Georg Wilhelm Steller

(This column was first published in the August 9, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Consider this story about the discovery of Alaska, our coldest state, to take your mind off this summer’s oppressive heat.

    Georg Wilhelm Steller was a 33-year-old naturalist assigned to Vitus Bering’s ship, St. Peter, which sailed from the Russian Kamchatkan Peninsula in early June 1742 to seek the North American mainland.

    One of Steller’s biographers describes him as an "independent, solitary figure with an alert intelligence, a stubborn single-mindedness, and a hair-trigger disposition to judge and to act, driven by an implacable, almost reckless determination to do his duty…whatever the obstacles, but withall a fundamentally compassionate, modest and cheerful individual." Despite the glowing testimony, you may discern in that description that Steller was not an altogether easy companion.

    In fact, he didn’t think much of the St. Peter’s officers: "They mocked, ridiculed and cast to the winds whatever was said by anyone not a seaman as if with the rules for navigation all science and powers of reasoning were spontaneously acquired."

    The evidence suggests that Steller’s low estimate of his companions was accurate. Captain-Commander Bering was worn out and ill and offered little guidance as the ship sailed on a course parallel with but a hundred miles south of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. The officers would not accept Steller’s compelling evidence that land was to be found just to their north.

    Finally the ship did turn north, however, and on July 16th a mountain range was sighted. Bering did not join in the crew’s elation at this first approach to the Alaskan mainland. He told Steller prophetically, "Now we think that we have found everything. But…how far we are from home and what accidents may yet happen…? We are not supplied with provisions to keep us through the winter." On July 21st, the worried Bering ordered the start back toward Kamchatka.

    By the end of August they had only reached Shumagin Island (named for a crew member who died there) still more than 1500 miles east of their home port. Even though the crew suffered from scurvy, Steller could not convince the officers to improve the ship’s water supply there and after a threatening confrontation with natives, they again sailed west.

    Beset by storms, with sailors dying and all aboard losing confidence, the ship finally reached Bering Island on November 5th with winter weather already upon them. So sick that they were barely able to steer the ship, the crew managed to beach it and go ashore.

    Now Steller, formerly an isolated and ridiculed figure, took on a leadership role. He helped build shelters from the miserable materials available, he hunted, he cooked, he gathered and prepared plants that cured the scurvy. Despite his ministrations, however, Bering and many other seamen died.

    Remarkably, 46 of the original crew of 78 lasted through the terrible northern winter, surviving on the meat of local seals, foxes, otters and a now extinct Pacific manatee called in the naturalist’s honor Steller’s sea-cow. (Also named for him are the Steller’s jay and the Steller’s sea eagle.)

    It took the entire following summer for senior officer, Lieutenant Swen Wexall, and the remaining crew to build a fragile ship, using parts of the old St. Peter that was now deeply embedded in the sand. In this flimsy vessel they were able to sail the 200 miles back to the Kamchatka mainland, arriving 14 months after they had originally left port.

    Evidence of the St. Peter crew's appreciation for Steller's saving many of their lives is found in the fact that most of them signed over a share of the valuable pelts they collected on the voyage to him.

    Steller would live only four more years but within that time he wrote extensively about the animals and plants of Siberia and the North Pacific as well as his travels.

    Rarely remembered today, Georg Steller surely belongs in the pantheon of world naturalists.-- Gerry Rising

Note: In December 2003, Gene Nicholas Boiko-Slasten sent me the following addition and correction to this column: "As it is known from the original documentation of the Bering expedition (you can check the Library of Congress web site for film copies), naturalist G. W. Steller was officially addressed as "adjunkt" (in Russian), and the name and rank of the commanding Navy officer after Bering's death was definitely Lieutenant Swen Waxell. (He was signing his name using Latin letters)." I have corrected the original original text: I had given Lieutenant Waxell's given name as "Sven", an inexcusable error from a writer who has a relative on his mother's side named Swen Peterson.

Related Reading

Geor Wilhelm Steller. Journal of a Voyage with Bering 1741-1742. The original 1743 manuscript edited and with an introduction by O. W. Frost; translated by Margritt A. Engel and O. W. Frost. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Sven Waxell. The Russian Expedition to America (first published as The American Expedition). With an introduction and notes by M. A. Michael. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Ernest Gruening. "Bering" in The State of Alaska. New York: Random House, 1954. Pp. 1-16.