The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 10, 2014

March 10, 1709

The search for a North West Passage, a northern sea route, from Asia across North America, to Europe, was a driving force in modern history and the subject matter of many books. (Now with climate change what was only reluctantly given up, after centuries of exploration, as a romantic dream, is now again spoken of as a possibility). Fewer people are aware of the search for a link between Siberia and North America. This forms the background for today's post, because our author was a member of the expedition led by Vitus Bering to look for proof of a relevant land link. The naturalist who accompanied that Russian fleet was Georg Wilhelm Steller (March 10, 1709 to November 14, 1746). Steller was a German physician, naturalist, geographer, explorer,and plant collector. He would be the first European to set foot in what we call south east Alaska, as a result of his adventures.

Though on land less than a day, Steller noted many animals in North America not recorded before by Europeans. Of these, the  bird we call now Steller's Jay was identified by Steller as related to the 
 American Blue Jay, and this bolstered his confidence that he was indeed on North American soil. 

His major account of his discoveries, De bestiis marinis, or the Beasts of the Sea ,was first published in 1751. I used an edition ‎translated by Walter Miller and Jennie Miller, and edited by Paul Royster (2011) from which I quote below. Of the animals Steller called sea beasts, some were seals, sea lions, and what he calls sea bears.  This is a small part of his description, of what is a kind of seal or walrus:

The parents love their young exceedingly.....They run here and there, living on land and in the sea by turns.This fact convinced me still further that in accordance with his nature I should call this animal a bear....These animals have three different kinds of speech. To pass away the time while they lie upon the land they cry out and their voice is not at all different from the lowing of cows when deprived of their calves. In battle they roar and growl like a bear, and if they get the victory they utter a very sharp and repeated note like our crickets. But when wounded and overcome by their enemies they groan terribly or hiss like a cat or sea otter....

One source says that while shipwrecked he wrote much of this book.  Here is an enthralling account of his harrowing shipwreck in the Arctic.  This story, tells us much about Georg Wilhelm Steller, the man: 

[Steller] didn’t think much of the [ship] 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
[vegetation in the waves] 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....

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.

Georg Wilhelm Steller died of a fever enroute overland  to St. Petersburg, 1746, still a young man. 

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