History of the Russian Settlement at Fort Ross, California

For the small group of California natives, that cool, overcast day in March 1812 was a forerunner of massive change. They stood there in astonishment as a large sailing ship came to anchor in the little cove beneath their quiet bluff top settlement. For the next few days, they continued to watch as some twenty-five Russians and eighty Alaskans came ashore, set up a temporary camp, and began building houses and a sturdy wooden stockade - the colony and fortification of Ross.

The Kashaya people assembled to watch the spectacle had no way of knowing that their hunting and gathering lifestyle would be changed forever. These Russians had come to hunt sea otter, to grow wheat and other crops for the Russian settlements in Alaska, and to trade with Spanish California.

In addition, though they were careful not to say so, they came with an eye toward continuing the saga of Russian eastward expansion, a process that had begun some 250 years earlier, in the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia's first Tsar.

The presence of Russian fur hunters in the North Pacific induced Spain to occupy Alta California in 1769. For forty years thereafter, development of the province continued on a gradual basis. By 1812, though, San Francisco Bay still marked the northern limit of Spanish settlement.

That summer, while the establishment was being built, Spain, France, Russia, and the other great colonial powers of the day were preoccupied with a major war. Napoleon's army was deep inside Russia, driving toward Moscow. Great Britain was at war with its upstart ex-colony, the small but restless United States of America. Nobody was ready to block the Russian move. In fact, it was several months before the civil and military leaders of Alta California were even aware of the development at Ross, and by then it was too late. The fort was complete, and though it was made of wood, it was well armed and vigilantly manned.

Russian Movement into the Americas

The first steps toward Russian colonization of California were taken in 1578, when an outlaw band of Cossacks crossed the Ural Mountains and conquered the Tartars of central Russia. After that the lure of furs, riches, and glory continued to propel these early fur hunters and free spirits rapidly eastward. By 1706, they had swept across the whole of Siberia, and occupied the Kamchatka Peninsula, northeast of Japan. The stage was set for further expansion to the east, across the Bering Strait.

Starting in 1742, Russian fur hunters, or "promysloviki," as they were called, began to leave the mainland to seek furs on and near the many islands to the east. Emel'ian Basov holds the distinction of being the first to leave the Asian mainland to gather furs. He and his crew spent the winter of 1742-43 on Bering Island. Another Russian, Mikhail Nevodchikov, reached Attu (the westernmost Aleutian island) on September 25, 1745, becoming the first of the flood of fur hunters to reach territory that was later to become part of the United States.

The first permanent settlement on Kodiak Island in what is now Alaska was built by Gregor Shelikov in 1784. The organization he put together and led became the Russian-American Company in 1799. That same year, Tsar Paul granted the company a charter that gave it a complete monopoly over all Russian enterprises in North America. In 1806, the company was even granted its own flag, a replica of which is on display in the visitor center at Fort Ross. Following elimination of competition from other fur traders, events moved rapidly in Russian America. Sitka, which the Russians called New Archangel, was founded in 1799 and became the capital of the region in 1804. Large profits began to flow to company shareholders, who included members of the royal family. The operation expanded still further in 1804, when American ship captains began to contract with the Russians for joint ventures, seeking sea otter pelts along the coast of Alta and Baja California.

The man behind this surge of activity in Russian America was Alexander Baranov, an employee of the Russian-American Company since its founding, and a resident of North America since 1791. It was he who developed the system in which native Alaskan hunters traveled south aboard American ships to hunt sea otters along the coast of California. Under Baranov's leadership, schools were established in the Sitka territory, more equitable treatment was given to the natives, and creature comforts began to replace the harsh realities of frontier life in Russian America.

Early Contact Between the Russians and the Spanish

The first significant contact between the Russians and the Spanish came in April 1806. Nikolai Resanov had arrived in Sitka the previous year as an "imperial inspector and plenipotentiary of the Russian-American Company." He found the colony on the verge of starvation, and decided to sail southward to Spanish California in hopes of obtaining relief supplies for the beleaguered Alaskan colony. On April 5, he and his scurvy stricken crew passed through the Golden Gate. Rezanov knew that foreign ships were not allowed to trade in California, but he sailed his ship, the Juno, boldly past the Spanish guns at the harbor mouth. For the next six weeks, the Juno lay at anchor in San Francisco Bay while a battle of wits went on between the Russians and the Spanish. The impasse was broken when Rezanov proposed to marry Concepcion Arguello, the teen-age daughter of the Spanish commander at San Francisco. The Juno was soon being loaded with grain for the starving settlement to the north, and on May 21 passed again through the Golden Gate.

Plans for a Russian Settlement on the California Coast

Rezanov brought back two ideas from his venture into Spanish California - the desire to establish permanent trade relations, and the wish to found a trading base on what the Russians referred to as the "New Albion" coast north of Spanish territory. Rezanov convinced Baranov of the value of his ideas, and Baranov sent Ivan Kuskov, a company employee of long standing, on a voyage to locate a site suitable for the planned settlement. Moving southward on the ship Kodiak, Kuskov arrived at Bodega Bay on January 8, 1804, remaining there until late August. He and his party of 40 Russians and 150 Alaskan natives explored the entire region, and brought back more than 2,000 sea otter pelts.

By November 1811, Kuskov was ready to head south again this time to build a colony on the New Albion shore. After arriving at Bodega Bay in early 1812 aboard the Chirikov, he decided that the most suitable location for the colony was the site of a Kashaya Indian village, 18 miles to the north.
The spot was called Meteni by the local Indians. According to one account, the entire area was acquired from the natives for "three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads."

The land offered a harbor of sorts, plentiful water, good forage, and a nearby supply of wood for the necessary construction. It was also relatively distant from the Spanish, who were to be unwilling neighbors for the next 29 years. The fort was completed in a few weeks, and was formally dedicated on August 13,1812. The name "Ross" is generally considered to be a shortened version of "Rossiya," the Russia of Tsarist days.

Fort Ross watercolor

Watercolor of Fort Ross by Il'ia Voznesenky, 1841

Life at the Ross Colony

The structures were built of redwood using joinery techniques that were typical of maritime carpentry in those days. A wooden palisade surrounded the site, in much the same configuration as seen today. It included two blockhouses, one on the north corner and one to the south, complete with cannons that could command the entire area. The Russian-American Company flag, with its double-headed eagle, flew over the stockade.

The interior of the stockade contained the two story house of the manager, the officials' quarters, barracks for the Russian employees, and various storehouses as well as lesser structures The chapel was added in 1824. A well in the center provided the colonists with water. Outside the walls were the homes of company laborers, a native Alaskan village, and the dwellings of the local native Americans, whom we refer to today as the Kashaya Pomo.

In the early years, life at the colony under Kuskov revolved around the hunting of sea otter whose pelts were extraordinarily valuable in the China trade. Most of the hunting was done by Kodiak islanders in the service of the company. They would go out in their bidarkas (hunting kayaks), and use the atlatl (a throwing board for darts). These hunters and their families had their own village just west of the stockade, on the bluff above the ocean The Alaskans and their Russian overseers ranged the coast from Baja California to Oregon, in search of marine mammals. Only a small number of Russians actually lived at Ross, and very few Russian women (usually wives of officials) lived there. However, inter-marriage between Russians and the natives of Alaska and California was commonplace. Natives and people of mixed ancestry as well as lower-ranking company men lived in a village complex of some 60 to 70 buildings that gradually grew up outside the stockade walls.

By 1820, extensive sea otter hunting had depleted the otter population to such a degree that agriculture and stock raising became the main occupation of the colony. The company's Alaskan outposts still needed supplies, but try as the might, the Russian colony in Northern California never fulfilled their agricultural goals. Coastal fog, gophers, mice and lack of genuine interest on the part of men who thought of themselves primarily as hunters all combined to thwart the agricultural effort. Ranches and farms were established at inland sites - at Willow Creek on the "Slavyanka" (now known as the Russian River), and near the towns of Bodega and Graton - but still, the colonists could not produce enough to make a profit.

The Russians Leave

In 1839, the Russian-American Company signed an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply Sitka with provisions from its settlements in present-day Washington and Oregon. Soon afterward, the Russian-American Company decided to abandon the Ross Colony. First, they tried to sell it to the Mexican government. When that failed, they approached Mariano Vallejo and others. In December 1841, they reached an agreement with John Sutter of Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Within a few months, the Russians were gone. Sutter sent his trusted assistant, John Bidwell, to Fort Ross to gather up the arms, ammunition, hardware, and other valuables, including herds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, and transport them to Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Thereafter, the buildings at Fort Ross that were not dismantled and removed by Sutter were used for a variety of purposes by successive owners. In 1873, the area was acquired by George W. Call, who established the 15,000 acre Call Ranch.

The Call family continued to hold the property until 1903, when the fort and about three acres of land were purchased by the California Historical Landmarks Committee. In March 1906, the site was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic monument. Since then, more acreage has been acquired (a total of 3,277 acres as of 1992) to preserve the site of the old Russian establishment and some of its surrounding environment. Extensive restoration and reconstruction work has been carried out by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, so that today you can again see Fort Ross somewhat as it looked when the Russians were here.

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