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Dezhnyov (Дежнёв) Semyon Ivanovich
(около 1605—1673)

Dezhnyov (Дежнёв) Semyon Ivanovich (около 1605—1673)

Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnyov was a Russian explorer of Siberia and the first European to sail through the Bering Strait. In 1648 he sailed from the Kolyma River on the Arctic Ocean to the Anadyr River on the Pacific. His exploit was forgotten for almost a hundred years and Vitus Bering is usually given credit for discovering the strait that bears his name.

He was Pomor, born about 1605, possibly at Veliky Ustyug or the village of Pinega. He may have crossed to Siberia in 1630. At some point he became a service-man or government agent. In 1638, the first certain date, he transferred from Yeniseysk to Yakutsk on the Lena River where he married a Yakut captive and spent the next three years collecting tribute from the natives. In 1641 he moved northeast to a newly-discovered tributary of the Indigirka River where he served under Mikhail Stadukhin. Finding few furs and hostile natives and hearing of a rich river to the east, he and Stadukhin sailed down the Indigirka, along the coast and up the Kolyma River and built an ostrog (1643). The Kolyma soon proved to be one of the richest areas in eastern Siberia. In 1647 396 men paid head-tax there and 404 men received passports to travel from Yakutsk to the Kolyma.

From about 1642, Russians began hearing of a 'Pogycha River' to the east which flowed into the Arctic and was rich in sable fur, walrus ivory and silver ore. An attempt to reach it in 1646 failed. In 1647 Fedot Alekseyev, an agent of a Moscow merchant, organized an expedition and brought in Dezhnev because he was a government official. The expedition reached the sea but had to turn back due to thick drift ice.

Next year, they tried again. On 20 June 1648 (old >Arctic. Next year it was learned from captives that two koches had been wrecked and their survivors were killed by the natives. Two other koches were lost in a way that is not recorded. Some time before 20 September (o.s) they rounded a 'great rocky projection'. Here Ankudinov's koch was wrecked and the survivors were transferred to the remaining two. At the beginning of October a storm blew up and Fedot's koch disappeared. (In 1653/4, Dezhnev captured from the Koryaks Fedot's Yakut woman who had accompanied him from the Kolyma. She said that Fedot died of scurvy, several of his companions were killed by the Koryaks and the rest fled in small boats to an unknown fate). Dezhnev's koch was driven by the storm and was eventually wrecked somewhere south of the Anadyr. The remaining 25 men wandered in unknown country for 10 weeks until they came to the mouth of the Anadyr. Twelve men went up the Anadyr, walked for 20 days, found nothing and turned back. Three of the stronger men got back to Dezhnev and the rest were never heard of again. In the spring or early summer of 1649 the remaining 12 men built boats from driftwood and went up the Anadyr. They were probably trying to get out of the tundra into forested country for sables and firewood. About 320 miles upriver they built a zimov'ye (winter quarters) somewhere near Anadyrsk and subjected the local Anauls to tribute. Here they were effectively stranded.

In 1649 Russians on the Kolyma ascended the Anyuy River branch of the Kolyma and learned that one could travel from its headwaters to the headwaters of the Pogycha-Anadyr. In 1650 Stadukhin and Semyon Motora followed this route and stumbled onto Dezhnev's camp. The land route was clearly superior and Dezhnev's sea route was never used again. Dezhnev spent the next several years exploring and collecting tribute from the natives. More cossacks arrived from the Kolyma, Motora was killed and Stadukhin went south to find the Penzhina River. Dezhnev found a walrus rookery at the mouth of the Anadyr and ultimately accumulated over 2 tons of Walrus ivory which was far more valuable than the few furs found at Anadyrsk.

In 1659 Dezhnev transferred his authority to Kurbat Ivanov, the discoverer of Lake Baikal. In 1662 he was at Yakutsk. In 1664 he reached Moscow in charge of a load of tribute. He later served on the Olenyok River and the Vilyuy River. In 1670 he escorted 47,164 rubles (a soldier was paid about 5 rubles a year) of tribute to Moscow and died there in 1673.

From at least 1575 European geographers had heard of a Strait of Anian connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. Some had it at the Bering Strait (map at right) and others had it running from the Gulf of California to Baffin Bay. (The first Western map to show a Strait of Anian between Asia and North America was probably that of Giacomo Gastaldi in 1562. Many cartographers followed this until the time of Bering. The source is said to be an interpretation of Marco Polo, but otherwise the documents do not explain where the idea came from.) It is not certain that Russians in Siberia had heard of it.

Dezhnev was illiterate or semi-literate and probably did not understand the importance of what he had done. He certainly did not sail across to Alaska, prove that there was no land bridge to the north or south or compare his knowledge to that of learned geographers. Nowhere did he claim to have discovered the eastern tip of Asia, merely that he had rounded a great rocky projection on his way to the Anadyr.

Dezhnev left reports at Yakutsk and Moscow but these were ignored, probably because his sea route was of no practical use. For the next 75 years garbled versions of the Dezhnev story circulated in Siberia. Early Siberian maps are quite distorted but most seem to show a connection between the Arctic and Pacific. A few have hints of Dezhnev. Dutch travelers heard of an 'Ice Cape' at the east end of Asia. Bering heard a story that some Russians had sailed from the Lena to Kamchatka. In 1728 Vitus Bering entered Bering Strait and, by reporting this to Europe, gained credit for the discovery. In 1736 Gerhardt Friedrich Müller found Dezhnev's reports in the Yakutsk archives and parts of the story began filtering back to Europe. In 1758 he published 'Nachricten von Seereisen ....', which made the Dezhnev story generally known. In 1890 Oglobin found a few more documents in the archives. In 1898 the east cape of Asia was officially renamed Cape Dezhnev. In the 1950s some of the originals that Muller copied were rediscovered in the Yakutsk archives.

From at least 1777 various people have doubted the Dezhnev story. The reasons are: 1) the poor documentation, 2) the fact that no one was able to repeat Dezhnev's route until Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1878/79 (1648 was probably unusually ice-free), 3) the fact that the documents can be read to imply that Dezhnev rounded a cape on the Arctic coast, was wrecked on that coast and wandered for 10 weeks south to the Anadyr. Most scholars seem to agree that the Dezhnev story as we have it is basically correct.

Russia, 2009, Semen Dezhnev


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