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Annual Meeting

The SHD, Vitus Bering, and Me: A Personal Journey

By Carol Louise Urness, SHD Fellow
Distinguished Speaker
49th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Arlington, Texas - October 7, 2008

Carol Urness

When he was asked to participate in a Liber amicorum, or book of friends, Gerard Mercator sent a portrait, “most willingly, if it pleases you, but reluctantly as far as I am concerned, as I feel ashamed to exhibit myself, as if I were of any importance, among famous men.”1  I know the feeling. But in reading about Mercator I was impressed by his circle of colleagues, among them Abraham Ortelius, John Dee, Gemma Frisius (his math tutor), and Petrus Apianus. In the Society for the History of Discoveries (SHD) I have enjoyed the company of distinguished people. I want to talk about a few of them.

Not many members of the SHD remember Vsevolod (Steve) Slessarev, one of its founders. In 1960 Steve was the Assistant Curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. He was a master of foreign languages. I knew Steve from his research on Prester John, because of the many interlibrary loans I processed in the Reference Department where I worked as a student assistant. His dissertation was published in the monograph series of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. It is one of the most beautiful modern books that I have ever seen.2  Steve died too young.

Another founder, Thom (his spelling) Goldstein, who had fled Berlin in the 1930s, taught history at the City College of New York.3  A gentle, soft-spoken man with thick black-rimmed glasses, Thom was a philosopher at heart. He could terrify (without meaning to) a speaker by asking searching questions about the historical context of his or her presentation. He had a lighter side and did an unforgettable Cossack dance at a meeting in Gainesville, Florida.
I have a favorite Thom story, as follows: In 1967 I was about to give my first paper, at the SHD meeting at the Clements Library of the University of Michigan. I was young, terrified, and I had a cold. I had taken codeine cough syrup, not a good idea because it turned out I was allergic to it. Worst of all, my colleague and academic best friend, Jack Parker, could not attend the meeting because his wife and kids had the flu. I was a wreck. I thought I couldn’t make it. Thom said, very gently, “What are you worried about? These people are your friends. Give the paper.” So I gave my paper about Dmitri Bragin, a Russian fur hunter.4  When I finished, someone asked me the difference between the southern and northern sea otters. I froze. I didn’t know there were two kinds. Ernest Dodge, author of Northwest by Sea5,  stood up and answered the question. I could have hugged him. At that moment I learned about the kindness of the SHD members. Yes, we are opinionated; yes, we quarrel. But we help each other by listening and caring. We share knowledge formally and informally, through paper sessions and in conversations.

In 1968 we met at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. At lunch Thom pushed his food around on his plate. He was speaking in the afternoon. “What’s the matter, Thom?” I asked. “You can’t be nervous about your paper.” He nodded. “Last year you told me that I shouldn’t worry. These people are your friends, you said.” Thom looked up through those thick glasses. “I lied,” he responded. “When you give a paper you don’t have any friends.” What a wonderful man!

Ursula Lamb, who wrote several books on the history of navigation, was very active in the SHD. In 1971, she hosted a meeting at Yale, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States. Some SHDers were happy to note on their vitas that they had given a paper there. After Ursula and her husband retired to Arizona, she hosted a meeting at Tucson in 1977. I remember that the post-conference trip was an excursion out into the desert, hours before dawn, with some University of Arizona grad students guiding us in our stargazing. Ursula was the first member to worry about the lack of young researchers in the SHD, so far as I can recall. At that meeting in Tucson, Vincent Cassidy gave me his manuscript for a book. Vince had translated the text of a medieval geographer and presented a running commentary on the text that made it seem like a conversation between the past and present authors. I read it through much of the night. The James Ford Bell Library wanted to publish it, but Vince never gave us a finished manuscript. I should not have returned the text I read! Vince was a perfectionist, I guess, and couldn’t let go. This is sometimes a problem for writers. My friend Rutherford (Gus) Aris said: “Books are never finished; they are just abandoned.”6

I never knew anyone who didn’t like Helen Wallis, Map Librarian of the British Library. Helen hosted a meeting in London in 1987. I was Vice President and Program Chair at the time. I had handset the text in lead type, and with the help of friends I had hand-printed the program on the Vandercook proof press in a friend’s garage in St. Paul. I transported the programs to London in my carry-on baggage. I remember being in the recesses of the British Museum after the building was closed to the public, with Helen and Susan Danforth, stuffing envelopes with the programs and other information.

Arne Molander presented a paper at that meeting. The questions following it were quite rough. We walked out together and I tried to find something soothing to say about questions and enemies. “Enemies!” he exclaimed. “These people are my friends! Nobody else cares about the work I am doing.” Arne was right. The SHD is a wonderful forum. Many of us wearied of the Christopher Columbus landfall debates but appreciated learning about the different approaches that were taken in research on it, whether in the library or sailing the seas. We also learned a lot of geography about islands. In those years I remember Oliver Dunn and Jim Kelly working on their wonderful new translation of the Columbus journal that took years of painstaking work. They showed drafts of their translation to the SHD members at annual meetings, so we felt involved in their book.

Before introducing the SHD member who brought me to Vitus Bering, I want to tell something about my background. My parents, Carl and Dorothy Urness, were Minnesotans who moved to Wilmington, California, before I was born. My father drove large trucks for Safeway, one of North America’s largest supermarket chains. He picked up loads from the docks, where he delighted in speaking Norwegian, his first language, with sailors. We returned to Minnesota when my sister Barbara Ann was a baby. My grandparents later moved to Long Beach, California, so we visited California often, and my mother still lives in the apartment house my grandparents bought in the 1940s. It is six blocks from the Pacific Ocean, on Magnolia Avenue. The shore, when I was a kid, was romantic: a fishing dock and the amusement area named The Pike, with a roller coaster that went out over the ocean. I still love to look at ANY ocean.

I grew up in Lamberton, a town in southwestern Minnesota with fewer than 1,000 people, most of them of German heritage. The town depended on agriculture and so the weather was always important. One fall a storm blew the corn down before it could be harvested. The school was closed and we kids went to the fields to pick up corn. Our public school would have been much smaller without the many buses that were sent to collect students from the surrounding rural area. I was in the second grade, I think, when we kids were playing outside for recess and the bell rang to call us back to classes. Somehow getting a jump on the kids with longer legs, I managed to run up the flight of stairs and reach the water fountain first. I was immediately summoned to the office of the principal, Percy Hillbrand. She sat me down and looked across her desk. “Your mother was a leader in her class,” she said. “I expected you to be a leader in yours. I am terribly disappointed in you.” So, there it was. I felt as though I had disgraced my family by running up a flight of stairs! That was the harshest criticism I had ever received.

I did some wishful thinking about careers. First I wanted to be a professional clarinetist, since I loved music and I was in the high school band when I was in the fourth grade. After one concert my dad put a five-dollar bill into my piggy bank. “I think you should go to college,” he said, an unusual idea in my family. I saw the Ice Follies in Minneapolis and decided (briefly) that I wanted to be an ice skater. And I wanted to be a famous writer. I submitted articles to the Reader’s Digest and Ladies’ Home Companion, and at about age eleven started a novel about cowboys.

My mom was the first librarian the town had. She got into trouble one year for spending the entire library budget on a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The board thought no one would use it. In those days, before the internet and television, many people came to consult that encyclopedia. An official from the state came to evaluate the library and told mom to dump the Nancy Drew mysteries. My feisty mom refused because she said that after the girls read the Nancy Drew books, she could guide them to other books. The boys came to the library because the girls were there. And she stuck to her guns. My dad was a carpenter, or, to be fancy, a contractor, who built houses and small bridges, and remodeled and repaired almost anything. In our home we often heard: “Do something, even if it is wrong.” Family and friends made Lamberton a perfect place for growing up. People of different ages, faiths, national origin and income got along together. We learned about hope and heartache from farming, always a risky business. And we depended on ourselves, and each other, for our entertainment and support.

After a wonderful year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. I studied clarinet with a member of the symphony orchestra but the requirement of practicing several hours every day took too much time from my job at the library. By majoring in English and Philosophy I finished my B.A. in three years, and without a job in sight I decided to work full-time as a secretary in the library and attend the University’s Library School. And I would write a novel.

Ruth Christie, my composition professor, had given me a low grade--a “C”--on my first essay, an analysis of students based on the salads they selected in the St. Olaf cafeteria where I had worked. I couldn’t believe it. Not exactly Garrison Keillor but very clever, I thought. Professor Christie said that your first novel should NOT be about your family, your hometown, your life at college, or your friends. That didn’t leave a whole lot for me. Somewhere I had read about an English voyage to find a Northeast Passage in 1553. I started research on Sir Hugh Willoughby, Richard Chancellor, and Stephen Borough. Stephen’s younger brother William became the hero of my novel. Writing a novel was not easy! It was difficult to know what those people ate, what they wore, the length of time it took them to get from one place to another, how they spoke and danced and prayed. The novel done, I sent it to many publishers without success. I have not yet given up hope for it.

In my research I studied many early accounts of Russia in the University’s James Ford Bell Library. In 1553 Chancellor’s ship sailed round North Cape and reached a monastery in the White Sea. The monks sent word to Ivan IV (not yet The Terrible) asking what to do. “Bring them here,” was the reply. Chancellor, the Boroughs, and others traveled to Moscow. The trade that developed led to the foundation of the Muscovy Company, and the Russian expansion across Siberia that I have been studying ever since!

John (Jack) Parker, Curator of the James Ford Bell Library, asked me what I was researching and I told him the Northeast Passage. He seemed satisfied but asked the dreaded question: “Why?” I replied that I was writing a historical novel. He didn’t laugh. When the Assistant Curator position opened, Jack suggested that I apply. I thought I would miss the faculty/graduate student contact I had as head of Interlibrary Loans but I decided to try it for one year, which lasted from 1964 to 2001.

Jack showed me a collection of eighteenth-century letters in English written by Peter Simon Pallas, a German naturalist in Russia, to the English naturalist Thomas Pennant. Pallas traveled widely in Russia and his letters include comments on natural history, geography, trade, explorations, etc., plus information on Russian voyages in the North Pacific. My studies in English literature taught me how to analyze texts—to dissect them and to interpret words and their meanings. So I transcribed the letters and placed them in a historical context for a modern reader. I footnoted like a fiend: people, places, animals, plants, rocks, events, etc. In 1967, my first book, A Naturalist in Russia, was published.7  The following year I traveled to the Soviet Union with a bird-watching tour and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences rushed up and threw his arms around me. “Pa--laasss!” he exclaimed. Two favorite phrases came out of this trip. We were talking about birds we wanted to see, and one of them was the hoopoe. Our leader said, “You will never see a hoopoe on a wire.” Half a mile later we spotted a hoopoe on a wire. Lesson: Be careful of “never.” In Russia, when we asked about something or other, we often received the answer, “It is difficult to know.” I have used that phrase in almost every publication I have written since.

Raymond H. Fisher, author of Bering’s Voyages: Whither and Why (1977), was especially important to me.8 In the early 1970s, Ray gave a paper at the SHD. He talked about the two Russian navy expeditions across Siberia to Kamchatka led by Vitus Bering, the first lasting from 1725 to 1730 and the second from 1733 to 1741. Confusion existed about the purpose of the first expedition. In the second, a much grander effort, the Arctic coasts of Russia were explored; voyages were made to Japan; and Bering and Chirikov sailed in separate ships to America. Chirikov came home early because he lost his ship’s boats; Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, was wrecked on an island near Kamchatka. Bering and others died on the island. The survivors built a small ship from the wreckage and made it to Kamchatka. Ray’s research began with an article by Boris P. Polevoi that contradicted the prevailing opinion that the purpose of Bering’s first voyage was to explore the eastern end of a Northeast Passage from Europe to Asia.9  Polevoi and Ray held that Bering was supposed to sail east to find America rather than taking the route he did to the north along the Kamchatka coasts. I found the subject fascinating and decided to do a bibliographical study of the early printed books, maps, and manuscripts reporting on these expeditions.

With the resources of the James Ford Bell Library and my background on Pallas, I started reading reports on Russian explorations in Siberia and the North Pacific, assuming that I would find support for Ray’s thesis. The books I used were in French, German, and English, plus a few in Dutch, Russian, and Swedish. Ray had surveyed the modern historiography of the Bering expeditions, which was a godsend because I would have had to spend years doing it. He had used early maps, but few early books. From my study of the early records, I became convinced that the main purpose of the first expedition was to make an accurate map of Russia from Tobolsk eastward. I planned to write ten pages on the First Kamchatka Expedition. After 350 pages my advisors Theofanis Stavrou and Thomas Noonan suggested it was time to stop. My other committee members were David Noble (history), John Rice (geography) and Fred Lukermann (geography). I had sent Ray the dissertation as it was being written, and his comments helped me. Because of his special expertise, my advisors considered inviting him to join the committee when I defended my dissertation. I wrote Ray and asked him: “If I were your student, would I deserve a Ph.D. for my work?” Ray responded that even though he was disappointed that we had not ended in agreement, I surely deserved the Ph.D. My committee (and I) appreciated his letter. I note that Ray and I signed the many letters that we exchanged “love,” an indication of the affection that had grown between us.

Three theses about the purpose of the First Kamchatka Expedition, planned by Peter the Great shortly before his death, are as follows: 1. Peter wanted to have the northeastern end of a potential Northeast Passage explored (the prevalent thesis). 2. Peter wanted Bering to sail eastward to find North America (Fisher and Polevoi). 3. Peter wanted an accurate map of Russia. I wasn’t the first researcher to follow the map thesis, but the Northeast Passage theory had been so prevalent that it had nearly eclipsed everything else. Why? The Northeast Passage was of great importance to Western Europe. How had the Northeast Passage idea become so dominant?

Just after he returned to St. Petersburg in March 1730, Bering met with Joseph-Nicolas Delisle and Gerhard Friedrich Müller, both Western European members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (which, by the way, had no Russian members). Müller served as the translator, since Delisle spoke no German. The results of this conversation were reported in the St. Petersburg newspaper, which was printed in both German and Russian editions. Müller was the editor of the newspaper. Because Delisle and Müller’s interest in a possible Northeast Passage, this was the emphasis of the article, which indicated that further news would be published shortly. That did not happen. I think the government wanted to dampen Western Europeans’ interest in searching for a passage via the Russian Arctic.

My dissertation was published, and I stood back to watch the world’s view of the First Kamchatka Expedition change10.  Nothing much happened. Ray’s book on Bering had good reviews but his thesis that the expedition should have sailed eastward to America received little acceptance. In 1986 I published a new translation of Müller’s book on Russian explorations. Müller knew Bering and participated in the Second Kamchatka Expedition. Translating eighteenth-century German was a challenge! I especially noted Müller’s statement that Bering “directed his course to the northeast, as the coasts of Kamchatka (which he generally had in view) led him. His main endeavor was to describe these coasts as accurately as possible on a map, in which he succeeded fairly well—at least we still have no better map of the area than his.”11  I took this statement as support for my thesis that mapping was the main purpose of the first expedition.

I have continued my studies of the first and second Kamchatka expeditions, in one case comparing the various views of Bering as a leader12, in another placing the expeditions in the context of Russian mapping of the North Pacific13,  and then summarizing my research in Under Bering’s Command, in 200314.  All of this research has further supported my 1982 conclusion. Later this year The Journal of Midshipman Chaplin: A Record of Bering’s First Kamchatka Expedition, translated from the Russian and edited by Tatiana S. Fedorova, Peter Ulf Møller, Viktor G. Sedov, and Carol L. Urness, will be published by Aarhus University Press. Tatiana and Viktor are from St. Petersburg; from 1999 to 2007 Peter Ulf held the chair of Slavic Studies at Aarhus University. The original journal, which is in the Russian State Naval Archives in St. Petersburg, is filled with calculations of latitude and longitude used for mapping from Tobolsk eastward across Siberia and along the Kamchatka coasts.

For many years Jack Parker and I taught a course titled “Descriptive Bibliography” in the University of Minnesota’s Library School. Students compared different editions and translations of early travel books. We also taught a graduate seminar in History, the Expansion of Europe, in which students wrote lengthy papers about an early book, map or manuscript.

I want to make a few observations about research on the history of geographical discoveries, using early books, maps, and manuscripts:

No.1.  Study the sources that are closest to the events carefully. They may be biased, they may be inaccurate, but they are often the best records that we have. For example, Bering said that he had completed his mission and followed his orders. If he was supposed to either verify a possible Northeast Passage or sail to America, he had failed. But Bering was promoted, given a financial reward, and placed in charge of a second expedition.

No. 2.  Beware of “firsts,” which have plagued the literature of the history of geographical discoveries. Somehow we get tangled up in priorities of “discovery.” Turning history on its head may be exciting, but sometimes it means that the work of a lot of historians has to be tossed aside, which is sometimes dangerous and often simply irresponsible.

No. 3.  Be watchful about national pride in the literature of the history of geographical discoveries. It would have been far easier for Bering to be a hero if he had been a “real” Russian rather than a Dane whose life from age twenty-two until his death had been spent serving Russia. For example, Peter Lauridsen, a Dane, was so eager to make a hero of Bering that he justified everything that Bering had done. In his view, Bering could do no wrong. Some Russians have stressed too greatly the place of Alexei Chirikov, the Russian naval officer who served on both expeditions, and while doing so have underestimated Bering.

No. 4.  Beware the mind-set that turns every scrap of evidence into support for a thesis. A terribly narrow view of a subject may result in placing emphasis only on what supports your own ideas.

No. 5.  Training in using early maps in historical research is almost unavailable in this country, so far as I can tell. It would be wonderful if we could offer assistance to young students who are beginning to work with maps in their research.

No. 6.  Historical research is supposed to be fun, and it can be. Our challenge is to pass along this great pleasure of research in the history of geographical discoveries to others—in particular to young researchers.

For me, the enjoyment of research and writing is of the utmost importance. It would be very difficult to write history if you were not deeply involved in it. I sobbed in my office when I worked on the translation of the account of Bering’s death. He was in a cave: toward the end “his still-living body was half buried, because the sand continuously rolled down the sides of the hole in which he lay, and covered his feet. In the end he no longer permitted it to be cleared away.”15  He said it gave him warmth. Bering died on 8 December 1741, on the island named for him. On the cheerful end of the spectrum, I delighted in my 1993 journey to Kamchatka, a land that I had studied so long on maps and through books, and which I never dreamed I could visit. Ray Fisher was going to make the trip as well, and we were planning to “duke it out” at a symposium there. Ray got sick and could not come. My mother accompanied me, making it a memorable personal journey. I gave my paper in Petropavlovsk, the site of so much of the history I had studied for so long. On that day the fishermen of Kamchatka presented me with a badge of honor for my research on Vitus Bering.

From the prairie of Minnesota to the Kamchatka Peninsula—what a wonderful journey! The SHD—through the friendship and inspiration of its members—made that journey possible. I am grateful to the Society for the History of Discoveries.

1 Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003, p. 256.
2 Vsevolod Slassarev, Prester John: The Letter and the Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959.
3 Thom’s major book is as follows: Thomas Goldstein, Dawn of Modern Science: From the Arabs to Leonardo Da Vinci. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
4 The paper was later published in Terrae Incognitae. Steve Slessarev, one of the readers of the manuscript text, asked for a map. “Who knows where Kamchatka is?” he wrote.
5 Ernest S. Dodge, Northwest by Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.
6 Rutherford Aris was Regents Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. He was also a fine calligrapher and historian of calligraphy.
7 Peter Simon Pallas, A Naturalist in Russia: Letters from Peter Simon Pallas to Thomas Pennant, edited by Carol Urness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.
8 Raymond H. Fisher, Bering’s Voyages: Whither and Why. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.
9 Boris P. Polevoi, “Glavnaia zadacha pervoi kamchatskoi ekspeditsii po zamyslu Petra I. (O novoi interpretatsii instruksii Vitusu Beringu 1725 g.”. (The Principal Task of the First Kamchatka Expedition According to the Intent of Peter the Great: A New Interpretation of the Instructions of 1725 to Vitus Bering). Voprosy geografii Kamchatki, 2:88-94.
10 Carol Urness,  Bering’s First Expedition: A Re-examination Based on Eighteenth-century Books, Maps, and Manuscripts. (Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1982), New York: Garland, 1986.
11 Gerhard Friedrich Müller, Bering’s Voyages: The Reports from Russia, trans., with commentary, by Carol Urness, The Rasmuson Library Historical Translation Series, vol. 3. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1986, p. 56. 
12 Carol Urness, “Captain-Commander Vitus Bering,” in O.W. Frost, ed., Bering and Chirikov: The American Voyages and Their Impact, Anchorage: Alaska Historical Society, 1992, pp. 11-36.
13 Carol Urness, “Russian Mapping of the North Pacific to 1792,” in Enlightenment and Exploration in the North Pacific, 1741-1805, ed. Stephen Haycox, James Barnett, and Caedmon Liburd. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 132-46.
14 Carol Urness, “The First Kamchatka Expedition in Focus,” in Under Vitus Bering’s Command: New Perspectives on the Russian Kamchatka Expeditions, Peter Ulf Møller and Natasha Okhotina Lind, eds. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2003, pp. 17-31.
15 Müller, Bering’s Voyages, p. 116.

(To read more about Carol Urness, see her citation as SHD Fellow by clicking here.

Thanks to Ed Dahl for assistance in the preparation of this article for web posting.)

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