Outpost of an Empire


 

Russian Expansion To America by Stephen Watrous

Excerpted from Fort Ross © 1998 Fort Ross Interpretive Association (Fort Ross Conservancy) ISBN # 1-56540-355-X

Russian Expansion To America

In the centuries that followed the discovery of America, European expansion into the Western Hemisphere reached a scale that changed the world. The voyages to the New World undertaken by the Atlantic powers of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries are generally well known, as are the explorations and settlement of Europeans in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Less well known, however, is the penetration of America’s northwest coast by the Russians, the culmination of Russia’s age-old effort to settle and develop its eastern frontier.

Russia’s eastward expansion took on a new dimension in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a counterpart to European and American westward expansion. About the same time that English colonists first settled along the Atlantic seaboard, Russian explorers, trappers, and settlers pushed east into Siberia and in 1639 reached the Pacific Ocean. By the mid-17th century frontier promyshlenniki—self employed and contract entrepreneurs—had sailed through the strait that separates Asia from North America, inadvertently discovering a sea route from the Arctic to the Pacific.

But it was not until almost 75 years later, when Tsar Peter the Great became determined to define the geography of the North Pacific, that the potential value of the discoveries in this region became clear. In two arduous voyages, Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, under commission of the Russian Crown, sailed through the area now called the Bering Strait in 1728, and in 1741 discovered the Aleutian Islands and the mainland of Alaska, both of which they claimed for Russia. These results aroused great interest among Russian hunters and traders; the fur trade had long been the mainspring of Russia’s eastward expansion, and now these frontier entrepreneurs were drawn to the herds of fur seal and sea otter that lived in the North Pacific.
 

From the 1740s to the end of the century, over forty Russian merchants and companies sponsored voyages to the Aleutians and the Alaskan mainland. By the early 1800s, Russian entrepreneurs were exporting an average of 62,000 fur pelts from North America each year, worth roughly two-thirds of a million paper rubles (about $133,200), a large sum in those days. Even though over eighty percent of the pelts were fur seal, the nearly five percent that were sea otter pelts were the most valuable.

   

The Russian Settlements in Alaska

The rapid growth of the fur trade called for permanent Russian posts in Alaska as well as bases for hunting expeditions and storing furs. A Russian presence in the Aleutians and on Unalaska Island began to appear in the 1770s, but the first known permanent settlement was founded on Kodiak Island in 1784 by the enterprising merchant Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov. The hardy, ambitious, and resourceful Shelikhov, who was perhaps the most farsighted Siberian merchant of his day, became an early advocate of extending Russian enterprise as far south as California.

The Russian foothold in Alaska remained undisturbed by other Europeans for several decades. In the minds of Europeans and American colonists of the 18th century, Alaska was barely known—at most, it was little more than a place name for a remote and forbidding land. From the late 1760s on, however, the governments of Spain and Great Britain, both with claims to the North American mainland, became concerned about Russia’s presence in the North Pacific and, later, its monopoly of the fur trade. Spain advanced its territorial claims by sending naval expeditions as far north as Unalaska, and by establishing a chain of missions in Upper California between 1769 and 1776, from San Diego north to San Francisco Bay. Great Britain promoted its cause by sending Captain James Cook to search for a Northwest Passage; the Cook expedition visited the northern Pacific coast and Unalaska, where they met the Russians in 1778. The newly formed United States established a claim to the northwest coast, in part as a result of merchant voyages from Boston to the Columbia River of Oregon in 1787-88.

Despite the growing profits of the fur trade in the North Pacific, the number of Russian trading companies in operation at the end of the 18th century declined. The diminishing animal populations in northern waters, the losses of sailing vessels in Alaska storms, and the rising costs of long voyages from the Siberian seaboard to keep the American settlements supplied all combined to reduce the number of trading companies and leave the field only to the strongest. At Grigory Shelikhov’s death in 1795, his firm dominated the trade. In a move of significance for all of Russian America, Shelikhov’s widow, Mme. Natalia Shelikhova, and a business partner combined with another competitor in 1797 to form the United American Company, which two years later reorganized to become the Russian-American Company, chartered by Tsar Paul I.

The Russian-American Company, like other European joint-stock companies (Dutch East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, Northwest Fur Company, British East and West India Companies), was given tasks to perform that went beyond the realm of trade. It was authorized to use the coastal areas of North America south to 55° north latitude (near Alaska’s current southern boundary) and to explore and colonize unoccupied lands. It was also given the right to exploit surface and mineral resources in the areas settled by Russians. In effect, it became the "right arm" of the Russian government in the American hemisphere. Members of the Tsar’s family, the court nobility, and high officialdom held shares in the Company, and it was understood that the Company would henceforth control all Russian exploration, trade, and settlement in North America. Shelikhov’s dream of turning the North Pacific into an "inland sea" of the Russian Empire was now under way.

The next step in the continuing expansion along the Northwest Coast of America was the establishment of the Company’s permanent headquarters on the island of Sitka in 1808, a settlement the Russians named Novo-Arkhangel’sk. From here, over the next few years, the Russians established relations with the Spanish in California, set up a base for exploring the California coast, and then founded a colony north of San Francisco as a fur and agricultural supply post.

   

The Russian Advance to California

In 1791 Shelikhov sent Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov to Alaska as his trusted assistant to manage his trading company’s affairs. Baranov’s success earned him the role of first manager-in-chief of the Russian-American Company at its founding in 1799, a post he filled until a few months before his death in 1818. From his headquarters at Novo-Arkhangel’sk, Baranov, with the help of his able assistant, Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, supervised the Company’s growing enterprises in Alaska, and those as far afield as California and even Hawaii. A man of enormous talent, courage, and stamina, who was both admired and feared by Russians, natives, and foreigners alike, Baranov was the main architect of Russia’s southward expansion.

Worried by the dwindling otter catch in Alaskan waters, Baranov dispatched an exploratory hunting expedition to California in 1803 in a joint venture with an American sea captain, Joseph O’Cain. Sailing as far south as San Diego and Baja California, the voyagers found the otter to be plentiful, which ensured that the sea otter would remain the Company’s most profitable trade item, even if the quality of the fur was not as high as that of the Alaskan otter.

The other nagging problem that drove the Russians south was the persistent difficulty in keeping the new settlements in the North Pacific supplied with adequate provisions to feed their colonists. The harsh physical environment of Alaska and the lack of familiarity with crop and stock raising among the Kodiak and Aleutian Islanders, on whom the Russians relied for labor, worked against their meager attempts at agriculture. Even the efforts of Russian settlers to grow garden produce and to obtain seed were disappointing. The winter of 1805-06 was climactic. The weather was unusually severe, and no supply ships arrived from Siberia for many months. The few staples on hand at Sitka were rationed but soon gave out, and the lean, ill-nourishing diet the settlers had to live on led to malnutrition, scurvy, and death. Upon this dismal scene arrived a high-ranking company official from St. Petersburg to inspect the colony. Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, imperial chamberlain and son-in-law of Grigory Shelikhov, was appalled at what he saw and reported the colonial territories to be in a "disastrous situation."

So moved was Rezanov by the misery of the colonists that he purchased a vessel from Americans in Alaska and sailed to San Francisco Bay early in 1806 to purchase grain and, if possible, to establish trade relations with the Spanish in Upper California on a continuing basis. On his arrival, Rezanov boldly ignored the fact that all California ports were officially closed to trade with foreigners. He was at once ordered to anchor. The commandant of the Spanish presidio, Don José Dario Argüello, was away, so Rezanov was met by his son, Don Luís Antonio Argüello, and by several Catholic missionaries, all of whom were favorably impressed by Rezanov’s credentials, guns, and good manners. Soon Rezanov was cordially received at the Presidio by the family of the Spanish commandant.

During the next few weeks, the persuasive Rezanov successfully carried out his goal of trading Russian-made utensils and tools for wheat. With the return of Commandant Argüello to the Presidio, Rezanov was able to gain support for permission to trade with Spanish California, which was referred to Madrid for approval. Rezanov’s cause was further promoted by his romance with the commandant’s daughter, Doña Concepción Argüello, which led to a marriage proposal, and its acceptance, on the eve of his departure.

Returning to Sitka with provisions and news of a possible trade agreement with Spanish California, Rezanov urged Baranov to make use of "the one unoccupied stretch" of California coastline as an agricultural and hunting base for the settlements in Russian Alaska. Then he set out on his return trip to St. Petersburg, traveling via Kamchatka and Siberia, to report to the Tsar and the Company’s home office. On the way, weakened by fever, Rezanov fell from his horse and died of injuries a few days later, on March 1, 1807. It was a year or two before Doña Concepción knew of his fate. But, in Alaska, Baranov and Russian-American Company officials hurried to act on Rezanov’s advice.

Establishment of the California Settlement

In 1803, 1806 and 1808 Baranov had appointed Timofei Tarakanov, a talented promyshlennik, to lead large Native Alaskan hunting parties to California. Between 1808 and 1811, Baranov sent his deputy Kuskov on a series of expeditions to reconnoiter possible settlement sites in "New Albion," a name used by the Russians after Sir Francis Drake’s designation of California. At Bodega Bay, called Rumiantsev Bay by the Russians, on the Sonoma Coast north of San Francisco Bay, Kuskov established a temporary base and set about exploring the surrounding territory. He examined several sites, and in 1811 selected a cove and promontory up the coast from Bodega Bay as the best location for the colony. Although it lacked the deep-water anchorage the Russians enjoyed in Bodega’s outer bay, the proposed site had overall advantages in soil, timber, water supply, and pasturage. In addition, its relative inaccessibility from Spanish-occupied territory gave it an advantage in terms of defense. Kuskov submitted his recommendations to Baranov, and preparations began for founding a settlement.

In March 1812, with orders to build and administer the settlement, Kuskov returned to the Sonoma Coast. With him came twenty-five Russians, many of them craftsmen, and eighty Aleuts. These Native Alaskans brought forty baidarkas, the swift, maneuverable skin kayaks used for hunting and a few larger skin boats, baidaras, for transport. Kuskov’s assignment was not an unfamiliar one. He had previously administered settlements in Alaska and had built Novo-Arkhangel’sk on Sitka Island after local Indians destroyed the Company fortress in 1802. Construction at the California site began at once. Some of the craftsmen with Kuskov may have worked on reconstructing the Sitka settlement. The structures which rose on the bluff of the new colony took on lines similar to those of Novo-Arkhangel’sk, as the workmen followed models of the traditional stockade, blockhouses, and log buildings found in Siberia and on Sitka.

On August 30, 1812 (in the old style Russian calendar), the name-day of Tsar Alexander I, the Russians held a special religious service at the colony, marking the completion of the stockade. The stockade was built of redwood, much in the same configuration as seen today. Two blockhouses with cannon ports were constructed at the northwest and southeast corners of the stockade. The northwest blockhouse had seven sides and the southeast one had eight, each structure being two stories high. Between twelve and forty cannons were placed within the stockade and blockhouses, the number varying in the different accounts of the site written over the years. Sentries bearing flintlock muskets stood guard in each blockhouse, but although it was fortified, the settlement served as a commercial, not a military outpost. Flagstaffs were first erected in the center of the stockade and outside it on the bluff, each bearing the flag of the Russian-American Company, with the imperial double-headed eagle as its insignia. The settlement was given the name "Ross" most likely to highlight poetically its connection with Imperial Russia (Rossiia). Ross had other early names as well: the Russians often described the outpost as "Ross Colony," "Ross Settlement," and "Ross Fortress," and Company officials called it the "Ross Office." Its current name, "Fort Ross," has been used by Americans since the mid-19th century.

By 1820 the stockade interior contained the house of the manager (now called the Kuskov House), the quarters of other officials, barracks for the Russian employees, and various storehouses and lesser structures. Some buildings had two stories. The manager’s house had glass windows and was comfortably furnished. The chapel was added about 1825, replacing a small bell tower on the same site. A well inside the stockade provided the colonists with fresh water in case of emergency. In 1832 an anonymous Bostonian who visited Ross recorded his description of the stockade and manager’s residence: The Presidio is formed by the houses fronting inwards, making a large square, surrounded by a high fence. The Governor’s house stands at the head, and the remainder of the square is formed by the chapel, magazine, and dwelling houses. The buildings are from 15 to 20 feet high, built of large timbers, and have a weather-beaten appearance.

Outside the stockade, a windmill, cattle yard, bakery, threshing floor, and cemetery, along with farm buildings and bath houses, appeared within five years. There were vegetable gardens and an orchard. In later years there were two windmills, two threshing floors, several bathhouses and assorted other structures described in the 1841 Russian Inventory for Sutter. Along the cove, at the mouth of the stream below the stockade, were located a shipyard, forge, tannery, boathouse and storage shed for baidaras and baidarkas.

After 1820 many Russians chose to live outside the stockade. There were also the dwellings of the local Kashaya Indians, on whose ancestral land the outpost was built, and who worked for the Russians. The Native Alaskans who had come with Kuskov, generally designated by the Russians as Aleuts, lived outside the fort as well. Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly, visiting from France in 1828, noted a population of about sixty Russians, eighty "Kodiaks," and about eighty Indians, all living in relative harmony.

Fort Ross - The Russian Colony in California

Records show that after 1812 there were from twenty-five to one hundred Russians and from fifty to one hundred twenty-five Native Alaskans at the settlement at any given time. The number of the Kashaya, who came to work as day laborers, varied with the seasons. Records indicate the presence of only a few Russian women in the colony (the most prominent of whom was the wife of the last manager); "creole" and Alaskan women were somewhat more numerous. However, during the life of the colony, a number of Russians and Alaskan natives married California Indian women—Kashaya, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo—with the consent of tribal and Company authorities. The children at the settlement, who made up about a third of the residents by the mid-1830s, were almost all considered as "Creoles," born of these ethnically mixed unions.

Everyone in the vicinity of Fort Ross labored for the Russian-American Company. The organization and operation of the colony followed the same general pattern as in the Company’s Alaskan settlements. The Ross colony, as in Alaska, was headed by a manager. He was paid a salary and given living quarters, and, although he also had servants, he worked as hard as any of the colonists, even finding time to tend a garden to add to the food supply. Kuskov, the first manager, was a particularly avid gardener, growing cabbage and beets for pickling, with enough produce harvested for shipments to be sent to Sitka for distribution in Alaska. The Ross settlement had five managers during its existence—Kuskov served from 1812 to 1821, Karl Ivanovich Schmidt from 1821 to 1824, Pavel [Paul] Ivanovich Shelikhov from 1825 to 1830, Peter Stepanovich Kostromitinov from 1830 to 1838, and Alexander Gavrilovich Rotchev from 1838 to 1841.

The rest of the Russian colonists were drawn from various parts of the Russian Empire. Besides prikashchiki, who were the administrative assistants and work supervisors, some of the colonists were artisans—carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, and those skilled in a trade. Many of the Russians were promyshlenniki (Kuskov used the term promyshlennye in his census of 1821): handymen, laborers, hunters, and occasional seamen in the Company service. Before 1820, such workers were hired to work on a share-of-the-catch basis; after that time they were paid a salary, signing on for a seven-year term and agreeing to serve their manager, to resist trading with the natives or foreigners for personal gain, and to avoid vice, particularly drunkenness. Their salary was paid in Company scrip, and out of this they had to buy their clothes and food; a portion of meat and flour was allotted to them on a regular basis. In 1832, the 72 salaried employees at Fort Ross averaged an annual income of 360 rubles apiece¾ not a subsistence wage. The Aleuts, with their "passion" for hunting sea otter, were paid according to the number of otters they caught. They were furnished waterproof parkas and boots for the hunt and sea lion skins with which to repair their baidarkas, which could stand the battering of the sea for only about three months before needing to be mended.

Much of the wear and tear on the baidarkas took place in the waters off the Farallon Islands, some 30 miles west of San Francisco, where the Russians, until about 1830, maintained their chief hunting base. Here, in their hunting group, or artel, up to ten Aleuts and Indians under a Russian foreman lived in crude earthen huts on the rocky slopes and regularly embarked upon harpooning forays on shore and sea. They processed their catch at this base camp for periodic shipment to the mainland—bundles of seal and sea otter pelts, bird meat, eggs and feathers, resilient sea lion skin and sinew, salted and dried sea lion meat, and blubber stored in small kegs, used both for food and as lamp oil. Members of the artel and their families were rotated between Fort Ross and the Farallones, depending on the size of the sea mammal herds during the hunting season.

When Kuskov selected the settlement site for Ross on Kashaya territory in 1811, he was uncertain about relations with the Indians. Such concerns proved groundless. Unlike relations between the Indians and other foreigners in California, those between the Russians and the Kashaya were remarkably free of tension and strife. On the whole, the Russians appear to have treated the Kashaya fairly. The Indians employed at the settlement were paid in flour, meat, and clothing (either daily or monthly); lodging was provided, and their labor was at first voluntary, although relations deteriorated later. The coastal Indians regarded the Russians as far more desirable neighbors than the Spaniards, and they viewed the Russian presence as a safeguard against the Spanish (or Mexicans) and against other Indians entering their territory.

The Kashaya called the foreigners associated with the Russian colony the "Undersea People," whereas they referred to themselves as the "People From the Top of the Land." Originally, the land made available to the Russians by the Indians was accompanied by an exchange of gifts, mainly tools and trinkets, and professions of friendship. As the settlement grew, the Russians, who were amply aware of Spanish claims to all territory north of San Francisco, prudently decided to formalize their title. Consequently, Chief Manager Baranov sent Captain Leontii Andreianovich Hagemeister to the Sonoma Coast to document the transfer. A deed "releasing land to the Company" was drawn up and agreed upon in 1817 by the local Indian chiefs (Chu-gu-an, Amat-tan, and Gem-le-le), but it was signed only by the Russians present—Hagemeister and six other officials. It stated that "the chiefs are very satisfied with the occupation of this place by the Russians" and that "they now live in security from other Indians who used to attack them." A copy of the agreement, the only one known to have been executed between Indians and Europeans in California, was dispatched to Russia. Chief Chu-gu-an was presented a silver medal inscribed with the words "Allies of Russia."

The three-way culture of Native Californians, Native Alaskans, and Russians at Fort Ross was chiefly one of genuine cooperation, which some attribute to the religious values that had been instilled earlier in the Russians and Aleuts, by clergymen in Alaskan Russian America. At Fort Ross many of the Kashaya acquired a good understanding of the Russian language, and a number of Russian words found their way into the Kashaya vocabulary. It is also known that some Kashaya wives and children accompanied their promyshlennik husbands and fathers north to Alaska and even to Russia after the sale of the colony in 1841.

Although no one left a detailed account of daily life in the colony, the observations of both residents and visitors point to a busy if simple existence. In addition to hunting sea mammals and birds, parties fished for salmon, sea perch, and sea bass, and harvested local shellfish for the settlement’s larder. Sturgeon were caught in the Russian River. Farming and ranching consumed many hours of the colonists’ time, with even some of the Aleuts and Indians joining in to handle planting, cultivating, herding, logging, and construction chores. At the sheds along the cove, artisans got to work making furniture, barrels, plows, and other hardware, and later even ships and boats. The blacksmith’s anvil rang with the hammering of metal, as countless articles needed for trade and for operating the colony were fashioned by the skilled workers. Not all was hard work for the employees, however, for at Ross, as in Alaska and in the motherland, various holidays were observed. These occasions were cause for celebrations, which sometimes featured gun and rifle practice, followed by a feast of fresh meat obtained by slaughtering a bull from the settlement’s herd of cattle. All in all, everyday life was active and peaceful.

Not once was the settlement threatened by outside attack. The climate was mild yet invigorating, and the beauty of the surroundings imparted a sense of well-being recorded by many who were there. Manager Rotchev was to look back nostalgically at the time spent in this "enchanting land" as the "best years" of his life.

Closely bound to the lives of the colonists was their religion. The Russians brought with them their Eastern Orthodox Christianity as they had to Siberia and Alaska. In the early 1820s, as reported by the Company’s chief manager, "The Russian, Creole, and Aleut employees at Ross settlement expressed their intention to build at their own expense a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas." The goal was helped along in 1823-24 when the officers and crews of three Russian Navy ships, on visit to San Francisco Bay, donated a "rather considerable sum" to the proposed chapel, and, soon thereafter, the Company’s home office ordered four icons to be sent from Russia for placement in the building.

Presumably, Paul Shelikhov, the settlement manager at that time, deserves credit for supervising the chapel’s construction, for the first known reference to the "newly built" chapel, the first Orthodox structure established in the New World south of Alaska, came in 1828 from a French visitor, Duhaut-Cilly. The chapel, however, was never consecrated as a church because of the colony’s tenuous legality and the fact that no clergyman was ever permanently assigned. Nevertheless, the colonists conducted prayer meetings in the chapel and designated a sexton for its upkeep. In later years they hosted at least two priests who visited Ross and its chapel.

In the summer of 1836, Father Ioann Veniaminov spent about five weeks at the settlement. While there he preached, instructed, and conducted weddings, confessions, communion services, baptisms, burials, and prayer services. He also held services for the Aleuts (in translation), consecrated the waters of Fort Ross Creek, and led a festive procession around the stockade exterior. According to Father Veniaminov’s detailed journal, about 15 per cent of the settlement’s population, then numbering two hundred and sixty, consisted of Indians baptized in the Eastern Orthodox faith; among the residents were also a few who were Lutheran and Catholic. The priest also described his visit to the missions of the San Francisco Bay area and the cordial relations he was able to establish with the Mexicans. In later years, Father Veniaminov became Bishop of Alaska and, subsequently, Metropolitan of Moscow, the senior bishop of the Russian Empire; in 1980, he was canonized as Saint Innokenty of Alaska.

Farming and Ranching at Fort Ross

As early as 1816, the sea otter catch showed signs of decline, and, by 1820 or so, attention was increasingly given to agriculture and stock raising. But the initial intention of Company officials that the Ross settlement become an important food base for Alaska as well as for the Siberian seaboard (Kamchatka and Okhotsk) was not to be fulfilled. The reasons were many. The arable land around the settlement was limited and relatively infertile. Coastal fogs and encroaching wild oats often caused poor wheat harvest. Gophers, mice, and blackbirds damaged the tilled fields and adversely affected harvests. Despite some attempts at mechanization and scientific farming, introduced by Moscow-trained agronomist Yegor Leontievich Chernykh, the colonists had inadequate knowledge of crop rotation, fertilization, and other farming techniques, and for the most part were unable to reap even marginal yields of grain. Better results were often gleaned from the small-scale plots of wheat and barley under private, individual cultivation. Harvests from private holdings actually surpassed those from the Company’s fields during the tenure of Kuskov’s successor, Karl Schmidt, in the early 1820s. Most long-lasting of the first horticultural efforts at Ross were the Russian experiments with fruit trees. The first peach tree, brought from San Francisco, was planted in 1814, and in 1817-18, Captain Hagemeister introduced grape stock brought from Peru and more peach trees from Monterey. Eventually the Russian orchard, located on the hillside less than a mile from Ross, included apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, and several types of pear. This orchard, which is still maintained today, contains several fruit-bearing trees that were possibly planted over a century and a half ago.

Agriculture at Fort Ross peaked in the early 1830s, but it fell far short of expectations. This disappointment gradually led Company officials to experiment with agriculture inland and to the south. They reasoned that establishing farms in more sheltered areas might not only raise the colony’s overall productivity but would serve as a buffer between the Russian coastal holdings and the Mexican and American settlers advancing from the south. Between 1833 and 1841, the Russians maintained three such ranches. The farthest ranch from Ross was that founded by the agronomist Yegor Chernykh. Chernykh had been sent by the Company to California to improve crop production on the Sonoma Coast

and, soon after his arrival in 1836, he recommended extending the colony’s farming activities farther inland. He established his ranch about ten miles from the coast, in a small valley watered by a wooded stream (Purrington Creek, between Occidental and Graton). There he erected barracks and five other structures, and grew vegetables, fruit, wheat, and other grains. Chernykh also developed a large vineyard, introducing what has since become a major crop in the area.

Another ranch was located on the south side of the Russian River near its mouth, east of today’s State Highway One bridge over the river. The presumed founder was Peter Kostromitinov. By 1841, this farmstead consisted of one hundred acres and produced mainly wheat. In addition to a ranch house, the property contained a barracks, granary, threshing and winnowing floors, and a house for Indian laborers. It also had a kitchen, bath house, corrals, and a boat landing for river crossings. The ranch of Vasily Khlebnikov, a Company employee, was located several miles inland, east of Bodega Bay in the upper Salmon Creek valley. The largest of the three ranches, it had the same types of buildings as on the Kostromitinov Ranch, as well as a bakery, forge, and tobacco shed. Here the Russians used adobe brick in building the main house. A sizable amount of land was allotted to wheat, corn, beans, and tobacco. In 1841 the ranch site was chosen to host a two-day birthday celebration for Yelena (Helena) Pavlovna Rotcheva, the wife of the last manager. The event was attended by guests from the Mexican community at Sonoma, foreign visitors, and Russians from Fort Ross. The festivities featured music and dancing which continued for almost forty-eight hours.

Although the Russians never made it their major enterprise, stock raising was more consistently successful than growing crops, and in time it became an integral part of the economy. Breeding stock, first obtained from the Spanish, produced several thousand head of cattle, horses, mules, and sheep, and enabled substantial shipments of wool, tallow, hides, salt beef, and butter to be sent to Alaska, as well as other destinations, for marketing. Moreover, sheep and cattle provided raw materials for clothing and a variety of household goods, much of which was used in trading. In the early 1820s, about 1,800 pounds of wool were produced annually, more than enough to cover the needs of the colony and to export to the California missions and elsewhere. Although wool blankets and saddle-cloths were woven at Fort Ross, efforts to expand woolen manufacturing proved unsuccessful because of the lack of skilled workers. From tallow the Russians made candles, with wicks of flax or rush, and they also used animal fat combined with oakwood ashes, seashell lime and water to make soap. Lanterns, combs, and powder horns were fashioned from the horns of oxen. Shoe soles and boot uppers were made from hides. In the last years of the colony 1,700 head of cattle, 940 horses and mules, and 900 sheep were in Russian hands, and were described by the French observer, Eugène Duflot de Mofras, as "in prime condition and unquestionably the finest in California."

 

Manufacturing and Trade

The forests surrounding the Russian settlement supplied the raw materials for housing, shipbuilding, and other timber products. The colonists made barrels from redwood at the cooperage, and navigational equipment from the harder wood of bay trees. They boiled pitch from fir and pine trees, and processed tannic acid from the bark of the tan oak tree. They sawed redwood beams, 21 feet long and in various widths, and even prefabricated sections of housing, all of which sold well on the California market.

Because of the abundance of timber, Company officials held high hope for the development of shipbuilding at Ross, primarily as a means of improving trans-Pacific trade and communication. Baranov, in particular, encouraged the enterprise and in 1817 sent a shipwright from Sitka, Vasily Grudinin, to supervise the project. In eight years’ time, three brigs and a schooner were built at the cove, ranging in size from 160 to 200 tons, and in cost from 20,000 to 60,000 rubles each ($4,000 to $12,000). In the end, however, shipbuilding was abandoned, as Company Agent Kiril Timofeyevich Khlebnikov reported, because the oak used in construction was " . . freshly cut and the wood used while still unseasoned, and by the time the ship was launched the rot had set in. After three or four years the changes in climate caused the rot to increase in all the main parts of the ship, and there was no way to repair it." As a consequence, the larger vessels could only be used for coastal trade from Monterey to Alaska, and occasionally for a voyage to Hawaii or Okhotsk. Nevertheless, the shipyard at Ross was the first of any size to operate in California, and many of the smaller boats constructed there found a ready market among the Californios, as the Spanish-Mexican settlers were called, of the San Francisco Bay area.

Other commercial activities were more consistently successful, particularly tanning, milling, brickmaking, blacksmithing and foundry work. At the tannery at the mouth of Fort Ross Creek, working with six redwood vats, an Aleut master tanner dressed, tanned, and fashioned hides and skins into shoes, boots, and other leather goods. By the late 1820s between 70 and 90 tanned hides were shipped to Sitka each year. In 1814, the first known wind-powered flour mill in California was built on a knoll north of the stockade; another windmill, added some time later, was able to grind over 30 bushels of grain a day. A third mill was hand and animal-powered. After the flour was ground, it was stored, exported, or used for baking in one of the fort’s kitchens. Two mill-driven machines were used to crush tan-oak bark for the tannery. A good-quality clay was found nearby, which led to the manufacture of bricks; their production and storage were moved to Bodega in 1832.

Much has been written about the enmity and suspicion that existed between the Russian and the Spanish-Mexican authorities in California, but their disagreements have been overstated. The Spanish government officially forbade its subjects from trading with foreigners. Commercial exchanges, however, did take place between the Spanish and the Russians beginning with Rezanov’s visit, and, in the early days of Ross, the Californios supplied the Russians with their first wheat, fruit trees, cattle, and horses. Because the Californios undertook almost no manufacturing of their own, they had considerable demand for farm implements and household wares. As the Russian colony grew, it was soon able to fulfill some of this demand. There was hardly a useful item of wood, metal, or leather that the promyshlenniki and artisans did not produce, and soon the Russians sold ploughs, axes, nails, wheels, metal cookware and longboats to their neighbors in exchange for grain, salt, and other raw materials.

After Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, foreign trade was no longer against the law. Trade between the Californios and the Russians continued, but now there was more competition from the Americans and British. Competition lowered the price of Russian goods and increased the price of California produce. Trade relations were further hampered by the Mexican imposition of new anchorage fees on all foreign vessels entering California ports. One compensation for the Russians, however, was their control of Bodega Bay, their main shipping port. Here they had established storage and supply facilities as well as landing rights, all made available to foreign vessels. Here some supplies were warehoused and others taken to Fort Ross by baidara and baidarka or by horseback. The journey between the port facilities at Bodega Bay and Fort Ross usually took five hours, whether by land or by sea. With this port of entry and with their variety of goods for sale, the Russians were able to continue trading with the Californios, as evidenced, for example, by the records of the sale of gunpowder and uniforms, procured or produced by the Russians, to General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, on the nearby Mexican frontier.

RUSSIAN CONTACT IN CALIFORNIA WAS NOT LIMITED TO THE SPANISH AND MEXICAN SETTLERS. THE ROSS OFFICE ALSO TRADED WITH AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN SHIPS VISITING THE CALIFORNIA COAST. ALSO OF INTEREST WAS CONTACT IN 1833 WITH THE BONA VENTURA BRIGADE, LED BY JOHN WORK AND MICHEL LAFRAMBOISE OF THE HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY. THE BRIGADE, CONSISTING OF 163 PEOPLE, WAS RELUCTANTLY GIVEN PERMISSION TO PASS BY FORT ROSS BY MANAGER KOSTROMITINOV. THE GROUP CAMPED FIVE MILES UP THE COAST BEYOND FORT ROSS.

Exploration and Natural Science Pursuits

A number of explorers, scientists, artists, and men of letters from Imperial Russia used Ross as a base of operation while pursuing their investigations and recording their findings. Others used Russian ships in San Francisco Bay as springboards for exploration, travel, and scientific research. Some of these men were on expeditions sponsored by the Russian government or by private initiative; others were Company employees with a penchant for observation, who recorded what they saw around them. Altogether, their pioneering work in the geography, botany, zoology, entomology, geology, meteorology, and ethnology of the region contributed information and insight valuable to the present day.

The first of these observers, the physician and biologist Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, accompanied Rezanov to California in 1806. Langsdorff was a correspondent member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, and the memoirs of his stay present a classic account of early Spanish California. His sketches of California Indians and their artifacts are among the earliest portraits of native life to have survived.

In 1808 Ivan Kuskov and his crew explored Bodega Bay; soon thereafter Kuskov traveled 45 miles up the Russian River (which he named the Slavianka) in search of a site suitable for settlement. Later he sent parties of Native Alaskans on expeditions up the coastline as far north as Humboldt and Trinidad Bays. It was Manager-in-Chief Baranov who decided to rename Bodega Bay Rumiantsev Bay in honor of Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev, Russian Foreign Minister and a wealthy patron of the Russian-American Company. By 1818, Kuskov’s promyshlenniki had traveled almost 70 miles up the Sacramento River; later they ascended the American River above what is now Sutter’s Fort.

In 1816, Captain Otto von Kotzebue headed a voyage around the world. Privately chartered by Count Rumiantsev, the ship brought the naturalist Adelbert von Chamisso, the artist Louis Andreyevich Choris, and the entomologist-zoologist Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz to California. During their stay in the San Francisco area, Chamisso collected the California poppy and gave it the botanical name Eschscholzia californica, after his friend and the land that they were investigating. On a return trip to California with Kotzebue in 1824, Eschscholtz made a large insect collection, recorded the geology of the area, and carefully described such mammals as bears, skunks, deer, and "mountain goats," with "long hair hanging from their legs, and short, rather straight horns." Kotzebue left detailed memoirs of his California travels on both occasions; he provides, for example, the first mention of the geysers of Sonoma County, confusing them with the smoke of Indian campfires.

In 1818, Captain Vasily Nikolaevich Golovnin, of the Russian Navy, visited northern California and included stops at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay. His memoirs describe the warm welcome given him by the Miwok chiefs at Bodega Bay, as well as many observations of Indian life and customs, including the autumn grass fires intentionally set to encourage the growth of seeds and grains. Golovnin made a useful navigator’s map of the Bodega Bay area, with precise water depths and topographical features included. On board his ship was the young artist Mikhail Tikhonovich Tikhanov, who made a series of five color sketches of California Indians while ashore at Bodega Bay. In the mid-1820s, another Russian naval officer, Lieutenant Dmitry Irinarkhovich Zavalishin, visited San Francisco Bay. In an extensive literary portrait of the Spanish population and local geography he wrote that he traveled overland to Fort Ross, Santa Cruz and east to the Calaveras-Mariposa area.

During the early 1830s, Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell, while manager-in-chief of the Russian-American Company, strongly encouraged the scientific study of the wildlife and geography of North America. In 1833 on a journey to evaluate the possibilities of extending the Russian settlement farther inland, he personally conducted the first anthropological study of the Indian population of the Russian River area and the Santa Rosa plain. Along with his own written observations on the natural habitat and Indian customs Wrangell arranged to have the Imperial Academy of Sciences publish a comprehensive anthropological account of California Indians written by Manager Peter Kostromitinov. Also invaluable today are the first systematic weather records kept in California, compiled by Yegor Chernykh between 1837 and 1840. These documented temperature, sky cover, air pressure, precipitation and wind conditions at Ross and at his ranch ten miles inland.

Among the later visitors to Ross was the naturalist and artist, Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii. A trained scientist and competent graphic artist, Voznesenskii was sent by the Imperial Academy of Sciences to explore and investigate Russian America. Many important sketches of the Ross Settlement and its surrounding area come from Voznesenskii’s hand, the result of a year-long visit to Northern California. His avid interest in California’s flora and fauna, as well as Indian life, took him far afield by foot, boat, and horseback.

In May 1841, Chernykh and Voznesenskii joined forces to map and name the tributaries of the Russian River as far north as the Healdsburg area. Shortly afterward they made the first recorded ascent of Mt. St. Helena. A metal plaque, in Russian and Spanish, was made in advance, and the explorers installed it on the north summit to mark their feat. In the 1850s the plaque was removed, but a facsimile was made for the Fort Ross centennial in 1912 to replace it; this marker remains atop Mt. St. Helena. Voznesenskii also traveled up the Sacramento River to visit the Swiss émigré, Captain Johann (John) Augustus Sutter, at his ranch and fort, New Helvetia. He rode up California’s central valley to explore the volcanic Sutter Buttes with his host, who would soon play a major role in the fate of Fort Ross.

On these and other expeditions, Voznesenskii was able to gather an ethnographically invaluable collection of California Indian artifacts. These include ornaments, weapons, garments and baskets that can be seen today at the Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia. Many of these objects are the sole surviving items of their kind. Voznesenskii’s travel notes tell of his many local excursions, from the islands of San Francisco Bay to the forests of the Mendocino Coast. They contain observations of the lives of Californians, from the children at Fort Ross to the foreign merchants at Yerba Buena (San Francisco).

   

The Last Years of the Russian Colony

By 1839, for all the diversity of activity at Fort Ross, officials of the Russian-American Company had decided to abandon the colony. The California sea otter population had been largely depleted by the mid-1830s, and the Russian shift of emphasis from hunting to farming and stock raising, to produce large quantities of grain, beef, and dairy products, did not match expectations. Moreover, the experiment in shipbuilding, while impressive in the short run, proved defective over time, and trade in manufactured goods did not return enough profit to offset deficits.

At the same time, the Mexican government’s active encouragement of new settlers into the area, as well as a growing influx of Americans, posed a looming challenge to Russian claims over territory, which neither the Imperial government in distant St. Petersburg nor the Russian-American Company was able to meet. A last effort to avert a Russian withdrawal came in 1836 when Baron von Wrangell journeyed from Sitka to Mexico City to seek an improvement in relations with the new Mexican Republic. He also sought Mexico’s formal recognition of the legality of Russia’s claim to Fort Ross, previously denied by both Spain and Mexico. The Mexicans were willing to yield on this issue, but only in return for Russia’s diplomatic recognition of their own national independence as a republic. However, Tsar Nicholas I, an unwavering defender of absolute monarchy and a foe of revolutionary change, rejected the condition, and so ended any chance of a favorable resolution of the contested issue of the "legitimacy" of the Russian colony. In April 1839, the Tsar approved of the Company’s plan to liquidate the settlement, and shortly thereafter the Company offered all of its California holdings for sale.

The man charged with selling the colony and its assets was Alexander Rotchev, who had arrived at Fort Ross in mid-1836, on a temporary assignment. Joining him later were his wife, Helena, the Princess Gagarina, and their three children. A prominent writer and literary translator conversant in several languages, the energetic and talented Rotchev, together with his attractive wife, soon lent a new tone to life in the frontier community, giving it vigor, intensity, and sophistication in its last few years. Named to succeed Kostromitinov as manager of the colony in late 1838, Rotchev was quick to grasp the problems facing the distant colonial outpost and proved himself to be a resourceful administrator and diplomat. Although he personally opposed the decision to sell the colony, he faithfully carried out his orders, ably conducting the intricate negotiations that led to the sale of the Company’s assets in California.

Rotchev first approached the Hudson’s Bay Company regarding the purchase, but the British turned down the offer in 1840. He then made overtures to France through the French military attaché in Mexico City, Eugène Duflot de Mofras. Duflot made an extensive visit to Ross to investigate the area first-hand, but he, too, declined to put forth a bid, on the grounds that he lacked authority in such matters. The Russian-American Company then ordered Rotchev to offer the outpost to Mexico. Both the Mexican Government and General Vallejo of Sonoma rejected the Russian terms, partly because Mexico already considered Fort Ross as legally its own, and possibly because they hoped that the Russians would simply abandon the outpost.

Rotchev then approached Captain Sutter at his ranch in the Sacramento Valley, and in late 1841 Sutter agreed to buy the Russian-American Company’s assets. This included all the buildings, livestock, and implements, but not the land itself, which was still claimed by Mexico. The contract stipulated that Sutter pay the Company the equivalent of $30,000 in installments, in both cash and produce. However, a separate, unofficial deed, signed by Rotchev one day earlier than the day on which Sutter, a Mexican citizen, signed the official contract, transferred to the new owner a stretch of land extending from Cape Mendocino to Point Reyes and inland for 12 miles. (This deed did not surface publicly until 1857 and then caused considerable legal controversy.)

On January 1, 1842, Rotchev and about one hundred colonists sailed from Bodega Bay on the last Russian ship bound for Sitka. After 30 years, the flag of the Russian-American Company was lowered at Fort Ross, and the Russian epoch in the history of California came to a close.

   

Russia's California Outpost in Historical Perspective

The venture of the Russian-American Company into California was short-lived. However, the memory of it has lingered long, preserved in the buildings and the stockade at Fort Ross, both original and restored, in the place names of scattered creeks and coves along the northern coast and of the largest river in Sonoma County, and in the vestiges of Russian and Native Alaskan influence on the Kashaya Pomo language and culture. The Russians were the first to explore and map parts of Northern California, and they were also the first known Europeans to climb Mt. St. Helena.

The abandonment of Fort Ross was a harbinger of Russia’s withdrawal from North America altogether. The Russian-American Company’s profits continued to decline, and, when the Company’s charter expired in 1862, it was extended thereafter only provisionally. Meanwhile, Russia’s preoccupation with developing its newly acquired Pacific territories north of China was increasing, and the prospective costs of continuing to maintain the outposts in America, especially in the face of a growing British presence, led Russia to sell its Alaskan holdings to the United States Government in 1867, thus terminating a century-long territorial presence in America. In retrospect, the withdrawal from Fort Ross, Russia’s easternmost outpost, signaled a turning point in the expansion of the Russian Empire. As the world’s largest contiguous empire, Imperial Russia chose to redirect its energies and consolidate itself on only two continents instead of three.

AFTER 1842 AND THE ABANDONMENT OF COLONY ROSS ELEMENTS OF RUSSIAN INTEREST IN CALIFORNIA CONTINUED. ALEXANDER ROTCHEV, THE LAST MANAGER OF ROSS, RETURNED DURING THE GOLD RUSH IN 1851-1852. HE OBTAINED A PATENT FOR CALIFORNIA’S FIRST GOLD WASHING MACHINE WHICH HE SET UP ON THE YUBA RIVER. PETER KOSTROMITINOV, MANAGER OF ROSS FROM 1830 TO 1838, RETURNED TO SAN FRANCISCO IN 1851 AS THE RUSSIAN-AMERICAN COMPANY AGENT, AND IN 1852 HE BECAME RUSSIAN VICE CONSUL, A POSITION HE HELD UNTIL 1862. COMMERCIAL INTERESTS ALSO CONTINUED IN CALIFORNIA. THE KODIAK OFFICE OF THE ICE COMPANY WAS FORMED IN 1851 TO CUT AND STORE ICE NEAR KODIAK AND SUPPLY IT TO SAN FRANCISCO.

 


Fort Ross Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) and California State Park cooperating association, connects people to the history and beauty of Fort Ross and Salt Point State Parks. 

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