Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

Alaska's "Beautiful Mind"
August 12, 2003

These past summers at Fort Abercrombie have been very helpful for developing observational skills. I see something new and unexpected every time I take groups on nature walks through the Park. My own skills pale, though, in comparison with one of history's most talented observers. It's hard to study nature in this part of the world without running across the name of Georg Wilhelm Steller, the German naturalist who was the first to describe many of our Alaskan species. These include such notables as the Steller sea lion, Steller's jay and Steller's sea-eagle.

Steller's story is recounted in Corey Ford's "Where the Sea Breaks its Back," a book that makes great reading for people growing up in this area. Ford's book is a tribute to a brilliant, observant, but extremely socially-challenged naturalist. Anyone who saw last year's movie, "A Beautiful Mind," will recognize some similarities to Steller's story. In "Mind," mathematician John Nash is portrayed as having tremendous difficulty with social interaction. Nash remained his own person, but at terrible cost.

Stellar was the naturalist sailing with the 1741 Russian expedition from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Alaskan coast and back along the Aleutians. The voyage was commanded by aging and ailing Danish explorer Vitus Bering.

There were personality problems. Steller is variously described as arrogant, opinionated, and irascible. He apparently treated the Russian seamen on the Saint Peter with condescension and contempt, and Steller paid for it. The men wanted to spend as little time with him as possible, and Steller was not permitted to go ashore with any of the landing parties. The single exception was ten hours begrudgingly allowed him on Kayak Island, the expedition's closest approach to the Alaska mainland. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that Bering was having his own problems with indecision and overcautiousness on this voyage.

Steller's report on his ten hours of observing and collecting is an amazingly comprehensive one and is Alaska's first natural history document. In it Steller demonstrates his uncanny eye for detail, his impressive memory, and his ability to describe and catalog his discoveries. It is, for example, the first scientific report to identify the salmonberry. Many other new plant species are described in Steller's report of his ten hours on Alaskan soil.

On the voyage, too, were some discoveries that seem mysterious today. There was Steller's sea cow, the giant manatee species that went extinct almost as soon as it was named. And the Sea Monkeys-what WERE they? Five feet long, a head like a dog, a tail divided into two fins like a shark, large eyes, an ability to hold itself upright 1/3 of the way out of the water for minutes, and keeping the ship's company amused with its "laughable motions, jumping and monkey tricks."

On the return trip, the Saint Peter was wrecked on what was to be known as Bering Island, in the Komandorskis east of Kamchatka. The story of that long winter of 1741-42 is a remarkable one in itself. Bering died there. Crew members started dying of scurvy, yet it was Steller's knowledge of botany that saved many lives. He gave the sailors beachgreens as a tea and a paste, the high vitamin C content in the plants restoring their health. As far as we can tell, the beachgreens Steller used are the same bright green plants that grow in low clusters all over Kodiak's shoreline. And, not surprisingly, Steller identified 211 new plant species during his forced time on Bering Island.

The men accomplished the impressive feat of building a new vessel from timbers of the Saint Peter and from driftwood on the island, sailing it back to Kamchatka. Steller kept waiting after this first voyage for another expedition on which he'd serve as naturalist, and where his contributions might be recognized more appropriately.

The expedition never came. Steller started drinking. He died in Kamchatka at the age of 37, alcoholic, penniless, and miserable. It was a sad ending for an individual who contributed so much to the natural history of Alaska. He once wrote in his journal, "I have fallen in love with nature," a statement which may indicate both his dedication to natural history and his disconnection from the human world about him.

David A. Evans, Naturalist, Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Updated 2003 August 19