Article of the month: December

Russian colonization of Alaska

Article of the month

New Arkhandelsk, the capital of Russian Alaska (19th-century engraving; De Agostini Picture Library)

Near the end of the 15th century a remarkable new chapter in global history began. Several countries in Western Europe launched maritime expeditions of exploration, systematically sailing thousands of miles across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in search of new lands. Sailing the oceans was daring and difficult. And while it may be that other cultures - like the Chinese and the Polynesians - had previously sent out long-distance voyages to explore new areas, there is no evidence that this series of explorations began with the idea of bringing back more and more knowledge about the planet. The Europeans were interested in the size of the continents, their position on the globe, and their relationship to each other. The voyagers were also interested in the people who inhabited lands they did not know, and in the resources of those lands, resources that might be used in European markets. Global maritime exploration and the discovery of new lands and peoples lasted well into the 19th century. Perhaps the most remarkable new lands discovered were North and South America, which the Europeans called the "New World," for their existence had not yet been suspected in Europe. In time the Europeans would discover and map virtually all the land on the globe.

Explorers brought back observations about the continents and the people of distant lands, and information about goods that could be sold for profit by merchants and processed into products that improved the way of life in Europe. Making profit from newly acquired goods and preventing rival countries from gaining control of the supply sources of these goods became driving impulses for exploration. This drive toward making a profit soon drew a number of western European countries into competition. By the beginning of the 18th century, there were only a few regions of the globe they had not probed. One of these was the North Pacific Ocean.

Of the European countries, Russia was the first to explore in the North Pacific. The Russians had been exploring the Arctic, looking for new lands, since the tenth century. Under Ivan IV the Terrible (1547–1582) they began to explore east of the Ural Mountains into Siberia, to trade and to conquer the indigenous people there. By1647, they had crossed Siberia to Sea of Okhotsk, at the northwest edge of the North Pacific Ocean. The next year a Cossack (a special Russian military group who were fierce fighters and loyal to the Russian tsars) named Semen Dezhnev sailed along the Siberian coast and through Bering Strait to the mouth of the Anadyr River.

In 1725 the tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) commissioned Vitus Bering to sail east from the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1727, Bering sailed north through Bering Strait to the Arctic ice pack and back to Kamchatka. Due to storms and fog in Bering Strait he did not see the North American mainland to the east. In the summer of 1732 a Cossack named Mikhail Gvozdev sailed from Kamchatka northward through the Bering Strait and found the Diomede Islands. They were met with a hail of arrows shot by Eskimos on the second island. The next day they anchored off the American coast at Cape Prince of Wales. Soon after Gvozdev sighted King Island where an Alaskan Native approached the ship in a kayak. Following that meeting Gvozdev returned to Kamchatka. His voyage represents the first Russian contact with the American mainland, and with Alaska Native people.

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