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When America could have become.. Russian?

What is now the continental United States was home to many European colonial settlements. The Spanish, French, Dutch, British and even Swedes attempted to extend their realms across North America, but there is one group that we rarely if ever hear about – the Russians who bravely attempted to develop a colony on the rocky coast of California just north of Bodega Bay above San Francisco. Fort Ross became a lively base for almost three decades, but was ultimately unable to sustain itself. However, the intrepid traveler today will find a lot of fascinating history and some magnificent ocean views if he or she visits Fort Ross Historical Park today.

Driving north from Sonoma or Santa Rosa, one soon encounters the broad rushing waters of the Russian River. If one follows its course to the Pacific and then heads north along Highway 1 past towering cliffs with waves smashing below, one eventually comes across signs directing one into Fort Ross. There was once a lively settlement here of 260 or more Russians, native Alaskans and local native Americans on a bluff overlooking a peaceful cove largely protected from the pounding waves of the Pacific. Most of the buildings have long since disappeared, but the main elements of the fort including a tall stockade, the original governor’s home, a rebuilt Russian orthodox chapel, two blockhouses, a residence for officers, and another structure for officers provide a structural view of the main elements of the Russian colony.

The Russian advance to North America was based on the sound idea that there was a great deal of money to be made there. The incentive was the huge demand in Europe and China for the skins of seals and sea otters. During the late 1700s Russians set up bases on Kodiak Island and New Archangel, now Sitka. Extensive furs made these bases initially quite profitable, but before long they had depleted much of the fur-bearing critters in these regions. By the early 1800s leaders of the Russian-American company began exploring the coastline to the south. The Spanish had colonized what is now California up through San Francisco and had established their California capital at Monterey. Therefore, the Russians limited their hunt to places north of San Francisco.

Russian chapel, Fort Ross

The Russians first sailed into Bodega Bay in 1811, but soon decided on a cove and promontory several miles north which in time became Fort Ross. Although this spot lacked the deep water anchorage that they had found at Bodega Bay, the new site had greater advantages in soil, timber, water supply and pasturage. The hope was that they could find enough sea otters to make their California venture profitable and that they could grow enough food to feed their by-now starving countrymen in Alaska.

Building started immediately using wood from the many redwoods growing in the immediate vicinity. The Russians erected a tall stockade, a two story house for the governor, quarters for officials of the Russian-American Company, rough barracksa for the Russian employees, and several storehouses. The chapel was added in 1824. Outside the stockade were small buildings which housed company laborers, the eighty or so native Alaskans brought down to hunt the sea otters, and the dwellings of local native Americans hired to work for the Russians. Down below the cliffs by the cove was a small shipbuilding operation, a blacksmith’s shop, and various other work shops.

Although Fort Ross was a Russian-run operation, the population of the colony, which in time reached close to three hundred people, consisted of a broad multicultural, multiethnic community. At its height there were four distinct ethnic residential sections to the colony. Upper level Russian leaders lived inside the stockade while a group of ethnic Russians and Creoles (people who were the offspring of Russian / Native unions) of lower standing lived outside the walls in a village of small houses and kitchen gardens. Nearer the cliff overlooking the cove was a Native Alaskan village of small wood or plank houses.

The goal of the small colony was to make money through the trapping of sea otters and to grow enough food to feed Russian settlements in Alaska, but in the long run neither goal could be met. The colonists completely depleted the sea otter population by 1820. Thereafter the Russian-American Company hoped to become a viable food base, but that too failed. The soil around the fort was limited and relatively infertile. Wet coastal fogs and encroaching wild oats devastated the wheat harvests. There were successful attempts to cultivate fruit trees and a local orchard begun by the Russians still flourishes today. The goal of building a shipyard was also a dismal failure.

There was trade with the Spanish and Mexicans living in Monterey. Russian artisans working with metal and wood manufactured a wide range of goods including ploughs, axes, nails, wheels, metal cookware, and longboats to their neighbors in exchange for grain, salt and other raw materials needed for daily life.

Despite this growing trade with the Spanish and Mexicans, by the late 1830s the Russian-American Company realized that Fort Ross was a money-losing proposition with no real hope of future success. The crowning blow to the colony came by 1840 when the British Hudson Bay Company agreed to sell food to the Russians at a moderate rate. Fort Ross had become a real drain on the Company’s budget. The Russians approached the Mexicans to see if they would buy the colony’s assets, and when they declined, the Russians approached Captain Sutter at his ranch in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter quickly snapped up Fort Ross and its surrounding properties for the equivalent of $30,000.

The venture of the Russian-American Company into California was short-lived and its abandonment was a harbinger of Russia’s eventual withdrawal from North America. Russia was more interested in developing its Siberian lands north of China and was very happy to sell Alaska to the U.S. in 1867.

Fort Ross and its contiguous lands eventually became a dairy farm before portions were donated to the state in 1906 to allow the formation of what is now a state park. It is a beautiful natural and historical spot well worth a detailed visit.

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