Two centuries ago, shortly after the U.S. was formed, a Russian expedition set its sights on the Pacific Northwest. It could have changed history.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century two empires met on the far side of North America. Spain was the tired and hidebound colonial master of much of the Americas. Russia was the upstart, hungry for America's Pacific Northwest coast, a prize left unclaimed after the golden age of exploration.
The dream of a Russian America became the goal of the Russian America Company, championed and led by Nikolai Rezanov, aristocratic adventurer and diplomat and courtier to Tsar Alexander I. At a time when John Jacob Astor was amassing his own fortune in the fur trade, Rezanov envisioned transforming fur-hunting stations on the Alaskan coast into the hub of a Pacific empire stretching from Siberia to California. The distances were vast—thousands of miles overland across the endless Russian steppes, thousands more by sea to Alaska and down to San Francisco bay. His men were unreliable—disorderly, dissolute, disease-ridden—and the dangers ever-present. Yet Rezanov persisted, and in 1806—just as Lewis and Clark were discovering the Columbia River to the north—he came close to realizing his dream. Had he done so, the history of the United States might have been very different.
Owen Matthews brilliantly chronicles a hitherto untold story of adventure and colonial ambition, brought to life by vivid first-hand accounts and his own travels across Russia, recalling a time when dreams of glory pushed men to the limits of human endurance.