Item #909

Two Extremely Rare and Historically Important Original Autographed
Letters Signed from the Great Northern Expedition (1733-1743), the
First by the Expedition Leader and European Discoverer of Alaska, Vitus
Bering (17 April 1741), and Second by the Expedition’s Artist Johann
Christian Berckhan (23 April 1741).
Each letter is housed into a custom-made folder, and both
folders laid into a brown full morocco clamshell box bound in a Russian
style of the period, richly decorated with gilt tooled ornaments on the
boards and the spine; with two gilt lettered light-brown morocco title
labels on the spine. Both letters bear the secretary’s notes “Zapisano
v knigy” [“Written down to the book”] on the left margins which most
likely reflects the fact that they had been copied or registered in official
correspondence books of the administrative office in the Bolsheretsky
Extremely rare original manuscripts from the Great Northern
or Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733-1743) – an outstanding
Russian Expedition of exploration in the Arctic, North Pacific and Alaska
inspired by Peter the Great and fully funded by the Russian government,
which involved seven independent parties and about 3000 people,
and became one of the largest exploratory missions in history. The
main goals of the expedition were to confirm that Asia and America
were separated with a strait in the North Pacific, to discover and map
the Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage around the Siberian
Arctic coast, to find the northern sea route to Japan, to explore and
describe natural resources and people of Eastern Siberia and secure its
attachment to the Russian Empire. The expedition was put under the
general command of a Danish explorer in Russian service Vitus Bering,
a leader of the recently completed First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-
1727) which had mapped the coasts of Kamchatka and north-eastern
Siberia, but hadn’t sighted the American coast and thus couldn’t confirm
that the continents didn’t connect in the far north.
The “maritime party” of two vessels “St. Peter” and “St. Paul”
under command of Bering himself and naval Lieutenant Alexey Chirikov
(1703-1748) explored the North Pacific and became the European
discoverers of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
“St. Peter” and “St. Paul” left the newly founded ports of
Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka on June 4, 1741 and sailed eastward. After
the ships had been separated by a fog, they independently reached
Alaska, Bering sighted and named Mount St. Elias in the Gulf of Alaska
and discovering several islands off the southwestern coast of the
Alaskan peninsula, including Kayak and Kodiak Islands, and several
islands of the Aleutian group (Shumagin Islands and others). “St. Peter’s”
doctor and naturalist Georg Steller (closely connected with the authors
of both letters - (V. Bering and J. Berckhan) became the first European to
step on Alaskan soil when the party landed on the Kayak Island on July
21, 1741. On the way back to Kamchatka “St. Peter” wrecked off the coast
of an uninhabited island in what will be later known as the Commander
Group, and being forced to winter there, the crew lost to scurvy 29 of
its members, including Bering himself who died on December 8, 1741.
In the spring of 1742 the rest of the crew, including Steller, managed to
build a smaller vessel and sailed to Kamchatka, reaching Petropavlovsk
in August 1742.
The first letter written in a secretarial hand and signed by Vitus
Bering is an amazing survival shedding light onto the last stage of the
expedition shortly before Bering’s departure on the fateful voyage from
which he would never come back from. The letter was written in the
Petropavlovsky ostrog – the new Russian fort in the Avacha Bay (Eastern
Kamchatka) which had been founded by Bering half a year earlier – on
October 6, 1740. Dated less than two months before Bering’s departure
to America on June 4, the letter is in fact one of the last documents
signed by him and becomes one of the few known documents authored
by Bering so close to his tragic death on an uninhabited island in the
North Pacific on December 8, which was later named in his honour.
The letter signed by artist Johann Christian Berckhan is
closely related to the so-called “Academic Party” of the Great Northern
Expedition and one of its most prominent members Georg Wilhelm
Steller (1709-1746). Led by the Professors of St. Petersburg Academy of
Sciences Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705-1783), Johann Georg Gmelin
(1709-1755) and Louis De l’Isle de la Croyere (1690-1741), the party
strived to produce a comprehensive description of the geography, history, biology, botany and ethnography of Siberia and Kamchatka.
The “Academic Party” in fact carried out the first scientific expedition to
Russia and surveyed vast territories of Siberia from the Ural River to Lake
Baikal and Irkutsk, and from Lena River and Yakutsk to Transbaikalia.
Johann Christian Berckhan was attached to the “Academic Party”
as an artist and draughtsman and produced a series of perspective
views of Russian cities and prominent sites, many – for the first time
(Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Tobolsk, ruins of a Kalmyk settlement near
Semipalatinsk, Tomsk, and others), and hundreds of botanical and
zoological drawings, portraits and costumes of indigenous people.
Several of his botanical drawings (including a view of a rhododendron
branch) were later used illustrations in Gmelin’s “Flora Sibirica” (SPb.,
1746, Tab. LIV). In early March 1739 Berckhan was attached to the new
member of the “Academic Party” – German doctor and naturalist Georg
Steller who had joined the scientists in Yeniseysk in December 1738 and
was dispatched with a scientific mission to Kamchatka. Steller, Berckhan
and their assistants arrived in the Bolsheretsky ostrog in Kamchatka
on September 27, 1740 and wintered there, studying Kamchadals
and Koryaks together with another member of the “Academic Party”
Stepan Krasheninnikov (1711-1755). In early 1741 Steller was invited
by Bering to take part in his voyage to America, as “St. Peter’s” doctor
and naturalist, and happily accepted the offer, leaving Berckhan in the
Bolsheretsky ostrog where the latter continued producing drawings of
local subjects.
The letter signed by Berckhan was written during his
independent work time in the Bolsheretsky ostrog, after Steller’s
departure to the Avacha Bay in March 1741, and asks the local authorities
to help by providing Berckhan with an assistant and by constructing a
leak-proof dwelling for him so that he would be able to do his duties
“intrusted to me by the Academy of Sciences and Adjunct [Professor]
Steller.” The Saint Petersburg branch of the Archives of the Russian
Academy of Sciences houses three more letters by Berckhan (one in
German and two in Russian) dated June-July 1742 and July 1743 (AAH
РФСПб. Ф. 21. Оп. З. No 41. Л. 1-2 об.) The letters give an interesting
insight into Berckhan’s life in the Bolsheretsky ostrog without Steller
and reveal his anxiety and struggle during the winter of 1741-1742
when his superior and friend didn’t return from the voyage with Bering
(although he was supposed to return in the autumn 1741, Steller came
to Belsheretsky ostrog by foot only in August 1742, after the wreck of “St. Paul” and forced wintering on the Bering Island). As follows from
Berckhan’s 1742 letters, the leak-proof barabara (dwelling) he was
asking about in our letter (23 April 1741) had never been constructed.
Nevertheless, he managed to produce the drawings of “9 fish, 7 birds, 30
herbs, 6 items brought by the sea, 3 mushrooms, 2 Kamchadal people”
(quoted from: Cherkashina, A.S. Risovalshiki Vrotoy Kamchatskoy
Ekspeditsii [Draughtsmen of the Second Kamchatka Expedition ]] //
“O Kamchatke I Stranakh, Kotorye v Sosedstve s Niyu Nakhodiatsia”:
Materials of the XXVIII Krasheninnikovskie Conference. Petropavlovsk-
Kamchatsky, 2011, pp. 216-221). After Steller’s return to Kamchatka,
Berckhan continued working with him for at least two years. After
Steller’s death in Tyumen in November 1746 Berckhan accompanied
his possessions and collections to St. Petersburg, making sure nothing
was stolen. In the late 1740s he worked in the Academy of Sciences’
Kustkamera, making drawings of the museum’s ethnographical and
zoological objects. No records of sales of his original manuscripts or
autographs have been found on the western market.

1. Bering, Vitus Jonassen (1681 – 8 (19) December 1741) [Autograph
Letter Written in Secretarial Hand and signed “W. Bering,” Addressed to
Pyotr Chuprov, “zakashchik” or the elected head of the peasant community
in Bolsheretsky Ostrog, Western Kamchatka, the letter Inquires about
the Livestock in Possession of the Bolsheretsk Inhabitants which will
be Supplied for the Expedition]. [Petropavlovsk], 17 [?] April 1741. Ca.
19x15,5 cm. 1 page, 11 lines of text. Black ink on laid paper. Text in
Russian, written in secretarial hand, signed by Bering in German in black
ink. First leaf with the date “Aprelya 17[?] dnya 1741 gd” on the lower
margin and a note “Zapisano v knigy” [“Written down to the book”] on
the left margin. Addressed “To zakashchik Pyotr Chuprov in Bolsheretsk”
on verso of the second leaf, Bering’s armorial red seal ibidem (bear
holding a ring in front of a shield). Paper slightly age toned, fold marks,
tears on the margins neatly repaired; overall a very good letter.
Approximate translation into English: I have been advised
that local people in Bolsheretsk own some cattle. It is not clear who
had brought it here, and how many heads, and who had given it to
the people, and which cattle had been given for sale and which had
been given for ownership, and if [the cattle] had been given for sale,
how much money had been collected for the treasury. Having acquired
all this information send me a note immediately. [Signed:] W. Bering.
17th[?] of April 1741. [A secretary’s note on the left margin]: Written down to the book. [Addressed on verso:] To zakashchik Pyotr Chuprov in
This letter was written in the Petropavlovsky ostrog – the new
Russian fort in the Avacha Bay (Eastern Kamchatka) which was founded
by Bering half a year earlier: the expedition ships “St. Paul” under
command of Alexey Chirikov and “St. Peter” lead by Bering himself
arrived to the Avacha Bay from Bolsheretsky ostrog on September
27 O.S. (October 11 N.S.) and October 6 O.S. (October 17 N.S.) 1740
respectively, and October 6th is considered the date of foundation of
Petropavlovsk. Bering wintered in Petropavlovsk, gathering supplies
and preparing the ships for the voyage and sailed towards North Pacific
and America on June 4, 1741. This letter was written less than two
months before Bering’s departure and in fact becomes one of the few
surviving documents authored by Bering so close to his tragic death on
an uninhabited island in North Pacific on 8 December 1741, which was
later named in Bering’s honour.
The letter is an official request to an authority in the Bolsheretsky
ostrog – a Russian fort in the south-western Kamchatka, which was the
main port of the peninsula since 1717 and its administrative centre in
1740-1783. In the letter, Bering enquires about the cattle owned by the
Bolsheretsk inhabitants asking about their quantity, history of sales to the expedition and the price. The letter illustrates Bering’s everyday
routine duties during the preparation for the main voyage of 1741,
which included numerous correspondence with local authorities who
were obliged to provide the expedition with food, horses, transportation
and other supplies.

2. Berckan, Johann Christian (1709-1751) [Original Letter to the
Prikaznaya Izba (District Administrative Office) in Bolsheretsk, Western
Kamchatka, Written in Secretarial Hand and Signed “Johan Christian
Berckhan,” the Letter Requests the Assignment of an Assistant to
Berckhan from Local Servicemen or Cossacks, and the Construction of a
Traditional Kamchatka Barabara Dwelling for Berckhan to Live and Work
in, Which Was to Produce Drawings of Kamchatka and Its Inhabitants].
[Bolsheretsky ostrog], 23 April 1741. Ca. 19x15,5 cm. 1,5 pages, 20 lines
of text. Black ink on watermarked laid paper (two lions supporting a
crown). Text in Russian, written in secretarial hand, signed by Berckhan
in German in black ink. Dated on the lower margin of the second page
“Aprelya 23 dnya 1741 g”, with a note “Zapisano v knigy” [“Written down
to the book”] on the left margin of the first page. Paper slightly age
toned, slightly darkened on the extremities, several minor repaired
tears on the margins, otherwise a very good letter.
Approximate translation into English: To the Bolsheretsk
Prikaznaya Izba [District Administrative Office]. A Request. Since I
have been ordered to live this [coming] summer at the mouth of the Bolshaya River, to better execute all duties laid upon me, [I request]
that for the necessary errands and for the help in business entrusted
to me by the Academy of Sciences and Adjunct [Professor] Steller, [you]
send me as soon as possible one sluzhivoy [serviceman], and in case of
all sluzhivoys being underage, at least one Cossack, and that a barabara
[traditional Kamchatka dwelling] to be erected at the mouth of the
Bolshaya River where I could live, and that such [barabara] to be made
as sturdy as possible that it would not leak during rains, so that there
would be no stop in [me executing] by duties. And execute all this in
the Bolsheretsk Prikaznaya Izba according to the decree of Her Imperial
Majesty. [Signed:] Johan Christian Berckhan. 23 April 1741. [A secretary’s
note on the left margin]: Written down to the book.
The letters originate from the library of Boris Alexandrovich
Kremer (1908-1976), a prominent Russian geographer, meteorologist
and polyarnik (Arctic explorer).

To the best of our research and knowledge, no original manuscripts
by Vitus Bering are deposited in the institutional collections in North
America. The Library of Congress, for example, possesses only microfilm
copies of the original reports from both Kamchatka Expeditions.
Additionally, no sales of original manuscripts or autographs by Vitus
Bering have been found on the western market.

Price: $250,000.00

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