Fort Ross in 1828 by A. B. Duhaut-Cilly. From the archives of the Fort Ross Historical Society.

Russian California, 1812

Fort Ross lies in the green shadow of the North Coast Ranges, halfway to Fort Bragg from San Francisco along State Route 1, California’s splendidly scenic coastal road. At a glance from the highway, it looks like any other colonial American fort, but even casual observers might notice the odd slant-bottomed crosses jutting from the top of its rough-hewn frontier chapel. They’re Eastern Orthodox, and hint at a forgotten period in American history: The Russian colonization of California.

The Russian presence in America began around 1742, in the sweeping volcanic tail of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Alaskan waters were home to vast populations of sea otters, and traders from the Russian Far East had recently discovered an unlikely — and highly profitable — market for their fur among Chinese elites. Sea otter fur is the warmest in the world, and Chinese merchants paid more for it than fur from almost any other animal. The Russians called it “soft gold”.

By 1799, a series of colonial outposts dotted the Alaskan coast as far south as Sitka, opposite modern British Columbia. As loosely-associated French beaver trappers had led the scattershot exploration of upper North America in the east, so too did Russian otter hunters in the west.

The depletion of local sea otter populations, and Russian territorial ambition, encouraged further southward expansion. Settlement was seriously considered of the Oregon Country, with plans to establish a shipyard at the mouth of the Columbia River, but the idea was eventually scrapped— a catastrophic 1808 shipwreck on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, which resulted in marooned crewmen selling themselves into slavery with local indigenous peoples to survive, seems to have had something of a dampening effect on Russian enthusiasm.

In 1812, seeking untapped fur territory and hoping to establish a farm colony to supply Alaska with food, a Russian expedition of 105 men landed on the coast of what is now Sonoma County, California. Of the men, 80 were Alaskan Aleut, whose expertise in otter hunting had been the economic engine of Russian America since its inception. In the early days, traders had taken the families of male Aleuts hostage to force them to provide pelts, and though Russo-Alaskan relations had stabilized in the intervening half-century, division of labor remained unchanged. The Russians would have their fur.

Even when ignoring indigenous land claims — which happened, of course, all the time — Russia was, in a sense, trespassing. This was Alta California, ostensible property of the Spanish Crown, and the Spanish Crown did not welcome another European power’s presence in so remote a territory. Unable to negotiate with Spain for land, the colonists sought legitimacy with the Indians. As plows turned virgin soil and rude redwood houses sprung up around the fort, Russian officials met with chiefs of the Kashaya Nation, and in 1817 the first written contract between Europeans and Native Californians was drafted. The Kashaya called this place Med-eny-ny. It had belonged to the chief Chu-gu-an, and for his contribution he was presented with a silver medal bearing the Imperial Russian seal and inscribed with the words “allies of Russia”. One imagines this leader of a pre-literate culture turning over the medal in his hands, peering at the impenetrable novelty of Cyrillic engravings.

So, to recap: On land sold by California Indians, Russians had brought Alaskans to capture furs for markets in China. The roots of globalization run somewhat deeper than most would have us believe.

Unfortunately for Fort Ross, its sea otter population was not inexhaustible. The bobbing little creatures had become so scarce by the early 1820s that the colony was forced to diversify, redoubling its efforts at food production for Alaska and trade with the adjacent Californios, and Settlement Ross became a frontier workshop. Down at the water, away from the jumble of humanity radiating from the fort, Russian and Aleutian craftsmen labored to produce the objects of everyday life: boots, saddles, barrels, cookware, nails. There was a tannery, a blacksmith’s forge, and even a locksmith. What couldn’t be made was repaired. California’s first windmills, built in the style of Russia’s Vologda province, ground wheat and barley, and for a time the only shipyard between Alaska and southern Mexico launched tall-masted square-riggers with names like Volga, Kyakhta, and Bulgakov.

Fears of Russian encroachment drove the Spanish settlement of California — another thing you don’t hear too often — and trade between the two colonies was banned. But Spanish (and after independence in 1821, Mexican) settlers literally couldn’t help themselves; Alta California’s first settlement was only in 1769 at San Diego, and links to the rest of Spanish America remained tenuous. With communication and resupply requiring either long-distance sailing or dangerous desert treks, surviving without running afoul of the law was easier said than done in this far-flung province. Outside of that law, Fort Ross could provide.

In 1833, Mariano Vallejo, a rising Californio who would be imprisoned in the American-led 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, was sent to Fort Ross from the Presidio of San Francisco for supplies. His shopping list illustrates the state of Alta Californian need: 200 cavalry rifles and saddles, 150 sabers, 100 pairs of buckskin trousers, 30 uniform caps and some uniform boots, and half a ton of lead.

While negotiating, Vallejo reconnoitered the Russian enterprise. He observed in a report on the visit that the Russians had a habit of forcing nearby Indians into temporary unpaid work around the fort, but despite this added that “many hundreds” of them came from the surrounding hills to trade animal hides for “tobacco, kerchiefs and liquor.”

“I came to the conviction,” he wrote, “that in case of hostilities, the subjects of the Czar could count upon several thousand native auxiliaries.” In response to this, Mexican authorities constructed the Presidio of Sonoma soon afterward.

But the effort was unnecessary. For all its potential, Fort Ross was losing money. In 1841 it was sold to a Swiss émigré named John Sutter — the same man who would own the mill where the California Gold Rush began in 1848. On January 1st, 1842, the last Russian ship left Fort Ross with about a hundred former colonists. After three decades, the Russian experiment in California was over.

The chapel as it appears today, within the fort’s defensive walls.

Through a succession of private hands, Fort Ross became a ranch, then a logging operation, then a ranch again. In 1962, a portion of the land once called Med-eny-ny was incorporated into a State Historic Park. This included the grounds on which the fort and chapel still sat. The complex was extensively restored after a series of destructive fires, and is now cared for in great part by the non-profit Fort Ross Conservancy. The Conservancy was invaluable in writing this article. They can be found online at www.fortross.org.

Today, the area remains largely as the Russians left it. Redwoods still stand, and fog continues to come in on the blessedly cool NorCal mornings. The Kashaya still live nearby. In the hills behind the fort, the offspring of Russian-planted fruit trees grow. And sometimes, at the water’s edge, visitors may even spot an otter.

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Traveler, writer, cook.

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A. B. Thompson

A. B. Thompson

Traveler, writer, cook.

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