In the early 1700s, long before the New World colonists began manifesting their destiny by pushing the American frontier west to the Pacific coast, Russian promyshlenniki (explorers and traders) were already busy pushing their own frontier east to the Pacific. After these land conquerors had delineated Russia’s inhospitable northeastern edges, they were followed by indomitable sea explorers who cast off from the coasts in search of answers to questions that had intrigued Europeans since Marco Polo’s Travels—mainly, whether or not Asia was joined with America, the mysterious land to the east that was vaguely outlined on then-contemporary maps.
Danish-born Vitus Bering, a sailor in the Russian navy for nearly 20 years, set out in 1725 for Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia, on orders from Peter the Great. It took him and his crew three years, dragging rigging, cable, and anchors 2,000 miles over trackless wilderness and suffering innumerable deprivations to reach the coast, where their real journey into the uncharted waters of the North Pacific would begin.
Bering built his first boat, Gabriel, and sailed past St. Lawrence Island (south of present-day Nome) and the Diomedes, but fog prevented him from glimpsing North America. He returned and wintered in Kamchatka, sailed again in the spring, and charted most of the Kamchatka coast, but foul weather and a shortage of provisions again precluded exploring farther east.
Over the next 10 years, Bering shuttled between Moscow and his beloved coast, submitting patiently to royal politics and ridicule from the leading scientists and cartographers while planning and outfitting (though not commanding) a series of expeditions that charted the rest of the Siberian coast and Japan.
Finally, in 1741, at the age of 60, Bering undertook his remarkable voyage to America. Commanding the St. Peter, he sailed southeast from Kamchatka, came up south of the Aleutians, passed Kodiak, and sighted Mt. St. Elias on the mainland. By that time Bering, along with 31 members of his crew, was in the final throes of terminal scurvy. He died in December 1741 and was buried on what is now Bering Island, the westernmost of the Aleutians.
Meanwhile, his lieutenant, Alexis Chirikov, commanding the St. Paul, had reached all the way to the site of Sitka . After much hardship, survivors from both ships made it back to Siberia—with a load of sea otter pelts. This bounty from the New World prompted a rush of Russian hunters and traders to Alaska .
Reports of Russian advances alarmed the Spanish, who considered the entire west coast of North America theirs. Juan Pérez and Bruno de Heceta were ordered north from Mexico in 1774 and 1775. Spanish explorer Juan Francisco Quadra sailed as far north as Sitka  in 1775 and 1779, but in the end, Spain failed to back up its claim with any permanent settlement north of San Francisco.
It was Englishmen James Cook (in 1776–1780) and George Vancouver (in 1791–1792) who first carefully explored and charted this northern coast. In 1778, Cook landed on Vancouver Island , then sailed north all the way to what is now called Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska, in search of the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic. He continued to the Aleutians and entered the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
A decade and a half later, Vancouver, aboard his ship HMS Discovery, charted the coast from California  to Southeast Alaska  and claimed the region for Britain. His was the first extensive exploration of Puget Sound and circumnavigation of Vancouver Island ; his maps and charts of this confounding coast were so accurate that they were used for another 100 years.
Meanwhile, explorers were reaching the Pacific overland from bases in eastern Canada and the United States. In 1789 a Northwest Company trader, Alexander Mackenzie, paddled down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean. Four years later, in 1793, he became the first person to cross the entire continent by land, reaching the Pacific at Bella Coola, British Columbia .
Other employees of the same aggressive Montreal-based company explored farther south. In 1808, Simon Fraser followed the Fraser River, stopping near the present site of the city of Vancouver; in 1810–1811 David Thompson traveled from the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River to the mouth of the Columbia River, near present-day Portland .
In 1803, after the United States purchased 827,000 square miles of territory west of the Mississippi River from France, President Thomas Jefferson ordered a military fact-finding mission into the area. Led by Lewis and Clark, a group of explorers paddled up the Missouri River to its headwaters and crossed to the Columbia, which they followed to the Pacific (1804–1806), helping to open vast expanses of western North America. American fur traders followed close behind. (The Alaskan interior was not properly explored, however, until the gold rush at the end of the 19th century.)
The excesses of the promyshlenniki, who had massacred and enslaved the Aleut, prompted the czar in 1789 to create the Russian America Company, headed by Grigori Shelikov, a fur trader and merchant who in 1784 had established the first permanent settlement in Alaska  at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. Alexander Baranov, a salesman in Siberia, was the first director of the company; he moved the settlement to present-day Kodiak town, and for the next 20 years Baranov was the law.
One of the most powerful men in Alaskan history, he enslaved the remaining Aleuts, warred with the Panhandle Indians, initiated trade with the British, Spanish, and Americans, and sent his trading vessels as far away as Hawaii, Japan, and Mexico. Exhausting the resources of Kodiak and its neighborhood, he moved the company to Sitka , where, according to Merle Colby in his classic 1939 Works Progress Administration Guide to Alaska,
from his wooden “castle” on the hill surmounting the harbor he made Sitka the most brilliant capital in the new world. Yankee sailors, thrashing around the Horn, beating their way up the California coast, anchored at last in Sitka harbor and found the city an American Paris, its streets crowded with adventurers from half the world away, its nights gay with balls illuminated by brilliant uniforms and the evening dresses of Russian ladies.
Except for the Tlingit Indians, who fought bitterly against Russian imperialism, Baranov’s rule, extending from Bristol Bay in western Alaska to Fort Ross, California, was complete. His one last dream, of returning to Russia, was never fulfilled—on the voyage back to his homeland, Baranov died at the age of 72.