Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Georg Wilhelm Steller

As of tomorrow, a man named Georg Wilhelm Steller passed away 266 years ago.  Steller, as we talked about a few weeks ago, discovered a few very interesting animals, and was the first non-native (at least that we know of) to set foot in Alaska, in 1741.  He was therefore the first European naturalist to discover, as well as describe, a number of animals in the area.

Many of the members of the crew of the boat that he was on were coming down with scurvy, and Steller attempted to cull the growing epidemic by feeding berries and leaves to the crew.  No one really heeded his advice, which was why, on the returning journey, they all became shipwrecked, as only 12 crew members were actually able to physically move.  During the voyage almost half of the crew had died due to scurvy, and many, including the captain, died following the shipwreck.  With very little food and water, the survivors created a camp, suffering frequent raids by the arctic fox, which only served to increase their peril.

Nevertheless, Steller, apparently the stoic type, continued to learn more about the natural world of Alaska.  He recorded a good deal of information in regards to the Steller's sea cow (a relative of the manatee), which, as a species, only survived about 25 years after Steller first discovered them.  Other animals that he discovered, described, or both include the Steller's eider (a type of duck), the spectacled cormorant (like the sea cow, now extinct), the sea otter, Steller's sea lion, and the northern fur seal.

In 1742, the survivors were eventually able to build a new boat from the salvage, and returned to Avacha Bay in Russia.  Steller continued to explore the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia for the next two years, but died in 1746 in transit to St. Petersburg.

One final thing that I find interesting about Steller has to do with the post-mortem publication of his journals.  They were published by the German zoologist and biologist Peter Simon Pallas who, you guessed it, is the namesake of the Pallas cat, or Pallas's cat, who was the first person to describe the animal in 1776.  These journals proved to be useful to other explorers of the same region such as Captain Cook.
An excellent picture that I took of the Pallas cat (if I do say so myself) from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo


  1. Are you sure it is really the pic of G.W. Steller himself? I searched during a long time before and it was said there was no picture of him.

    1. You know, I didn't do much more than a cursory search. I came across the same thing that you must have read, that there aren't any pictures of him. If I remember correctly (and I may not as it was awhile ago that I made this post), this picture was drawn posthumously, taken from descriptions and first hand accounts. If you find any more information, definitely let me know!

    2. There is no authentic portrait of Georg Wilhelm Steller: the above shown
      portrait could be Adalbert von Chamisso, a member of the Kamchatka-
      Expedition with Kotzebue under Krusenstern.

  2. Hans van der KraanJanuary 18, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    Here on Dutch tv we have the delightful series with Redmond O'Hanlon about his favorite 19th century explorers/travellers, people like Richard Burton, Alexandrine Tinne, Luigi D'Albertis, and of course Steller. It was a stellar program about Georg Wilhelm Steller! Redmond also states that he did not know of any existing portrait of Steller.
    Salut! Hans van der Kraan


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