The Chukchi warriors

On July 14, 1728 – three and a half years after leaving St. Petersburg – the explorer Vitus Bering’s newly constructed ship, the St. Gabriel, stocked with enough food to sustain its crew of forty for a year, sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River. Following the coast of the peninsula northward for five days, Bering turned northeast, and on the next day encountered land again just above 60 degrees north latitude. This was the underside of the Chukchi Peninsula (not clearly delineated on his map), and with some perplexity he coasted along it for about two weeks. On August 1, he lingered to explore a bay, but a week later encountered eight Chukchi, who approached the ship in a hideskin boat. “When we invited them to come aboard,” recalled Bering, “they inflated the bladder of a large seal, put one man in it and sent him out to us to converse.” Later, the Chukchi brought their own boat alongside and through the two interpreters Bering had brought with him learned that the land, trending in a northeasterly direction, soon turned back to the west, and that there was an island nearby in the sea. On August 10, Bering sailed past it, noticing dwellings but no people, and named it St. Lawrence, “since it was his feast day.”

By August 13 the ship had rounded the southwesternmost point of the Chukchi Peninsula. A few days later, without realizing it, Bering passed through the narrow strait between Asia and America which now bears his name. Although in clear weather (at the strait’s narrowest point) it is possible to glimpse both continents at the same time, on that historic day fog hid the American coast, and as far as Bering knew, it was 1,000 miles away. Without pause he steered due north (into the Bering Sea), but after the Asiatic coast disappeared from sight on the 15th, he decided to consult with Spanberg and Chirikov as to whether to continue the voyage or return to Kamchatka before cold weather set in. It was Spanberg’s advice that the expedition sail on for no more than two days, “because we have reached 65 degrees 30’ of the northern region and according to our opinion and the Chukchi’s report have arrived opposite the extreme end and have passed east of the land.” And so, “what more needs to be done?” Chirikov, on the other hand, argued that they could not know with certainty whether America was separated from Asia unless they went “to the mouth of the Kolyma River,” or at least until their path westward around the peninsula was blocked by ice. So they ought to follow the land, if possible (and as their instructions required), to see if it led to America.

Bering agreed with Spanberg. The Chukchi had told him the coast turned north, then west, and was surrounded by the ocean – and in fact, as Bering could see, the coast bent away to the west as he proceeded farther north. It seemed pointless to him to verify the obvious, at mortal risk to his ship and crew. Further delay might oblige him to winter among the Chukchi on the peninsula’s forbidding coast, which, so far as he could tell, consisted of nothing but great ridges of snow-covered rocks quite bare of trees with which to build winter huts.

Bering turned south. Once again the coast of Asia came into view, but by an unlucky chance, as he threaded the strait, Bering failed a second time to see America through the mist, though he discovered one of the Diomede Islands. Four days later the crew bartered rather profitably with forty Chukchi who came out to the ship in boats – the Russians trading pins and needles for “a good Quantity of dry’d Flesh, Fish, Water contain’d in Whale Bladders, 15 Fox Skins, and four Narval’s Teeth.” Without further incident, on September 2, the St. Gabriel returned safely to port.

Despite apparent confidence in having accomplished his mission, Bering had misgivings, and throughout the winter he consulted with a number of Cossack veterans and others knowledgeable about the local geography. Advised by several that land was supposed to lie not far off the coast – as evidenced by birds flying eastward and unfamiliar trees floating in the sea – toward the end of June 1729 he steered the St. Gabriel due east from the mouth of the Kamchatka River, and explored the seas for a radius of about 130 miles. He might have ventured farther, but storms cut short his quest. That done, from Nizhnekamchatsk he sailed around Cape Lopatka at the peninsula’s southern tip – “which Thing was never done before” – crossed over to Okhotsk, and began the long overland trek back to St. Petersburg, where he arrived on March 1, 1730.

While Bering and his men had been in Kamchatka, a companion expedition of sorts, with tasks resembling those given originally to the Great Kamchatka Command, had been authorized by the Senate and the newly created Supreme Privy Council. Led by Afanasy Shestakov, a Cossack leader based in Yakutsk, it involved an army of fifteen hundred men (huge by Siberian standards) in a bid to strengthen Russian control over the entire northeast. Part of the force was placed under the command of Dmitry Pavlutsky, captain of dragoons in Tobolsk and Russia’s foremost Chukchi fighter, but the results of the expedition were not commensurate with the efforts made. Quarreling between Shestakov and Pavlutsky hindered the operation, and Shestakov’s attempts to pacify the Koryaks ended in disaster when he was killed in a battle in March 1730, and a contingent coming to his support was wiped out. Shestakov’s dried head was preserved long afterward by the natives as a trophy of their victory.

Encouraged by these developments, some Kamchadal leaders also began to consider ways to drive the Russians from their land. Bering, it seems, had left Kamchatka just in time. Although the area had never been free of lawlessness and misrule, the transport burdens placed upon the native population by his expedition had certainly contributed to the unrest. In 1731, rebellions occurred in the vicinity of Bolsheretsk and Verkhnekamchatsk; and then, around Nizhnekamchatsk, the Kamchadals coalesced under a baptized native named Fyodor Kharchin and captured the fort. A few survivors managed to make their way to a Russian ship about to sail for the Anadyr, and the crew hastily disembarked and dragged their cannon to the fortress walls. When the Russians began blasting through, the defenders panicked, and Kharchin himself made his escape disguised as a girl. Others, however, fought on, until a shot ignited the powder magazine and the entire fort blew up. Enraged by the rape of their women (mostly native concubines), the Cossacks killed their prisoners to a man. A month later Kharchin himself was seized, but some of his accomplices and their families chose mass suicide rather than fall into Russian hands.

In St. Petersburg, the authorities decided that Kamchatka was too remote from Yakutsk to remain under its effective jurisdiction, and transferred responsibility for the peninsula to Okhotsk. An official was also dispatched from Tobolsk to restore order; after investigating the causes of the revolt, he executed and otherwise punished with impartial justice a number of Russians as well as Kamchadals.

Meanwhile, after Shestakov’s death, Pavlutsky had taken over the expedition’s command and had made Anadyrsk his base for a conquest of the Chukchi. Although the Russians defeated these indomitable warriors in several battles, they could not subdue them, and the most tangible (yet elusive) result of the expedition turned out to be geographical – the search for the “Big Land” supposed to lie opposite the East Cape of the Chukchi Peninsula. Pavlutsky organized an expedition to find it, and placed the expedition under the direction of Mikhail Gvozdev, a metallurgist, with Ivan Fedorov as pilot. They appropriated Bering’s St. Gabriel for the purpose and assembled a crew of thirty-nine. Sailing from the mouth of the Anadyr in July 1732, they paused briefly at one of the Diomede Islands, and then continued eastward, apparently coming within sight of Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Drawing near, they saw that it was quite large and covered with forests of poplar, spruce, and larch. After skirting the coast for several days, they found “no end to it in sight.” At one point, “a naked native paddled out to the vessel from shore on an inflated bladder,” and through their interpreter asked them who they were and where they were going. They replied that they were lost at sea and were looking for Kamchatka. The native promptly pointed in the direction from which they had come. They did not make a landing, however, and because after their return they failed to collate their notes and make an adequate map, their voyage did not come to official attention until a decade later, in 1743. By then the priority of their discovery had become a technicality, since far more momentous events had transpired.

The natives in the Siberian northeast, moreover, were restless. Although the Kamchadals lacked heart for further resistance (and suicide had begun to compete with disease in reducing their ranks), between 1745 and 1755 the Koryaks carried out a number of successful raids on Russian outposts and burned the fort of Atlansk to the ground.

The Chukchi were harder to tame. They rejected yasak, survived numerous campaigns (led by Major Dmitry Pavlutsky) against them, virtually exterminated the Yukaghirs (whom they despised as Russian allies), drove off herds of reindeer kept by the Russians for transportation and food, and so forth. On the night of March 12,1747, Pavlutsky gathered ninety-seven Cossacks and thirty-five Koryaks together for a retaliatory strike, and at dawn on the 14th sighted six hundred Chukchi camped on a mountainside. Without waiting for reinforcements, he attacked. In a sort of Russian version of Custer’s Last Stand, the famous Chukchi fighter was quickly encircled and trapped. By evening he had fallen, along with most of his companions, as the attackers captured all their arms, a cannon, the company flag, and Pavlutsky’s marshaling drum.

Tribesman had about 500 men against Pavlutsky’s ninety-seven Cossacks. It was “bows against guns”, but the bows and spears were victorious. Most Russians were killed or wounded.

Pavlutsky covered the retreat and was among the last soldiers to die. He fought in close combat with a rifle in one hand and a saber in the other hand. When he was overpowered and thrown to the ground, he accepted defeat and opened up his steel cuirass to allow the enemies’ spears to pierce his heart.

When news of the defeat reached St. Petersburg, the Siberian Department dispatched five hundred dragoons to the Anadyr Basin, and their repeated onslaughts at last obliged the Chukchi to give way. In 1756, a Chukchi delegation came to Anadyrsk to sue for peace, and agreed to a token yasak of one fox skin per man. This was acceptable to the government, and gave it an excuse to abandon the fort at Anadyrsk, which had long been prohibitively expensive to maintain. Between 1710 and 1764, it had earned only 29,152 rubles, yet had cost the Treasury 1,381,000 rubles, including 841,760 just for supplies. In 1770, it was reduced to the status of a trading post.

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