Why did the United States form an empire in the Pacific in the nineteenth century? Conventional explanations highlight how U.S. commercial or strategic interests drove U.S. expansion. These explanations, however, are insufficient because they do not explain the pace or place of expansion. Why did the United States acquire Samoa and not neighboring islands? Why did the United States take Guam but leave other, valuable islands in the Northern Marianas untouched? Why did the United States show an interest in the Philippines only in 1899 when it had already begun expansion in the Pacific years earlier? This paper contrasts metrocentric explanations, which emphasize elites interests, with an intercentric account. Building on social network theory, this paper argues that the period preceding imperialism is characterized by structural holes, where there is little interaction between an empire and its future colony. The presence of the structural holes create incentives for agents to “run ahead of empire,” profiting by forming the first ties between societies. In doing so, these agents form a monopoly on information as it passes between core and periphery. We identify three pathways by which these agents can use their betweenness to shape imperialism. We then illustrate how these agents were crucial for the U.S. empire in the Pacific by examining the Guano Islands, Samoa, and Hawaii. In each case, it shows how people used their position between societies in manipulate elites in the core and periphery. The conclusion considers implications for other empires, as well as for larger debates about political power.