Mount Saint Elias

Above: First sited in 1741 by Europeans, Mount Saint Elias, 2008. Courtesy National Park Service. Right: Fort Necessity, French and Indian War.

Fort Necessity

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1700s


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  • 1741 Detail

    July 16, 1741 - Mount Saint Elias, Alaska is sited by Danish Captain Vitas Bering under the employment of the Russians.

    Mount Saint Elias

    It's doubtful that Danish explorer and cartographer Vitas Bering ever thought that the large mountain rising on the land of Alaska from the sea he had just crossed that would eventually hold his name, would end up being the largest American national park at over 13.2 million acres. Likely never thought about mining heritage, either. He was Danish after all, working for the Russians as a captain in the Russian Navy in 1741. But yes, that's what this area would become, now known as Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, with its history in mining, logging, Native culture, and nature. And yes, we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

    In 1741, Vitas Bering, a native of Horsens, Denmark, was fifty-nine years old when he sighted the large Mount St. Elias, the second tallest peak in today's Canada and the United States. He had been an experienced explorer in the Russian service, picked by the Tsar Peter I in 1724 to take the first Russian exploration into whether Asia and America had a common land bridge. That expedition, known as the First Kamchatka Expedition, would map the area north from Kamchatka, Russia, starting in February 1725 with a thirty-four man crew. It would last for more than three years. Bering was made Captain Commander after that trip, lauded for his discoveries, although he had never surveyed the sea between the two continents, ... yet.

    In what became known as the Great Northern Expedition, commissioned by Russian Empresses Anna and Elizabeth on April 17, 1732 forward, Bering would separate the three thousand man expedition into three parts, leading one of the Pacific divisions with his initial starting date of April 1733. The expeditions had lofty academic and practical goals. They were to survey the northern borders of the Russian empire, establish Russian soveriegnty in east Asia, and seek a sea route to Japan and North America along the seas of Russia's northern border and beyond. This would take awhile. It did.

    Bering and Alaska 1641

    Bering had arrived at Avacha Bay in south-eastern Kamchatka on October 6, 1640. In June of the next year, Bering, with two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul, had established a presence in his newly constructed city of Petropavlovsk at Avacha Bay. It was located on the eastern coast of the Russian empire. Bering commanded the St. Peter. Aleksey Ilich Chirikov was his second in command and captained the St. Paul. Soon after leaving port, the two ships became separated on June 20, 1641, but continued to travel east on their mission to explore the sea route to North America, alone. On July 11, 1641, Chirikov and crew sighted land, landing four days later on Prince Edward Island in today's extreme southern Alaska. They anchored at Cape Addington, with Chrikov sending two parties to explore. Neither returned. Chirikov, with his party now reduced by almost half, returned to Russia without the landing parties, arriving at Avacha Bay in Kamchatka on October 8, 1641.

    Bering had continued west as well in the St. Peter with his crew and supply ships. They reached the Alaska mainland and sighted Mount Saint Elias on July 16, 1641. He anchored off Kayak Island and sent his crew out to explore. Bering was anxious to return to Russia, but never made it back. The St. Peter was wrecked on the shore of Bering Island in November; Bering died one month later. Forty-six survivors of the crew, building a boat from the wreckage, set sail for Russia in August 1642, and made it back. Chirikov had been sent out to find Bering in the spring of 1641, but had been unable to find them before turning back, although history now notes that he came surprisingly close.

    Historians also now tend to downplay some of Bering's achievements, stating that lesser known Russian explorers such as Mikhail Gvozdev sighted America first during the 1730s, and that Semyon Dezhnev likely passed through the Bering Straight prior to Bering, of whom it is named, by James Cook later. Yes, James Cook knew of Dezhnev, but chose to honor Bering. T-Shirts and Gifts

    Alaska and What Became of the Expedition's Findings

    What may have been found by Bering had he explored the territory of Alaska in 1641, or might have been confronted by Chirikov's two landing parties, was human habitation by one of four Native Alaska groups who had lived there for eight thousand years. Whether they had been the Ahtna, who lived in the area of Wrangell and Mount St. Elias, or the Upper Tanana Athabascans who resided in the interior of the land of the current park, or even the other tribes of Alaska, the Eyak and the Tlingit, is not known. The tribes continue to live in the same areas today.

    European exploration after the Great Northern Expedition did not continue in earnest for several decades, with first known contact with the Native population said to have occurred in the early 1780's with Russians now exploring the Copper River basin for furs. First written record of that was in 1783. In 1819, the Russians had established a trading post at Copper Fort. By March of 1885, the U.S. Army under Lt. Henry T. Allen, with only four men, led a scientific expedition into the Wrangell Mountains, establishing friendly relations with the Ahta. Further expeditions continued through the end of the 1800's, and the first mines were established in 1899 when gold was discovered. This expanded to five mines and the Kennecott Mill, which began operation in 1911.

    So, what Bering once witnessed for the first time in 1741, has now become the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, which maintains the nature and history of the region from its Indian heritage roots to those of Russian history and the U.S. purchase from Russia in 1867, to statehood in 1959. The park has no entrance stations and two primary visitor centers at Copper Center and Kennecott, and while open year round, is best for most to visit during its summer season from June to mid-September as snow is normal here by the end of September.

    Image above: Mount Saint Elias, 2008. Courtesy National Park Service. Image Below: Beach at Wrangell-Mount St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Courtesy National Park Service. Info Source: National Park Service; Wikipedia Commons;

    Wrangell - Mount St. Elias Beach

    History Photo Bomb