Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, intended to expand and modernize his country, and became a supporter of scientific and exploratory endeavours. Peter sent an overland expedition across Siberia in 1719, which returned in 1723 with information about the Kamchatka Peninsula and some surrounding islands. He then ordered an expedition to determine whether Asia and North America were joined, or were two separate lands, as well as if there were European ports on the other side. Czar Peter died just weeks before Captain Vitus Bering and his lieutenant Alexei Chirikov set out in 1725 from St. Petersburg. Their expedition party crossed Asia with 75 carts, using horses and travelling the Vologda and Lena rivers.
They built the ship Sv. Gavrill at Okhotsk and finally set sail on July 14, 1728. They sailed along the Asian coast to 65º 30´ North latitude, at which point most believed they had proved the separation of the two continents. They proceeded to 67º North latitude, in the midst of what would later be named the Bering Strait. They did not encounter the mythical Gama Land depicted on Deslile’s maps, circulating at the time. After wintering on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the expedition returned to Okhotsk and was back in St. Petersburg in March of 1730. They had sailed east and come just short of making a sighting of the North American coast.
Now ruled by Catherine the Great, the Russian government intended for the Second Kamchatka expedition to travel as far south as Mexico. Chirikov noted that the distance would be much too great for a single expedition season, and the Admiralty College accepted his recommendation. Once again, the expedition was to sail east to the Pacific coast of North America and see who, and what, in terms of furs, metals and other resources, was there. Bering left St. Petersburg in April of 1733. The gruelling cross-Siberian journey was repeated with three parties, which, including soldiers and scientists, totalled 500 people.
An advance party had already begun construction of two new vessels when Bering arrived at Okhostk in 1737. In September of 1740, seven and a half years after first setting off from western Russia, Bering and Chirikov sailed the Sv. Petr and Sv. Pavel around the Kamchatka Peninsula to winter in Avacha Bay. On June 4, 1741, they headed east. Within two weeks the vessels were separated. Chirikov returned to Kamchatka on October 10, 1741. The surviving crew of the Sv. Petr returned on August 27, 1742: the crew rested for eleven months before making the return crossing to St. Petersburg, where the expedition officially ended in 1743.