How Peter the Great’s Fascination with a “Land Beyond the Sea” Drove Exploration of the Northwest


The Pacific Northwest attracted the attention of Peter the Great of Russia when he worked incognito as a ship’s carpenter on the docks of the East India Company in Amsterdam.

Sailors’ tales filled the air, including stories of a “land beyond the sea” off the Kamchatka Peninsula. Upon his return home Tsar Peter drew on the experience of foreign navigators to whet his appetite for exploration.  Among those seafarers was Vitus Ivanovich Bering, a Dane who had been an East India Company sailor until he joined the Russian fleet as a sub-lieutenant. To Bering, the Tsar gave the first commission for exploration of the waters between Asia and America.

In 1725, the task of getting from St. Petersburg across Siberia mid-winter presented a greater problem than building and launching the ships that would take Bering to America. From Kamchatka, Bering followed the coast northward through an impenetrable fog past St. Lawrence Island. On his second expedition in 1733, Bering packed his crew with 12 physicians, seven priests, and plenty of carpenters, bakers, and (for security) fearsome Cossacks.

Scurvy, tussels with Native Alaskans, rain and sleet, and barren, rocky landfalls did not discourage Bering.  But the relentless barrage of nature eventually called the tune.  Bering and his crew drifted without sufficient rations or fresh water during much of that year.  Finding refuge in mud huts, or “yurts,” on islands near the Siberian coast, the men died one at a time.  Bering succumbed and was buried on a nearby hillside, where a cross stands today marking the site.

It is said that Vitus Bering dispelled forever the myth of the Northwest Passage. The coast of Japan and the Arctic coast of Asia were charted by his crew. The furs found in this vast country in a single year more than reimbursed all that Russia spent to discover it, and that the United States later paid to own it.

Following Bering’s discovery of sea otter riches, an almost endless train of adventurers and brigands struck out from Asia for North America with wild dreams of staggering wealth. Many crew members were hardened criminals. The sometimes-flimsy ship construction, hewed from green Kamchatka forests, sent everything to the bottom.  Survivors of these escapades often moved in with Aleuts, taking Native wives, changing their hosts’ names to Russian, and dominating the traditional mores and habits of the original inhabitants.

These same plunderers often seized Native families as hostages and other booty. Sometimes, the husbands and fathers of women held aboard ship were shot upon delivering their tribute.  One story tells of poison being placed in the food of a Native village, where the men traditionally ate first.  When death took the males, the females were left as slaves.

In 1760, Betshevin, a ruthless Siberian merchant, overplayed his hand. His crew ran amok, committing rape and murder, and in turn being killed by vengeful Natives. An investigation of these incidents resulted in Betshevin’s being subject to “penal tortures,” about which we must use our imagination regarding the term.  This ruckus also led to an imperial decree putting an end to free trade among Russian fur hunters to America.  A government permit was required henceforth.  

Peter the Great’s emissary, Vitus Bering, opened two great doors — one to the booty and adventure of a new part of the globe; the other to the human imagination.  It then seemed that anything was possible. Bering’s explorations were followed by such characters as Mauritius Augustus, known as Count Benyowsky and as the Polish Pirate; the English Captain James Cook; the American Robert Gray, credited with “discovering” the Columbia River; and of course Captain George Vancouver, a man whose tale became of great interest to the Pacific Northwest.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


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