Russia not finding Alaska

Maybe PBS (Public Broadcasting Station) was wrong but I KnoW that I saw a documentary with a man pointing over the sea to Russia and saying that on clear days you can see to Russia from here. Did noone live in that part of Russia causing them not to see America? Was there some rare maricle that only once every 500 000 years causing a clear day there? I tend to think not, due to the cold air causing minimal cloud cover. Could someone please tell me why I am wrong. He mentions that people did notice it but it was a small concern then. Hadn’t their ancestors seen it? It seems to be that they must have been drinking to not see a huge ‘island’ away and not fear invasion from possable people living a swim away.

Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.

Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site. To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
How could the Russians not discover America? It was only 50 miles away! (06-Mar-1998)

moderator, «Comments on Cecil’s Columns» **

I just don’t understand the point of the original question. Does the writer think that Russia has been what is now for all time. In the 1492, Russia was a relatively small state on the eastern edges of Europe, and they didn’t even reach the Siberian coast overland for another 150 years…and then, once they got it together they made it into Alaska. It all makes me wonder about the quality of education in this country, vis-a-vis History and Geography.

Or maybe I’m just not getting the joke.

hebetate said, among other things,

. Don’t know about you, but a 50 mile swim in Bering waters, ain’t a day at the races, sport.

And, anyway, what makes you think you can see 50 miles on a clear day? There’s such a thing as the earth’s curvature. Didn’t research it yet to see how far line of sight is, but I don’t think 50 miles is possible.

But I’ve been wrong before.

I must admit that the answer in this column has always failed to satisfy me. When you consider that the Polynesian islands were settled long before the discovery of the americas, and that for example there must have been sea travel in Asia between the Philippine islands and the main continent, I find it bizarre that some enterprising sailors would not have followed the coast north from China, Japan, Korea or Siberia and then down from Alaska to Canada and/or North America. Of course, it could be that sailors from those areas did do so but failed to start permanent settlements, and the fact is not well known amongst european scholars; also I have read that China and Japan were countries that were closed to outsiders and also did not venture abroad much; but that can’t be the whole story.

Arnold Winkleried opines:

Enterprising sailors from Siberia did. Today, we call their descendants “Eskimos”.

As for people coming from further afield, the climate of northeastern Siberia is truly atrocious. Explorers (if any; the Ming explorations sent by the Yung Lo emperor were more to find if his nephew, the Chien Wen emperor, escaped his coup than out of scientific curiosity) from further south would not have had it if the proverbial pound of tea were thrown in with it. It should be noted that in the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689), between Russia and the then-powerful Ta Ch’ing dynasty, the Ch’ing were content to claim the Amur watershed, as the northern limits of the land worth arguing over.

The Polynesians did create an impressive Neolithic navigation technology. That they did is, in considerable part, because they had to. The peoples of the Asian mainland didn’t have to, and so they didn’t.

I was investigating Mormonism for a while because my sister converted to it when she married her husband, and I wanted to see if it was something I was interested in.

It seems to me that the book of morman was saying that thosands of years BC some ancient people left The Holy Land and traveled east, eventually crossing the Pacific and settling in upstate New York.

Am I getting this story right? If so, this still begs questions of proof either way, and has a few other implications as well.

You can safely discount the Book of Mormon mythology on this count. It has absolutely no basis in fact. None, zero, nada.

IANAH (I am not a historian) but please allow me a few comments.

Akatsukami says that some people did sail across the Bering Strait (witness the native american populations). I always thought that humans were supposed to have crossed from Asia to America by foot over a frozen icecap during a glaciation period. Now here’s where my ignorance shows, but my understanding is that humans showed up in America at the earliest 13,000 years ago. What is the first archaeological evidence for sea-faring boats?

Akatsukami also says “The early Polynesians created an impressive navigation technology in large part because they had to. People of the Asian land mass didn’t face the same obligation.” Perhaps during the course of their migrations the Polynesians improved their methods of sea travel, but it seems to me that originally they must have come from the greater Asian land mass, with no compelling incentive to travel that far. So the spirit of exploration was alive and well in those regions. Of course I don’t know the time frames of travel between Asia and remote areas of Polynesia vs. between the different islands in Polynesia. I read about this yesterday in Encylopædia Britannica and the two dates I remember are: Samoa settled originally around 2500 BCE, Hawaii around 400 AD. I tried to go back to EB for more information but I haven’t been able to do a successful search at their site since last night (server problems at EB I’m guessing).

Crag, if I may expound a little on Collounsbury’s post, my understanding is that there is no reliable archaeological evidence supporting the historical migration mentioned in the LDS religious texts.

There is also the basic difference between the circa-1500 Western European “discovery” and all the previous encounters: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, etc., whatever their pious justifications on paper, were backed by governments that were out to conquer themselves an empire (be it in the real Indies, or in the surprise continent that Chris ran into). Across the Bering Straits and the Pacific, the only real major power had no such attitude.

The Chinese apparently never seemed to care about overseas empires and would have answered to reports of a large land mass at the other end of the Aleutians with a yawn (“Have the barbarians of that great Northeastern Island you found anything to trade?” “About the same things as the barbarians from the far north, noble Lord: furs and timber” “We already get that on our own border provinces… are they a potential threat?” “Hardly, my Lord, their numbers are scarce, they have no great vessels, no cavalry, no machines of war, no iron…” “Well, fine. File your report tomorrow with the office of the Vice-Minister of Archives and take some time off at the Summer Palace while we find something else for you to do.”)

Anyway: The Siberians would have found something not unlile their own home grounds: “How nice… more seals.” Who would they report it to? How would they publish it? The Vikings hit Newfoundland which was not that much better than Iceland: “Gee, more codfish… big deal.” The news took ‘till after Columbus to make it to most of Europe. The Spanish/Portugese/Others ran smack into the parts of the continent that had gold, productive arable land, a population to exploit, and hints of even mo’better easy loot further inland: “Right ON! Let’s got get ours!” The news spread like wildfire.
(Meanwhile, the distance across the Pacific between the appropriate ports for the Ming meeting Moctezuma, is just freakin’ HUGE.)


Arnold Winkleried writes:

Whoops! I seem to have inadvertantly introduced some confusing information here. Let me try to clarify:

The palaeoanthropology of North America is not entirely clear in its upper reaches. However, it is now generally accepted that there were at least three major pre-Columbian migrations of North America, resulting in three major population groups distinguished by linguistics, dentistry, and genetics around 1500 CE.

The first migration was about 9000-10,000 BCE, and consisted of peoples from Alaska (relatively ice-free due to low precipitation) and Beringia (the land bridge now submerged under the Bering Straits), who came there in turn from northeastern Siberia (there are camps in Kamchatka from about 14,000 BCE very similar to what we see in North America a few thousand years later). These people are referred to, logically enough as Proto-Amerinds. They are lacking almost entirely in type B blood (believed to be a relatively recent east Asian mutation), but have a very high instance of type A.

The second migration is thought to be about 2000-4000 years later, and brought the ancestors of the “Na-Dene” peoples: Athabascans, the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and a few outlier such as the Navajo. They are also lacking in type B blood; however, their dental patterns and the low frequency of type A suggest a distinct ancestry from the other Amerinds. Their languages may be related to the Sino-Tibetan group (although this is based on the shakiest of evidence). They are also thought to have walked via Alaska and Beringia.

The third migration is thought to have occurred about 2000 BCE to the beginning of the common era, and brought the ancestors of the Eskimos and Aleuts. They have a high occurrence of type B blood, and show distinct linguistic and dental similarities with Siberian peoples (indeed, there are to this day people in eastern Siberia who can be differentiated from Eskimos only be their being there, instead of here). Since Berginia was certainly submerged for thousands of years before this, they must have arrived by boat.

(It is debated whether NA Eskimos result from one or several migrations, and just how long the migration(s) lasted. There are also a few weird outliers like Kennewick Man, whose provenance cannot be established, but who does not seem to fit into the known genetic groups. However, the outlines of early North American origins are generally accepted, provided that we paint the picture with a brush that blurs half-millennia).

No. The story is that in 600 BC, “some ancient people” left the Holy Land and travelled west, crossing the Atlantic.

With relation to seeing a landmass 50 miles distant, I have on several occasions seen the mountains of Wales from the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, at a distance of well over 60 miles. But the fact remains that the Russians had not reached the Pacific coast by the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In that column, Cecil mentions the 1867 Russian sale of Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000. I’ve heard that there were rumors of ulterior motives to the sale. During the American Civil War, Russia was one of the few European powers to support the United States. After the war was won, Washington wanted to repay Russia for this backing. An outright cash gift wouldn’t have passed Congress, so arrangements were made to buy Alaska. Both Russia and the United States estimated Alaska’s value at around one or two million dollars. The extra money paid was the covert bonus Russia received for its diplomatic support.

It should perhaps be noted that, at the time of the foundation of Mormonism, what passed for archaeological thought held that the ancestors of the American Indians had arrived in North America between two and four thousand years earlier, with the weight of learned opinion leaning towards a later date. The story contained in the Book of Mormon, therefore, was fairly conservative, the surprising details being the source and method of the colonization (and, to be sure, the theology).

Of course, since then, we have learned, as Collounsbury says, that this hypothesis has no basis in fact whatsoever.

Well, if it’s the same one I saw, it was Michael Palin’s “Full Circle”. It’s worthwhile to point out that he’s an entertainer, not a scientist, and he was making a travel video, not a scientific documentary. Also, he wasn’t in Alaska proper when he said that–he was on Little Diomede Island, which is out in the Strait, at the narrowest point between Wales, Alaska and Siberia. It’s also worthwhile to point out that clear days are extremely rare there, and as a matter of fact, he was unable to complete his “full circle” at the end due to bad weather preventing him getting back out to Little Diomede.

I love this.

It sounds like almost as much fun as Gambell (hint–it’s on Saint Lawrence Island, that really fat island out in the Strait, directly south of the narrowest part between Alaska and Siberia).

Um, yeah. I guess so. :rolleyes:

When you are thinking of “cold air and minimal cloud cover”, you are thinking of the Alaskan interior. The weather in the Bering Strait and in western Alaska is notoriously fickle, with cloudy and foggy weather being the norm rather than the exception.

Bethel, Alaska.

And out in the Aleuteian Islands, in the Bering Sea itself.

A definition of a “maritime climate”.

And when you think “London”, “Seattle”, and “Vancouver”, what do you think? That’s right–humidity. Rain and fog.

Originally posted by Little Nemo:

Obvious problems:

  1. That would be the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War.
  2. 1867 is far too late for Washington to have been involved. Washington died before 1800. 1867 was after the Civil War. What took so long?

That story seems fishy.

Irishman: Actually there was a perception that Russia was backing the North ( at least there was a perception in the North ) in the Civil War because the Russians sent their Baltic Fleet to winter in Northern ports on a “goodwill tour”. But this seems to have been mostly a strategic move as Russia was anticipating the possible outbreak of European hostilities ( I forget over what ) and didn’t want their fleet icebound if the shooting started.

Whether this had anyhing to do with the purchase of alaska, I have no idea. I’m inclined to doubt it. But I don’t have enough info to give an informed opinion.

As to the main thrust of this thread - I agree most wholeheartedly with JRDelirious with an honorable mention to Akatsukami :slight_smile: .

  • Tamerlane

Agreed, but if you travel following the coast, is it really that difficult? (I’m sure you can tell that I’m not a sailor either. ;)) I don’t think that it would be feasible to do this as a week-end trip, but I’m amazed that there would be no record of this at all in chinese historical texts.

Also thank you to Akatsukami for the description of the three different migrations. I learn something new every day. It seems that no one actually walked over the ice, it was either over a land bridge now submerged or else in boats (presumably kayaks?)

It’s not quite as difficult as people are making out. The distance is only about 3 miles. Admittedly, the fogs endemic to that area make it hard to see that far much of the time.

But, the places that are 3 miles apart are not the mainland. DDG pointed out that Michael Palin was on (or near) Little Diomede Island. Three miles away is Big Diomede Island, which is owned by Russia.

Those islands, along with the coasts on both sides of the strait, are areas of (I believe) the Yupik Eskimos. The people on the two islands are closely related. The Cold War caused difficulties for them since the authorities on both sides, but especially on the Russian side, didn’t want them to go visit their relatives on the other island.

I understand that in winter, they do just walk across the ice between the islands. Or possibly use dog sleds, although from what I’ve heard, sea ice is difficult for dog sleds.