, but Bering’s ship was wrecked in the Komandorskiye Islands east of Kamchatka. The explorers spent the winter on what is now Bering Island, and Bering died there. In the spring they built a crude boat out of the wreckage of the Sviatoi Petr and got back to Kamchatka in September. Bering’s voyage established Russia’s claim to northwestern North America.

The Russian ruler, Empress Elizabeth, was not interested in North America. She issued an order that the native inhabitants should pay the yasak and be well treated, but otherwise ignored Alaska. Russia showed little interest for the next 50 years, although individuals were lured to the Aleutians by the prospect of profits in furs. Bering’s party had brought back animal pelts, notably those of the sea otter, one of the finest fur-bearing animals. A ready market developed in China, where Russian merchants made tidy profits.

Alaska in the 18th century


From 1743 on, Russian fur merchants sent hunters who quickly subjugated the Aleut. At least four-fifths of the Aleut are estimated to have been wiped out in the first two generations after Russian contact. European diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, venereal disease, and pneumonia, as well as Russian guns, reduced the Aleut from an estimated pre-contact population between 15,000 and 20,000 to 2,247 in 1834, and 1,400 in 1848. By 1864, following intermarriage with Russians, the population had risen to 2,005, but by 1890 it had declined to 1,702.

The hunters moved eastward along the island chain as the supply of animals thinned out. As they moved farther from Kamchatka, costs went up and smaller companies dropped out. By 1770 three enterprises, those of Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov, Pavel Sergeyevich Lebedev-Lastochkin, and Grigorii and Petr Panov, dominated the Alaskan fur trade. After Catherine the Great became ruler of Russia in 1762, the government was more aware of the Aleutians. She terminated the yasak on the Aleut in 1769 and demanded better care and treatment of them, but provided no means to enforce her decrees. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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