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Russian, British, and Spanish Explorers

Vitus Bering
Courtesy of the Alaska State Library

1740, the European powers spent the better part of three centuries trying to establish control over the vast recourses of the Americas. Alaska remained unexplored and pristine, until quite late in the colonization of the new world. All of this was about to change. As the colonial powers started to realize a shortage of new lands to claim, furs to harvest, and new routes to the orient were envisioned they cast their eyes north. The growing desires of new European powers for empires to call their own was to become another motivator for exploring the northern reaches of the Americas.

The Russian Empire was the first to fund the exploration of Alaska. They had established rule over a vast amount of land from Eastern Europe to the Siberian tundra. Rumors of visitors from across the Pacific trading valuable furs with the local natives soon taunted them into ships and onto the vast ocean. They sent the noted Danish seaman and explorer Vitus Bering to take a look. He departed on his last voyage in July of 1741. From the first time he weighed anchor there were problems. He and most of his crew got sick, the two ships in the expedition got separated in the fog and couldn't find each other and the officers of his ship quarreled over every decision. Finally on July 27th the crew from the ship carrying Bering spotted land. This was the highest coastal mountain range in the world and it surrounded the Katalla and Controller Bay area. The day was Saint Elias' holiday so, Bering named the range and the highest mountain after him. They landed on Kayak Island and the famed naturalist Georg Steller studied the wildlife and vegetation of this new land. They loaded up fresh water and despite the pleas of Steller ignored the vast food sources available for the sick and hungry crew. They set sail for Russia on August 1st. Bering and several members of his crew were to die from scurvy before reaching home, but Alaska had been discovered!

The British Empire was not far behind. Captain James Cook on his final voyage to explore for the Northwest Passage charted the South Coast of Alaska in 1778. On May 10th they landed on Kayak Island and he named it Key's Island. He claimed the island for the English Crown and buried some coins in a bottle as proof of the discovery and claim to the land. One of the members of his crew was a young officer named William Bligh. This lad would go on to fame as Captain Bligh of the mutiny on the Bounty fame. Cook would explore the Prince William Sound and most of the coast of Alaska before sailing to Hawaii and his death. His reports on the new land and his claim of Kayak Island for Britain prompted the Russians to start colonizing Alaska.

Spain not to be out done sent the very able Alejandro Malaspina to chart and claim the Great North for their empire. In 1791, he explored extensively along the Controller Bay coast and tried to claim it for the Spanish Crown. The largest Glacier in North America is named for him. By the time of his voyage though, the Russians had already established a fur trading empire in Alaska and were planning to establish towns and Eastern Orthodox Catholic missions.

The Russian Empire had won the race to claim the vast wilderness. For nearly 75 years they would exploit the resources found in Alaska.

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Cook's Ship

Captian James Cook

Alejandro Malaspina

A Russian Settlement in Alaska
Courteousy of the Alaska State Library