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    Georg Wilhelm Steller

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

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    (Henry B. Collins, Jr.)


            George Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), member of Bering's Expedition of 1741

    and the first naturalist to describe the fauna and flora of Alaska and the

    Commander Islands, was born on March 10, 1709, at Windsheim, in the old duchy

    of Franconia, south central Germany. He was the son of Johannes Jacob and

    Susanna (Baumann) Steller. George Wilhelm was graduated from the local Gymnasium

    in 1729, having acquired full proficiency in Latin, which he was able to speak

    and write with great facility. In September of the same year he received a

    scholarship from the town of Windsheim and entered the University of Witten–

    berg as a student of theology.

            From boyhood Steller had been interested in natural history, and at the

    University this interest was broadened and intensified through courses he took

    in botany, anatomy, and medicine. In 1731, after brief sojourns at the Univer–

    sities of Leipzig and Jena, he entered the University of Halle, still as a

    theology student, though he had decided by this time on a career in natural

    science. At Halle one of h s instructors was Johann Friedrich Cassebom, pro–

    fessor of medicine and one of Europe's foremost anatomists. Cassebom treated

    zoology as a distinct science, and under his capable instruction young Steller

    worked diligently at dissecting and studying the inner and outer structures of

    mammals, birds, fishes, and amphibians. At the same time he was encouraged in

    his botanical studies by the eminent Friedrich Hoffmann and in 1732 was allowed

    to give a course of lectures in that subject as a privatdotzent.

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    EA-Biography. Collins: Georg Wilhelm Stellers

            In August 1734 Steller left Halle and went to the University of Berlin

    to be examined by the celebrated Dr. Michael Mathias Ludolf, professor of

    material medica and botany, in the hope that he might be certified as having

    the necessary qualifications for a professorship of botany at Halle. In this

    he was successful, but Professor Ludolf's recommendation proved of no immed–

    iate use as there was no position available at Halle or any other German uni–

    versity. Steller therefore decide to go to Russia where there were greater

    opportunities for a scientific career. The Russian Academy of Sciences, establish–

    ed by Catherine I, widow of Peter the Great, was at that time attracting the

    best scientific talent of Europe, and under its direction was being planned

    a scientific enterprise of great magnitude — the Second Kamchatka Expedition

    under Bering. It was Steller's ambition to become a member of that expedition.

    In order to get to St. Petersburg he went first to Danzig and offered his ser–

    vices as a physician to care for Russian soldiers wounded in the siege of that

    city. He was placed in charge of a transport of invalided soldiers and after

    a stormy voyage across the Baltic arrived at St. Petersburg in the latter part

    of November 1734.

            There he had the fortune to meet Theophan Prokopovitch, Archbishop of

    Novogorad and Primate of the Russian Church, who took a liking to the young

    German scientist and invted him to stay, as his physician, at the archiepis–

    copal palace. Steller also met and became the friend of Johann Amman, Pro–

    fessor of Botany at the Academy of Sciences. The Archbishop and Professor

    Amman recommended Steller to the Academy of Sciences as being thoroughly qual–

    ified to join the Kamchatka expedition as a scientific explorer, and in January

    1737 he was appointed as an adjunct of the Academy at a salary of 600 rubles a

    year and ordered to go to Kamchatka.

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    EA-Biography. Collins: Georg Wilhelm Stellers

            After receiving notification of his assignment, Steller was married to

    Birgitta Helena Messerschmidt, the youthful widow of Daniel Gottlieb Messer–

    schmidt, a naturalist-explorer friend of Steller's who had spent seven years

    in Siberia and who had died in St. Petersburg in 1735. Steller had hoped that

    his wife would accompany him on his travels, and she reluctantly agreed. The

    left St. Petersburg in January 1738 but when they reached Moscow Birgitta re–

    fused to go any farther and Steller, bitterly disappointed and resentful, con–

    tinued his journey alone. In January 1739 he reached Yeniseisk, where he joined

    his two fellow members of the Expedition, the Academicians Müller and Gmelin,

    whom Steller, as an adjunct, was to assist.

            It will be recalled that Bering's first expedition of 1728 had fallen con–

    siderably short of expectations. Bering had charted the shores of Kamchatka,

    rounded the northeastern extremity of Asia, and brought back the first map of

    these regions based on actual astronomical survey. Through his efforts the

    main outlines of the geography of northeastern Asia had been determined. He

    had not, however, seen the American continent, and though he felt convinced it

    did not connect with Asia, he had no conclusive proof to offer.

            When he had returned to Russia in 1730 and found the Admiralty officials

    and the Senate skeptical of his evidence, Bering had sought and received author–

    ity to undertake this second expedition which would settle beyond doubt the ques–

    tion of the relationship of Asia and America. The plan of the Second Kamchatkan

    Expedition, as finally developed by the Admiralty in 1732, was far more compre–

    hensive than Bering had visualized.

            Described at the time as "the most gigantic geographic enterprise under–

    taken by any government at any time," it called for the construction of five ships

    which were to explore and chart the northern and eastern parts of Siberia and

    Japan and the opposite coasts of America. Hundreds of sailors, marines, and

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    EA-Biography. Collins: Georg Wilhelm Stellers

    laborers, with food and equipment for several years, were to be transported

    thousands of miles to eastern Siberia. Mines were to be developed, and iron

    foundries, shipyards, and lighthouses were to be built — all this in a vast

    region where there were no roads, no developed resources, no facilities of any


            In addition, the Academy of Sciences was to send its professors with their

    retinue of servants and assistants, their libraries and scientific equipment,

    to make a complete biological, ethnological, and historical survey of these

    little-known regions. It is not surprising that eight years had been required

    for these preparations, and that Bering, who was held responsible for the whole

    enormous undertaking, even before the voyage began, should have been discouraged,

    and disillusioned by the many vexatious delays and accidents, by the dissension

    among his subordinates, and by the inaction and inefficiency of the civil author–

    ities who were supposed to help him.

            The scientific section of the expedition was under the direction of the

    three Academicians: Louis de l'Isle de la Croyere, Professor of Astronomy; Ger–

    hard Friedrich Müller, Professor of Latin and History; and Johann Georg Gmelin,

    Professor of Chemistry and Natural History. The professors and their assistants

    were to conduct full-scale investigations in Siberia before proceeding to Kam–

    chatka. By the time Steller joined them at Yeniseisk in 1739 they had already

    devoted six years to the task, and though they had accomplished notable results,

    the hardships and difficulties encountered had weakened the desire of Gmelin and

    Müller to continue on to the original goal, Kamchatka. Delisle de le Croyere

    went on to Kamchatka and eventually made the voyage to America with Chirikov.

    Gmelin and Müller sent their young assistant, Stepan Petrovitch Krasheninnikov,

    to Kamchatka while they themselves conducted further investigations around Lake

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    Baikal. The professors were greatly impressed with Steller's talents as a

    scientist and explorer, and Gmelin, anxious to be relieved of the task, was

    delighted to find a man so thoroughly qualified to take over the exploration of

    Kamchatka in conjunction with Krashennikov.

            Describing Steller, Gmelin said: "in the matter of his observations he

    was exceedingly exact and so indefatigable in all his undertakings that in this

    respect we need not have the slightest anxiety. It was no hardship for him to

    go hungry and thirsty a whole day if he was able to accomplish something adven–

    tageous to science." (Stejneger, p. 148.)

            The Academicians, whose lavish equipment and grand style of living were

    in no small measure responsible for their difficulties, saw their opposite in

    Steller. Gmelin says of him: "He was not troubled about his clothing. As it

    is necessary in Siberia to carry along one's own housekeeping outfit, he had

    reduced it to the least possible compass. His drinking cup for beer was the

    same as his cup for mead and whisky. Wine he dispensed with entirely. He had

    only one dish out of which he ate and in which was served all his food. For

    this he needed no chef. He cooked everything himself, and that with so little

    circumstance that soup, vegetables and meat were put into the same pot and

    boiled together. Smoke and smell in the room in which he worked did not affect

    him. He used no wig and no powder; any kind of shoe or boot suited him." (Stej–

    neger, pp. 146-7.)

            After seven weeks with Gmelin and Müller at Yeniseisk, Steller set out

    for Kamchatka in March 1739 and arrived at Bolsheretsk October 2, 1740. From

    there, at the request of Bering, he went to Avacha Bay on the east coast of

    Kamchatka, and was invited to join the expedition to America as mineralogist

    on board Bering's vessel.

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            On June 4, 1741, the expedition sailed from Avacha Bay. There were two

    vessels, the St. Peter, under Captain-Commander Bering, and the St. Paul ,

    under Captain Alexei Chirikov. After sailing southeast for nine days in search

    for Gama Land, a great island which geographers of the time thought lay between

    Asia and America, the ships changed course to E. by N. On June 20the the two

    ships became separated and never met again.

            The St. Paul continued eastward and on July 15th discovered land, a small

    island off Prince of Wales Island, in southeast Alaska. Turning northward,

    Chirikov sailed through the Gulf of Alaska, sighting the Kenai Peninsula and

    Afognak Island, then westward along the Aleutian chain toward Kamchatka, where

    they arrived on October 10th.

            When the two vessels became separated June 20th, Bering, after a second

    futile attempt to locate the imaginary Gama Land, resumed an E. by N. course

    and on July 16th sighted land, a high snow-covered mountain on the Alaska main–

    land which he named Mount St. Elias. On the 20th the St. Peter anchored off

    Kayak Island and two boats were sent ashore to explore the new land an take on

    water. This was the fulfillment of Steller's dream. He now had the opportunity

    to make the first scientific observations in this part of the New World, and

    he set about feverishly exploring the island, collecting plants and other spec–

    imens, and noting everything of interest. When it was ordered that the landing

    parties should return to the ship, as soon as the water kegs were filled, Steller

    was incredulous. He had assumed that exploration of newly discovered lands was

    the primary objective of the expedition; now he remarked bitterly that the voyage

    seemed to have been for the purpose of bringing American water to Asia. It is

    easy to understand his disappointment and resentment as he records in his jour–

    nal: "The time here spent in investigation bears an arithmetical ratio to the

    time used in fitting out: Ten years the preparations for this great undertaking

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    EA-Biography. Collins: Georg Wilhelm Stellers

    lasted, and ten hours were devoted to the work itself." (Stejneger, 1925,

    pp. 53-54.)

            But Bering, responsible for the safety of the ship and crew, and fearing

    the dangers and difficulties that lay ahead, gave orders to begin the return

    voyage. Following a SW course, the St. Peter passed to the south of Kodiak

    Island, and on August 3rd another view was had of the mainland, a high snow–

    covered volcano, Mount Chiginagak, on the Alaska Peninsula.

            On August 27th land was sighted again, and on the 30th the St. Peter

    anchored between two islands. Ten men who were sick with scurvy were taken

    ashore for rest and fresh air, but one of them, Nikita Shumagin, died soon

    after landing. In his memory the island was named Shumagin, a name now ap–

    plied to the entire group. A tragic mistake was made here in filling the

    barrels with water from a brackish pool near the beach. Steller, as a physic–

    ian, knew that this water was unsuitable and protested strongly against taking

    it aboard, warning that its use would lead to a rapid increase of scurvy. His

    objections were ignored, but his prediction later proved true.

            While anchored off the Shumagain Islands, Bering and his men had their

    first meeting with the native Aleuts, a people related to the Eskimos. In his

    journal Steller gives an interesting account of this meeting and of the people


            After leaving the Shumagins the St. Peter resumed her westward course just

    to the south but beyond sight of the Aleutian Islands. For two weary months they

    sailed, making little progress against the prevailing westerly winds. Terrific

    storms were encountered, in which the little vessel all but foundered. The

    situation was becoming increasingly serious as more and more men fell ill with

    scurvy. By the end of October, 36 men, including Bering himself, were on the

    sick list, 7 had already died, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that

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    the others were able to manage the ship.

            On October 22nd the course was changed to NW, carrying the ship through

    the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands. On November 4th land was a sighted

    which was thought to be Kamchatka. By now the situation was desperate. The

    ship was battered and weakened, the mainmast and rigging damaged beyond repair.

    Only six barrels of bad water remained. Twelve men had died and of the remain–

    ing sixty-three, only three were able to be on deck. Though Bering himself

    wished to continue on to Avacha Bay, the other officers voted to seek an anchor–

    age where they might spend the winter.

            With the crew so weakened, the landing was extremely difficult. The wind

    rose and the ship drifted dangerously near the shore, barely escaping destruc–

    tion as one anchor after another failed to hold. The task of getting the sick

    men to shore began on November 7th and continued until the 15th, during which

    interval seven more men died. On the 28th the ship was driven in by a heavy gale

    and wrecked on the beach.

            The land on which Bering and his men found refuge was not that of Kamchatka,

    as they had hoped, but an unknown island, now called Bering Island, of the Com–

    mander group. Temporary shelters in the sand, and later driftwood huts, were

    constructed, and here the men passed the winter of 1741-42. With good water

    and fresh meat available they began to regain their strength, and by Christmas

    most of them had recovered. So advanced was the scurvy, however, that fourteen

    more men died on shore after November 15th. Included among these was Captain–

    Commander Bering who died December 8, 1741.

            Like the islands of the Aleutian chain, Bering Island is completely devoid

    of trees, though flowering plants, grasses, and mosses are abundant. The fauna

    of the island was noteworthy in several respects and afforded Steller the oppor-

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    tunity of discovering and describing a number of previously unknown animals.

    Blue foxes and sea otters, with which he was already familiar, occurred here

    in great numbers. These animals showed not the slightest fear of man, and this

    was one of Steller's reasons for believing that they were on an uninhabited

    island and not the mainland, as the others thought. There were also rookeries

    of fur seals and sea lions, animals that Steller was the first to describe. An

    even more exciting discovery for Steller was the great sea cow, or manatee,

    Rhytina stelleri .This huge animal, 30 feet long and weighing up to three tons,

    frequented the shallow waters near the shore, where it drifted in and out with

    the tide, feeding on seaweeds. Steller's sea cow has never been discovered

    outside the Commander Islands; it has been extinct for many years, and Steller

    is the only naturalist who ever saw one alive.

            When it was definitely known that they were marooned on an island, the

    shipwrecked crew held a council at which it was decided that the old ship would

    be broken up and a smaller vessel constructed from its timbers. This formidable

    task was begun in April and completed in August, 1742. Thirteen days after leav–

    ing Bering Island the surviving members of Bering's expedition arrived safely

    in Kamchatka.

            On his return Steller set about completing his Kamchatkan investigations.

    During the winter of 1742-43 he made his headquarters at Bolsheretsk and worked

    out from there in different directions. In the spring and early summer months

    of 1743 he explored several of the Kurile Islands. After that he want to Lower

    Kamchatka Post, where he built a boat, engaged a crew at his own expense, and

    sailed for Bering Island and wintered there, returning early in July 1744. A

    month later, loaded with boxes of specimens of all kinds, he left Kamchatka and

    set out for Okhotsk. He stopped only a short time at this post, then proceeded

    to Yakutsk, where he spent nearly a year studying natural history, and then went

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    to Irkutsk, reaching there in December 1745. In January 1746, he was at Kras–

    noyarsk, in March at Tobolsk and Tyumen, in April at Solikemsk, and in the

    summer months at Perm, and in the adjacent country, making botanical researches.

            While at Bolsheretsk he had a quarrel with one of the officers, who made

    a complaint to the Senate that Steller meddled in affairs that did not concern

    him and that he had freed certain Kamchadal prisoners who were held on the

    charge of rebellion. That complaint came to the hands of the Senate early in

    1744, and at once instructions were dispatched to Irkutsk to look into the matter.

    When Steller reached there in December 1745, and was faced with the charges, he

    cleared himself without trouble and was allowed to go about his business. Un–

    fortunately, the officers in charge of the investigation delayed in making a re–

    port of their findings until some time after Steller had departed on his way to

    the capital. When the Senate heard again of Steller he was in the Urals. Think–

    ing that he was trying to evade the law, a special messenger was sent to take

    him back to Irkutsk to stand trial. The messenger found him in the neighborhood

    of Soliamsk and made him retrace his steps. In the meantime, news of Steller's

    acquittal reached St. Petersburg, on August 20, 1746, and a special courier was

    ordered to proceed in all haste to tell him that he was at liberty to go where

    he pleased. By that time he was some distance to the east of Tobolsk. He faced

    about once more, and when he had reached the neighborhood of Tyumen he was taken

    ill and died on November 12, 1746, being then only 37 years of age.

            The nine years of strenuous life, the hard summer of 1746, and the marching

    back and forth as a prisoner had much to do in undermining Steller's vigorous

    constitution, but another factor in causing his death was strong drink. After

    his return from Bering Island in 1742 Steller had taken to drinking. Each year

    the habit grew stronger and fastened itself on him. More than once his friends

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    had to put him to bed. He was drinking heavily during the summer of 1746 and

    gradually ruined his health and lowered his vitality.

            Not only intellectually but physically and temperamentally Steller was

    ideally suited for exploration. He was strong, tireless, and devoted to his

    work. He accomplished more in one day than the average investigator did in

    a month. His wants were few and easily satisfied. While his fellow scientists

    traveled with their retinue of cooks and servants, their trains of supply wagons,

    libraries, and camping outfits, Steller was his own cook and servant and lived

    off the country. Traveling light, he covered much ground and went to places

    where his more dignified and encumbered colleagues could not follow, and in the

    end he achieved more than rhey. Gmelin and the other Academicians had to be

    provided with European foods and European wines, but Steller purposely lived

    on native foods in order to ascer t ain their nutritive value and their effects

    on white men. In a report to the Yakutsk commandant he stated that during the

    winter and spring of 1743-44, which he and his men spent on Bering Island, not

    one of them tasted bread and not one of them was the worse for it, and he thus

    convinced himself that European food was not essential for the Russians in Kam–


            Steller's weak point was his inability to work with other people. He

    lacked tact, sympathy, and appreciation of the other person's point of view.

    He was always quarreling and making enemies, sometimes with his fellow scien–

    tists but more often with the Russian officers in Siberia, on whom he looked

    down as beneath his notice. He was constantly sending in complaints against

    them, the burden of them being that they did not show him proper respect and

    did not consult him enough. He offered advice, not only to the Siberian gov–

    ernors and to the naval officers but also to the Senate on military strategy,

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    commerce, agriculture, conversion of the heathen, education of the natives,

    building of forts, and other things. Most of his suggestions were good, and

    the reason for their rejection was probably in large part due to the manner

    of their presentation. His very insistence to be heard and his air of wisdom

    aroused opposition.

            His cutting remarks about the officers of the St. Peter show what a sharp

    tongue he had. In describing to the Senate the scene thattook place on board

    the ship when he asked to be allowed to land on Kayak Island, Steller says:

    "Then I turned on Captain-Commander Bering and in no gentle words told him what

    I thought of him and what I would do if he did not let me go." If Steller

    treated Bering in this manner we can easily guess what he did to Khitrov, whom

    he hated most especially, to Waxel and the other officers. They hated him and he

    despised them and their life on board was an disagreeable as can be imagined.

            Steller was a man of extraordinary energy and ability and a great scientist.

    His discoveries in America and on Bering Island assure him eternal fame. He was

    the fortunate possessor of a retentive memory, a keen power of observation, and

    an ability to generalize and to interpret his data. The facts which he recorded

    and the conclusions which he drew from his observations on the voyage have, on

    the whole, stood the test of time. He sometimes erred in matters of detail/

    Occasionally, because of his strong prejudices against the naval officers, made

    erronious assumptions, but he was seldom wrong in his scientific reasoning.


    Henry B. Collins, Jr.

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