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.