Today in History

Today in History: October 25

Discovery of Kiska Island

On October 25, [1741] we had very clear weather and sunshine, but even so it hailed at various times in the afternoon. We were surprised in the morning to discover a large tall island at 51° to the north of us.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741-1742, trans. by M. Engle and O. W. Frost (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988): 119.

Thus wrote the naturalist-physician, Georg Wilhelm Steller, about the discovery of Kiska Island in the Aleutian Islands chain of present-day Alaska. Steller's journal was kept according to the Old Style (Julian) calendar, which was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1752, so his October 25 is November 5 by twenty-first-century reckoning. His entries provide a detailed firsthand account of the final voyage of the navigator and explorer Captain-Commander Vitus Jonassen Bering.

Nome City water front from anchorage in Bering Sea
Nome City Water Front [from Anchorage in Bering Sea],
October 20, 1899.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Bering was born in 1681 in Horsens, Denmark, but served with the Russian fleet for thirty-eight years. Under Tsar Peter the Great, Bering led an expedition from 1725-30 to explore northeastern Siberia and purportedly to determine if Russia and North America were connected by a land bridge.

Goldi Village on the Amur
Goldi Village on the Amur, North of Khabarovsk; Dog Tied in Foreground,
Around the World in the 1890s: Photographs from the World's Transportation Commission, 1894-1896

Having learned that North America and Russia were not connected, Bering undertook a second exploration, lasting from 1733-43. The Great Northern Expedition sought to secure a Russian foothold on the North American continent. In June 1741, Bering set sail on the St. Peter, with fellow navigator Aleksei Chirikov commanding the St. Paul. The two soon were separated by a storm at sea. Chirikov searched futilely for Bering, but headed home after losing two scouting parties of his own men.

After a futile search for the St. Paul, Bering's men made the first European discovery of the northwest coast of America on July 16, sighting coastal mountains on the northern Gulf of Alaska coast which he named the St. Elias Mountains. By mid-September, Bering had set a return course when, ill with scurvy, he became too weak to command his ships. He and his men took refuge on an uninhabited island. Survivors of Bering's ship finally came ashore in November on land they believed Kamchatka; their journals reveal an extraordinary tale. Bering died in December, but the survivors took advantage of the abundant sea life and natural resources and returned to health by eating whale blubber, and the meat of sea otters and "sea cows,"—the latter having seaweed-nourished meat.

St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka
St. Michael's Cathedral [detail],
[Sitka, Alaska],
ca. 1895.
In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures

Fur-trading possibilities soon hastened the settlement of Alaska and the Aleutians. The Russian-American Company, led by Grigorii Shelekov and encouraged by Tsarina Catherine the Great, established a Russian outpost on Kodiak Island in 1784. The Russian Orthodox Church founded its first Orthodox mission in North America in 1794.

The online exhibition In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures examines the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian America from 1794 to about 1915. It explores issues of commerce, the relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to native Alaskans, and the preservation of the Aleut, Eskimo, and Tlingit languages.

View Down Broadway, Skaguay, AK
Broadway, View Down Street,
Skaguay, Alaska.
American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920: a Study Collection from the Harvard Graduate School of Design

Native customs remained strong in Alaska after U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased this territory from Russia in 1867. However, in 1948, the Cold War halted centuries of native travel back and forth across the Bering Strait. Only after the Reagan-Gorbachev Moscow summit in 1988 did the "Friendship Flights" from Nome to Provideniya allow Alaska natives once again to share their mutual culture. At this time, other economic, scientific, and cultural exchanges also recommenced.

Abigail Smith Adams

A. Adams from an original painting by Gilbert Stuart
A. Adams, From an Original Painting by Gilbert Stuart,
New York: Johnson, Wilson & Co. Publishers, ca. 1830-1860.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

On October 25, 1764, Abigail Smith married a young lawyer from Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, by the name of John Adams, who would become, some thirty years later, the second president of the United States. Their union launched a vital and long-lived partnership of fifty-four years, which carried the couple from colonial Boston to Philadelphia and the politics of revolution; to Paris and London and the world of international diplomacy; and finally to New York , Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where in November, 1800 they became the first presidential couple to occupy the newly built White House in the nation’s new capital. Among their five children, John Quincy Adams would also become a U.S. president. For almost two centuries, Abigail Smith Adams remained the only American who was both the wife and the mother of a president, a distinction she now shares with Barbara Bush.

Abigail Adams is perhaps best remembered for her letters, written especially to her husband during long periods of separation, but also to her larger network of family members and friends, such as Mercy Otis Warren and Thomas Jefferson. The daughter of a Congregational minister born in 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the young Abigail received a sophisticated though largely informal education, fueled by the presence of many books and frequent visitors in her home. John Adams was one such visitor, and their earliest letters document a witty and affectionate courtship spanning several years. In married life, Abigail Adams proved a talented chronicler of significant events, combining a broad knowledge of history and politics with perceptive commentary and a keen eye for detail. Her letters comprise an important account of key events in the United States’ early history as a nation.

Adams and her husband corresponded regularly during the course of his many absences from home, first as a circuit judge in Massachusetts and then, most famously, while he attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was in one of these letters that Abigail Adams’ spirited admonition to “remember the Ladies” appears:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If p[a]rticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebel[l]ion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776,
Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society

Library of Congress, Adams Building. New Library of Congress front under construction I
Equal Franchise Society Legislative Series; Extract from a Letter from Abigail Adams to her Husband John Adams,
New York City, New York: Equal Franchise Society, ca. 1910.
Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911

The Adams’ frequent separations continued into the 1780s, as John Adams accepted several commissions from the U.S. government to Europe, both during the revolution and after it formally ended. Throughout this time, Abigail Adams managed the family farm and finances, and raised the couple’s children largely on her own. The Adams sons, as they grew older, traveled with their father to Europe. In 1784 Abigail joined her husband in Paris, bringing along their oldest daughter, Abigail 2d (Nabby). From there the family moved to London where John Adams served in the challenging role of the United States’ first minister to the recently defeated Great Britain. On their return to Boston in 1788, the Adams moved into a new, larger home in Quincy, but only a few months later in March 1789, John Adams was selected the first vice president, serving with President George Washington for the next eight years.

Adams Mansion
Adams Mansion
Photograph 1: West Side
135 Adams Street, Quincy, Norfolk County, Massachusetts,
Charles E. Peterson, photographer, 1954.
Built in America, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present

During her husband’s vice presidency, Abigail Adams drew on her experience abroad to assist First Lady Martha Washington in official entertaining; together they created the new role of primary hostess for the country. Adams also advised her husband in politics, and kept charge of the family’s Massachusetts property, traveling home from the temporary capital at Philadelphia during periods of poor health. In Washington, D.C., she continued her entertaining in the unfinished and drafty White House in a barely habitable city. When, in 1800, John Adams lost his bid for re-election in what proved the nation’s first contentious presidential election, she happily retired from public life to spend more time with her husband.