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In 1725, shortly before his death, Peter the Great instructed Vitus Bering to prove definitely that Siberia was separated from North America and to find the nearest European settlement in the New World.

During the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-30), Bering and his assistant lieutenant, Aleksei Ilich Chirikov (1703-48), sailed north along the coast of Kamchatka, and in August 1728 sailed between the two continents. They sighted no land to the east and did not recognize the importance of the passage they'd gone through. It did prove for the first time, however, that Asia and North America were not joined.

Convinced of the existence of a large landmass to the east, the Russian government decided to form a second expedition that would explore this territory. Bering was also asked to determine the location of Gamaland, a large land mass thought to lie in the vicinity of the Asian coast at 46° N. In 1741 Bering commanded the St. Peter while Aleksei Chirikov commanded the St. Paul. They set out, rounded Kamchatka, and founded the town of Petropavlovsk. After two attempts to locate the non-existent Gamaland Bering turned west. The vessels were separated. Bering and Chirikov landed at several places along the Aleutian Islands and the coast of the North American mainland between June and September 1741.

Commemorative Stamp: Bering's Expeditions
The map on the stamp shows the routes of Bering and Chirikov with the white line representing Chirkov’s outbound route, and the brown line representing Bering’s outbound route. The stamp was issued for the 250th anniversary of the voyages of Bering and Chirikov.

Bering sighted the St. Elias Mountains in Alaska on July 16, and the scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller led a landing party. This feat is credited with the "official" discovery by Russia and the first reliable information on the land. Bering established Russia's claim to northwestern North America. Sailing west past the Aleutian Islands, the St. Peter was wrecked on the shore of Bering Island, which they mistook for the coast of Kamchatka.

On 17 September, the ship continued its journey westward, but was plagued first by stormy conditions and then by calm weather. For a time around 10 November, south of the Aleutians, it was driven almost helplessly by storms, snow squalls, and hailstorms. About 15 November, the crew once again spied land. In fair weather and under full sail, the ship and its desperately-weakened crew were driven toward the coast with no one in command and no one at the oars. It was close to a miracle that on the night of 17 November, the crew managed to drop anchor only 300 fathoms from a stretch of beach on an otherwise inhospitable island. On the beach, the crew tried to dig holes to create shelter. On 9 December, a storm hurled the St. Peter and the rest of its food supplies (mostly wheat and oats) up on the beach. It was here that Vitus Bering died in a primitive log shelter on 19 December 1741. He was 60 years old, tired, sick, and defeated.

Remarkably, the remnants of the St. Peter’s crew of 77 managed to survive the winter. In spring of 1742, they built a 40 foot boat from the wreckage of the St. Peter.  The newly-built boat, was launched with great difficulty on 19 August 1742. On 23 August, the crew was ready to sail after they had raised a wooden cross over Vitus Bering’s grave. On 6 September, the boat and the 46 survivors arrived in Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka.  All the crew had managed to bring back from Alaska were some sea otter skins.

To the sailor's amazement, these pelts turned out to be immensely valuable to the Chinese - a single pelt could be worth three times the yearly pay of a sailor! When word spread that Bering's crew had garnered a high price for sea otter pelts from the Aleutians, hundreds of men came to hunt in the wholesale slaughter of sea otters. The adventurers inflicted violence and bloodshed on the Aleut people, sometimes holding families hostage to force the men to help with the slaughter.

Russian trappers and fur traders had already begun to take advantage of Alaska's wealth of natural resources by 1784, when Grigory Shelikhov established the first permanent colony at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. By 1786 Shelikhov was the leading fur merchant in the Aleutians but needed an able manager for his enterprises. He found one in Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov, a Siberian fur merchant, who arrived on Kodiak in 1791. He soon moved the settlement from Three Saints Bay to Pavlovsk, on the northern side of the island, which had a better harbor and abundant forests to provide wood for construction. Pavlovsk is now the town of Kodiak. 

In 1794, Catherine the Great acceded to Shelikhov's request to establish an Orthodox mission there. The arrival of priests and missionaries eased some of the tensions between the merchants and the Alaska Natives who were their main source of labor. From that point until Alaska was purchased by the United States, church and state were inextricably intertwined. Today, Orthodox Christianity plays a major role in the lives of many Alaska Natives and others in the Southeast, Southwest, and South Central regions.

Shelikhov died in 1795. His son-in-law and successor, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov, obtained in 1799 a charter from the Russian ruler, Tsar Paul I, that granted his company, the Russian-American Company, a monopoly of the American fur trade. It empowered the company to take possession of all territories already occupied by Russians north of 55° north latitude and to establish new settlements not only in that area but also to the south, provided this did not cause conflict with other powers.

Wholesale slaughter of fur seals, whales, sea otters and walruses ravaged this side of Alaska's assets. Russians dominated the trade, though Spain, France, and England also had a hand in the business and a foot in the state's southern panhandle. Unregulated exploitation of the fur resources by rival companies led to a serious depletion of accessible fur areas and the killing and enslavement of the peaceful Aleut natives. This led to the chartering of the Russian American Company in 1799 under the management of Aleksandr Baranov, an administrator previously hired by Shelikhov.  Baranov was granted a monopoly on trade in the region and given governmental authority. Under his rule, there was a period of about 20 years of order and systematic exploitation of the fur resources.

Baranov built settlements in the Aleutians; the most important, Novo-Arkhangel’sk (New Archangel) was built in 1799. In 1802 the Tlingit attacked and destroyed the fort. Baranov returned in 1804 and, aided by a Russian warship, defeated the Tlingit. He then rebuilt Novo-Arkhangel’sk 4.8 km (3 mi) to the south, where it grew to become the city of Sitka, the capital of Russian America. Elegant onion domes and colorful, stylized icons bear witness to the influence of some of Alaska's earliest settlers.

The directors of the company retired Baranov in 1818. He sailed for Russia, but died at sea on the way. His retirement came in the last years of the company’s charter and ushered in a new phase in the development of Russian America. Russian naval officers succeeded him. When the charter was renewed in 1821, it stipulated that the chief managers, or governors as they came to be called, had to be naval officers.

The navy improved the colony’s administration, considerably enlarging the bureaucracy. But unlike Baranov, the naval officers had little interest in business. Also, the Russian navy was unable to stem the intrusion of British and Americans into Alaska. An attempt by the tsar to forbid all foreign vessels within 160 km (100 mi) of Russian-claimed lands was met with protests from the British and United States governments.

The dispute with the United States was settled by a convention of 1824 setting 54°40’ north latitude as the southern boundary of Russian territory. Russia agreed with Britain in 1825 that Russian claims would extend eastward to the 141st meridian, southward to the 56th parallel, and southward from there along a narrow strip of land (the Panhandle) on the Pacific coast. Russia gave both powers the right to trade along the Alaska coast for ten years. That ended Russian expansion in America.

After skirmishes in Southeastern between Russians and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Russia in 1839 leased to Hudson’s Bay the Southeastern mainland south of Cape Spencer for ten years for a nominal rent. In return, Hudson’s Bay promised to supply Alaska and Kamchatka with food and manufactured goods. The lease was renewed in 1849.

By the mid-1850s, Russia was unable to manage its territories. Economics of the time and the Crimean war had disastrous effects on Russian domestic affairs. This along with the disappearance of the sea otter and fur trade brought about the end of the Russian period.