The Purchase of Alaska


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The Czar died in the winter of 1725; but the Empress Catharine, faithful to the desires of her husband, did not allow this work to be neglected. Vitus Bering, a Dane by birth and a navigator of some experience, was made commander. The place of embarkation was on the other side of the Asiatic continent. Taking with him officers and shipbuilders, the navigator left St. Petersburg by land on February 5, 1725, and began the preliminary journey across Siberia, and the Sea of Okhotsk to the coast of Kamchatka, which they reached after infinite hardships and delays, sometimes with dogs for draft, and sometimes supporting life by eating leather bags, straps, and shoes. More than three years were passed in this toilsome and perilous journey to the place of embarkation. At last, on July 20, 1728, the party was able to set sail in a small vessel, called the Gabriel, described as "like the packet-boats used in the Baltick." Steering in a northeasterly direction, Bering passed a large island, which he called St. Lawrence, for the saint on whose day it was seen. This island, which is included in the present cession, may be considered the first point in Russian discovery, as it is also the first outpost of the North American continent. Continuing northward, and hugging the Asiatic coast, Bering turned back only when he thought he had reached the northeastern extremity of Asia, and was satisfied that the two continents were separated from each other. He did not go farther north than 67 30'.

In his voyage Bering was struck by the absence of such great and high waves as in other places are common to the open sea, and he observed fir-trees floating in the water, although they were unknown on the Asiatic coast. Relations of inhabitants, in harmony with these indications, pointed to a "country at no great distance toward the east." His work was still incomplete, and the navigator, before returning home, put forth again for this discovery, but without success. By another dreary land journey he made his way back to St. Petersburg in March, 1730, after an absence of five years.

The spirit of discovery continued at St. Petersburg. A Cossack chief, undertaking to conquer the obstinate natives on the northeastern coast, proposed also "to discover the pretended country on the frozen sea." But he was killed by an arrow before his enterprise was completed. Little is known of the result; but it is said that the navigator whom he had selected, by name Gwosdew, in 1730 succeeded in reaching a "strange coast" between 65 and 66 of north latitude, where he saw persons, but could not speak with them for want of an interpreter. This must have been the coast of North America, not far from the group of islands in Bering Strait through which the present boundary passes.

The desire of the Russian Government to get behind the curtain increased. Bering volunteered to undertake the discoveries that remained to be made. He was created a commodore, and his old lieutenants were made captains. Several academicians were appointed to report on the natural history of the coasts visited, among whom was Steller, the naturalist. All these, with a numerous body of officers, journeyed across Siberia (northern Asia) and the Sea of Okhotsk, to Kamchatka, as Bering had journeyed before. Though ordered in 1738, the expedition was not able to leave the western coast until June 4, 1741, when two well-appointed ships set sail in company "to discover the continent of America." One of these, called the St. Paul, was under Commodore Bering; the other, called the St. Peter, was under Captain Tschirikoff. For some time the two kept together, but in a violent storm and fog they were separated, when each continued the expedition alone.

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