Who Was Vitus Bering?

In summer 1991, Danish and Russian archaeologists worked together on the westernmost island in the Aleutian Archipelago between Siberia and Alaska. Finally, one day in August, their joint efforts were successful: they found Bering’s grave.

Vitus Bering was born in the year 1681 at Horsens. He went to sea a young man and visited India, among other countries, but in the year 1703 in Amsterdam, he let himself be enlisted in the Russian navy that Peter the Great was building. He took part in the Big Nordic War on the Russian side and was promoted to captain.

Although, as is well known, Peter the Great was oriented towards the West, he took a keen interest in the eastern areas of his enormous country; he wanted them mapped, and he wanted to know what peoples lived in them. To this end, he planned a Kamchatka expedition and chose Bering to be its leader. The Dane’s main task was to map the sea area between Siberia and Alaska and determine whether the two regions were connected by land.

The expedition started from the city then called St. Petersburg in 1725, but it took two years to move men and supplies over the enormous distance through Siberia. Arrived at the eastern coast of Asia, one more year was spent for preparations, i.e., to build ships. Still, in the summer of 1728, Bering could leave the Kamchatka peninsula on board the St. Gabriel galleass to begin his commission proper.

By sailing to the north along the coast, he found the strait between the two continents, which was later to get its name from him, but there was a fog, so he could not – as James Cook was able to do later – from his deck see the coasts of both continents. Having sailed out some distance on the open Arctic Ocean, he returned, mapped the coasts, and collected information on the people living there.

The Death of a Adventurer

Russian forensics have tried to restore Vitus Bering’s face. It can be seen today at
Horsens Museum. (Photo: Orla Madsen)

On the first expedition, 1728-30, exploring the land and sea north of Kamchatka, Bering had discovered both the Strait and the sea that now bear his name. So he set about organizing a second voyage in the same area, which, after several delays, finally set out in 1741. This time he and his crew sailed east from Kamchatka and made it to an island offshore of Alaska, which they sighted, thus discovering the northwest coast of North America.

On their return, Bering sailed by and discovered many of the Aleutian Islands. They made it almost back to Kamchatka when they were shipwrecked on a small island, where they were forced to overwinter. Unfortunately, most of the crew suffered from scurvy, and 30 men died, including Bering. He was buried there, along with his crew, on the island that is now called Bering Island, in his honor. One of the survivors of that fierce winter was the expedition naturalist, George Steller, who lived to tell about his zoological adventures, which included the discovery of Steller’s jay and Steller’s sea cow.

Why the search for Bering’s Body?

Bering was simply exhumed because no one knew what he looked like and it had always been assumed that Bering died from scurvy, like his crew. However in 1991, a joint Danish-Russian expedition traveled to Bering Island to search for Bering’s grave. They found it (and five other crew members), exhumed the remains, and subjected them to forensic analysis. There were two noteworthy results:

One, it was found that Bering did not die of scurvy but some other (unknown) cause.

Second, he did not look at all like the picture that had been used to illustrate articles on Bering for 250 years, a round-faced, double-chinned individual. Instead, the skull they disinterred from Bering’s grave was long and thin, and the bones strong and athletic.

But how could they be so sure that these were the remains of Vitus Bering? According to diaries, Bering was the only one of the six who was buried in a wooden coffin.

There were no trees on the island. “His makeshift coffin was put together out of driftwood and wreckage from his ship, his corpse wrapped in canvas from its sails,” Ole Schioerring tells us.

It is now thought that the round-faced man in the portrait was Vitus Pedersen Bering, a great-uncle of our explorer Vitus. Uncle Vitus was a historian, which, the Russian site proclaims, explains his weak, flabby appearance. I protest (weakly). Fortunately, the museum in Horsens, Denmark, Bering’s birthplace, has commissioned a new reconstruction based on the skull, so Bering has a new face, even if it has not yet been widely disseminated.

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