The Sakha Story at Fort Ross
The following text is from the Gualala Point Regional Park Serge Posts “Siberians in Gualala?” interpretive sign. And learn more here about the June 2014 Sakha Cultural Festival at the Gualala Arts Center and Fort Ross.
Sakha on the Sonoma Coast in the 1800’s
Historical records show that at least 16 Sakha people lived at Fort Ross (1812-1842). Serving Russian fur traders as guides across their Siberian homeland, the Sakha were pressed into service in Russian America as hunters, laborers, stockmen, skilled carpenters and shipbuilders. They travelled with the Russian American Company to this coast. While in Alta California, some of the Sakha intermarried with the Kashia, Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok.
Who Are the Sakha and What Is a Sergeh?
Indigenous to northeastern Siberia, the Sakha are the northernmost horse breeders in the world, and horses figure prominently in their survival. In the Sakha Republic, a Sergeh (pronounced sayr-geh), or hitching post, is placed near each family’s home. Besides its function as a hitching post, the Sergeh also represents a world-tree- the Tree of Life- and is a symbol of the Sakhas’ cultural connection to the natural world and to their ancestors’ traditions. The Sergeh testifies to the desire to survive Siberia’s severe winter climate and other natural obstacles. Ritual ceremonies are held at the installation of each Sergeh, with traditional Sakha blessings, dancing and shamanic rituals.
The Sakha Honoring Their Ancestors
During the 200th Anniversary of Settlement Ross in 2012, carvers from the Sakha Republic in Siberia returned to Fort Ross to carve two Sergeh, according to Sakha tradition, to connect with and honor the spirit of their ancestors. One of those was placed at the Timber Cove Inn and the other at the Arts Center.
Feeling a strong connection to both their ancestors who lived here and the presence of their ancestors’ descendants still in the area, a self-funded Sakha delegation returned again to the North Coast in 2014. Hoping to reconnect with the local Pomo, the Sakha craftsmen were invited into the Kashia Roundhouse near Stewart’s Point to meet with the Pomo elders.
It’s been said that “history is written by the victors.” Historically the Fort Ross story focuses on the Russian narrative, but with time, other hidden stories come to light. Of course the longest stories here are the natural history and Kashia Pomo stories. Then the enduring 150+ year old “Ranch Era,” 100+ year old “State Park Era” and (only then) the 30+ year old Russian Era. It’s been wonderful witnessing the resurgence of cultural pride exhibited by our our faithful Russian and more recently Kashia Pomo and Alaskan Native volunteers.
And now there’s one more hidden story to learn about–of the Sakha Siberians at Fort Ross.
With some of the first steps eastward from Europe taken by the wealthy merchant-capitalist Stroganov family, the Russians followed the sable (a marten with a short tail and dark brown fur) across Siberia and the sea otter across the North Pacific, with numerous not just Alaskan Native but first Native Siberian peoples, including the Sakha, pulled into the mix… in Siberia, Alaska, California and beyond. Forced to pay “yasak” (fur tax) to the tsarist government of Russia, Native Siberian people were key to the successful Russian expansion to the Pacific. Yakutsk, on the Lena River, a central icy thoroughfare from Eastern Siberia toward the Pacific, served as an important center of the Siberian fur trade before reaching the Russian Pacific ports of Okhotsk and Petropavlovsk (Kamchatka). The article, The Sakha Story of Fort Ross, written and translated by Fort Ross Conservancy Sakha-American volunteer Marina Yakovleva, tells their story.
—Hank Birnbaum, Bilingual Guide, Historical Specialist & ELP Instructor
The Sakha Story of Fort Ross
By Marina Yakovleva
In their advancement from west to east, the Russians intensively used the resources of the local inhabitants of the territories they mastered. By and large, without these resources, this advancement would have been impossible due to the complexity of the landscape of new territories and extreme climatic conditions. Sakha* people have played a very important part in the Russian development in Siberia, the Far East, and North America. Sakha people supplied the Russian expeditions with food and horses, and they also served as guides.
Yakuts were hired as “promyshlenniki”* — contract wage workers on various jobs: hunters, carpenters (including shipbuilders), farmers (for agricultural work, such as gardening, farming, etc.). Also, promyshlenniki were used as guides and for the protection of Russian settlements in the U.S.
Rules of hiring promyshlenniki were as follows:
- When entering the service this decision should be read, and he is obliged to sign it. The company will issue a seven-year passport for him and supplies money for his outfit, handing him his payslip. Before setting off, The company will provide a food stipend of 70 kopecks per day… Workers traveling through Siberia will receive a food stiped of one rubl per day until they reach the Lena River, after which cooked food will be provided for the voyage to Yakutsk. The journey from Yakutsk to Okhotsk will be done on foot due to a lack of horses, during which food will be provided by the company.
- Upon arrival to Okhotsk, they are coming at the disposal of the office and by their order arrive at the ship which is departing to America, pledging to do all the work. At the Okhotsk and during a sea voyage, they are getting food from the Company. When sending from Okhotsk their money spending are registered in a court location.
- Upon arrival to the colony, they are coming to the disposal of the Chief ruler or Offices rulers and required to perform the work according to his ability, pledging to obey the authorities in any case.
- He obliges to avoid vices: drunkenness, extravagance, contentiousness and other crimes, and not to enter into large and unpaid debts.
- The term of service is assumed to be seven years, after that, if they do not have any debts and decide to return to the fatherland, they are allowed to be sent by the first transport through Okhotsk or around the world on the company expenses”. The company paid a salary of 350 rubles a year, which was issued on a monthly basis excluding debts. Upon arrival to the colony, they receive the bread ration in the amount of one “pud” per month. With a lack of bread, they receive 5 rubles per “pud”. Also from the shop on a monthly basis were sold: flour, cereals, peas, depending on marital status, and tea (up to one pound), sugar (about two to three pounds), one bottle of syrup, one pound of tobacco. On birthdays promyshlenniki and creoles were allowed to buy one bottle, for the best workers two bottles of rum for the money. During the big holidays, everybody was allowed to buy sometimes a bottle, sometimes one drink per person. With an excess of rum, sales were done more often and with a lack of it less.”
There are names of more than 20 Yakuts in just one document dated 31 August 1860, which is a “Decree of the Yakut Zemsky court of Boturusskaya foreign council about Yakuts’ service for the Russian-American Company” in Alaska “. S.N.Markov writes that “Yakut Burtsev built and repaired ships at New Archangelsk,” “there was a goods exchange between the local peoples of Alaska, the Chukchi and even Yakuts of Siberia. Yakut knives and spears … could often be found in the very heart of the North American continent”.
The Yakuts alongside the Russians endured all the hardships of a risky life in America, many died there. For example, Alexey Ivanov, a Yakut from Zhabylskiy nasleg of Boturusskiy ulus* was killed in 1853 during Anglo-French squadron’s staying there, and Fedor Izbekov got lost in 1856 on the island of Urup after the same team of the Anglo-French squadron visited the island. Perhaps the European colonizers took Yakuts for Indians.
Yakut workers have been paid well. By that time Yakutia had been a part of Russia for two hundred years, the Yakuts were familiar with cattle-breeding and various crafts. In addition, they were fluent in Russian. K. von Ditmar reported that “the Yakuts who were known as good carpenters were often hired to build in Okhotsk, Ayan, Petropavlovsk, and even Sitka”. Among the documents preserved in the US National Archives, a letter dated March 23rd, 1828 was found, in which there is evidence of recruiting Yakut carpenters to work in Alaska.
Written archives of the time usually mentioned the Yakuts separately, and they could also be associated with the Russians. In December of 1818, the RAC’s correspondence ordered the Office of Ross to take all the Yakuts on board of “Ilmen” on its arrival in California, to use the Yakuts as the cattle keepers – since they had proven their skills by time and their way of life. Two married Yakut men arrived in Kodiak in 1828 to look after the cattle. After the company was convinced of their distinct advantage as cattle keepers, more of them were sent over to the Company colonies as livestock keepers. Archives preserve a record of the fact that two Yakut families settled on Atka to look after the cattle. Perhaps they were the same families that were mentioned at Kodiak.
Here are the statistics on the composition of the inhabitants of Fort Ross in those years:
According to the “Bulletin of the people in the village and fortress of Ross,” composed in 1820, “… out of 148 men were 3 Yakuts, 5 Creoles, and 116 Kodiak Eskimos.” According to the census of 1821, 175 people lived here, 121 of them—men. By nationality composition: Russians (twenty-four persons), Creoles (so-called children born from Russian men and Native women of Alaska and California), Aleuts (Unangan) from the Fox Islands, Native peoples of Alaska, Yakuts of Siberia, Native Hawaiians, Tlingits, Native Californian tribes of Miwok and Pomos, Native peoples of Kodiak, and more. Of the fifty-four women, all of them were either Creole or local Native people.
On June 1, 1820, there were 3 Yakuts in the colony of Ross – Petr Popov, Gerasim Popov, Login Zakharov. Yakov Okhlopkov arrived there in July and Yegor Zakharov – in December. It is likely that Login Zakharov was the first Yakut who arrived at Russian America. That happened in 1816-1817. The “Russian-American Company” archives on this topic have not been studied well enough.
According to Fort Ross census held in 1820, there were 260 adults in the settlement, 179 men, including 38 Russians, 17 Creoles, 3 Aleuts, 56 Californian Indians, 5 Yakuts, and others. The primary population consisted of Russians, Creoles, natives of Kayak and Chugach, Indians of California. The fact that there were Alaska natives, Yakuts, and Hawaiian Polynesians among Fort Ross population shows the broad geographical contacts of Russian America.
Our countrymen were mainly employed in cattle keeping, fur seal hunting and carpentry, including shipbuilding. Their names appear on the List of monetary compensation for the construction of the vessel “Kyakhta”. Of the seven first-class carpenters two were Yakuts, Gerasim Popov, and Jakov Okhlopkov. They received 100 rubles each for their work. Payments for the second class carpenters were 75 rubles per person. K.T. Khlebnikov presented a list of monetary compensation for the construction of the vessel “Volga” to Mr. Schmidt (ruler of Fort Ross from 1822 to 1824). The list includes the main carpenter Gerasim Popov, his compensation was 125 rubles, carpenters Jakov Okhlopkov (75 rubles) and Peter Popov (50 rubles).
Looking after cattle in the local conditions was not easy. This led to the fact that Mr. Schmidt accused Peter Popov, Yakut promyshlennik, whose job was to care for the cattle, of reducing the number of livestock. Popov replied that the losses occurred because in addition to his own duties he was constantly sent to other works, not related to his assigned responsibilities. When the number of lost cattle and sheep in the last eight months had reached significant numbers Khlebnikov asked Fort Ross on behalf of the governor: “Please send me detailed information explaining the increasing losses of cattle and sheep numbers over the past eight months. In the future, in addition to regular reports, send a special report with your opinion on the issue”.
For better cattle care the Company’s clerk sent a ledger of animals every 4 months: “When “Kyakhta” is sent, and the amount of work is reduced, two Russians or Yakuts should be presented as animal caretakers, Indians or Aleuts should help them. If possible, cattle keepers should not be used in other jobs”. The office of Fort Ross posted the following list showing how many cattle were lost: from September 1823 to January 1824 – 22 large sheep, 49 sheep of medium size; from January to May 1, 1824 – 15 bulls, 12 cows and 19 sheep.
Archival evidence of that time makes mention of “the Sakatsky clever kid Kese”. Although at that time the name of “Yakut” had already become a part of the language, the Russians must have been familiar with the native name of Yakuts – Sakha. In addition, the Orthodox name of the “kid” Kesha (Innokentiy) is pronounced exactly as Kese in Yakut.
It appears that Kese was taken as a guide to Okhotsk. Then, together with everybody else, he moved to far California. In the initial period of development of Alaska Russian expeditions used to take Chukchi, Yukaghir, Eskimo, Koryak people with them. This fact has direct historical evidence.
Kese is mentioned again in one more document. It seems that he had mastered the local language by the time, as he participated in the negotiations with the Miwok chief Vallenilla. According to V.Golovnin and his book “Journey around the world, accomplished on a military sloop “Kamchatka” in 1817, 1818 and 1819″ this Indian chief “wished for more Russians to be settled among them so that they could protect the residents from the Spaniards’ harassment”.
Pioneers believed that people on the other side of the Bering Strait spoke the same languages they did. They may have involved the Yakuts after becoming convinced that peoples that seemed to be related, with almost the same economic and cultural way of life did not always understand each other. But, as is now clear, the Sakha was considerably far from the Alaskan Eskimos, Aleuts and other natives in language and in culture. Although many thousands of years ago, settling of America came from Eurasia …
Each European country – Britain, France, Spain – was discovering America in its own way. As for Russia, it was doing it in two ways: through the experience of Western colonization, and through its own experience of development of the north-eastern part of the Eastern Hemisphere of the Earth. Russia had accumulated a massive experience after mutual contacts with the peoples of Yakutia and the Far East.
The existence of Russian America was not so long in historical time, although the “Russian period” has left a noticeable imprint on the culture of the indigenous population of some areas of Alaska and California. To this day, the Kashia Indians living in the vicinity of Fort Ross have preserved in their own language about thirty words borrowed from Russian. On top of everything else, three models of colonization – Spanish, Russian and Anglo-American – existed side by side in California in the first half of the nineteenth century, which gives scientists a most interesting material for comparison.
Small Ross, located away from the rest of the Russian settlements in America and close to the areas colonized by Spain, was in need of good neighborly relations with the indigenous population. This dictated the appropriate policies. The first governor of the fort I. Kuskov sought to gain the sympathy of California’s population in every possible way, compiled dictionaries of the Indian language: “… to get closely acquainted with the people, to be nice to them all in the most peace-loving and friendly ways, avoiding the slightest cause for annoyance … For you can sometimes act by politics, rather than by strength. “
The Californian “Indian policy” of RAC mirrored the general principles of the company policy in relation to the indigenous population of Russian America. Lacking strength they coaxed the natives: handed out gifts, and presented additional gifts and silver medals to some, “who behaved kinder and provided services”, “which made them very satisfied.” The chief administrator of the Russian colonies in America A.Baranov’s special instructions ordered the study of the indigenous people’s customs, and having control over a limited territory, the administration of the Russian possessions in America sought to maintain peaceful relations with the natives of the underdeveloped areas who were practically independent of it. And it had help in doing so from the Alaskan Eskimos, the Aleuts, and, as it is now revealed, from the Sakha.
In the tourist center of the modern Fort Ross the copy of the flag, bestowed by King Paul I to the Russian-American Company is exhibited. To this day Fort Ross remains the pride of Russian Americans and the regret of many generations of Russians. In June of 1984 at a ceremony in honor of its restoration after the fire, the Kashia chief James Allen spoke about the life of the Indians during the Russians’ stay in California. Apparently, there remain only good memories of them in historical traditions…
In 1976, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of US independence, a commemorative medal was minted in the United States which had an image of Fort Ross on the obverse, and of its founder Kuskov on the reverse. In November of 1997, under the auspices of the Cultural and Educational Society “Russian America” Fort Ross hosted an international conference of representatives of the peoples who once inhabited the Russian America, which was attended by American, Russian, Yakut, Evenk, Even, Yukaghir, Yupik, Tlingit, Pomo, Miwok, and other people. The participants agreed to continue such meetings in the future in other regions of Russian America, including Sitka and Kodiak.
Years have passed, everything connected to the events of those years gets smoothed out, erased, moved further into the past. But looking at the fort from the surrounding hills you do not need a lot of imagination to picture the events and people who once created Russian history on this piece of land on the edge of Northern California. And among them – our countrymen from the Sakha Land, which is so far away from here, who made their unique and invaluable contribution to the history of the development of Russian America.
-The original article “Yakuts of Fort Ross”was published in 2004, “Ilin” magazine N4
- Istomin Alexey, THE INDIANS AT THE ROSS SETTLEMENT: ACCORDING TO THE CENSUSES BY KUSKOV, 1820-1821. Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Fort Ross, California, in 1992.
- Sanny Kenton Osborn, DEATH IN THE DAILY LIFE OF THE ROSS COLONY, 1997.
- Viktor Petrov, “Completing the Cycle”, 1975, Los Angeles.
- Popov Gabriel. Sakhalar-Amerikaіa. Ilene, number 1, 2003.
- Sokolov IA “Activity of the Russian-American Company”, Moscow, 2003.
- George Spiridonov. And the flows in California Russian River … The newspaper “Yakutia”.
- Tyrylgin M.A. The origins of the phenomenal vitality of the Sakha people. Yakutsk 2000.
- KT Khlebnikov THE KHLEBNIKOV ARCHIVE: UNPUBLISHED JOURNAL (1800-1837) AND TRAVEL NOTES (1820, 1822, AND 1824). The Rasmuson Library Historical Translation Series, Vol. V University of Alaska Press. 1990.
- Shishigin ES, Ph.D. ist. Sciences, Associate Professor. Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna Saint Innokenty (Benjamin) – educator of the peoples of Alaska and north-east Asia, (c) 2002-2003 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- History of Russian America, Volume 3. Moscow, “International Relations,” 1999.
- Russian America “Notes Kiril Khlebnikov”. Moscow, “Nauka”, 1985.
Nasleg -Sakha administrative unit, part of Ulus.
Okhotsk – is an urban locality (a work settlement) and the administrative center of Okhotsky District of Khabarovsk Krai, Russia, located at the mouth of the Okhota River on the Sea of Okhotsk. The Russian-American Company was founded in 1799 with its base at Okhotsk.
Pud – Russian weight measuring unit, around 16.4 kilograms, or 7.4 pounds.
Yakuts – the Russian name for Sakha people
Yakutia – the Russian name for Sakha Sire, now Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)
Yakutsk – the capital of Yakutia
Toyon – Sakha elder. Leader of Sakha, Aleuts or other ethnic groups of the Far North and Siberia, as well as Russian America (Tlingits).
Ulus- Sakha administrative unit, usually includes few Uluses.
There are three Sakha sergeh located nearby:
- Хотойдоох Sergeh at Gualala Arts Center
- Тuhulgeh at Gualala Regional park
- Дьеhегэй Sergeh at Timber Cove Resort (dedication ceremony 5.17.19)
11,000 years BP – Bering Land Bridge
1632 – Russian settlement of Yakutsk founded
1639 – Russians first reached the Pacific
1741 – European discovery of Alaska (Russian expedition led by Danish navigator Vitus Bering)
1783 – First Russian colony in Alaska founded, on Kodiak Island, by Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov
1784 – Awa’uq (or Refuge Rock) Massacre (near Kodiak Island)
1799 – Fort St. Michael founded (later known as New Archangel then Sitka)
1799 – Russian American Company founded (monopolizing competing companies)
1809 – Port Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay) founded
1812 – Fort Ross founded
1815 – Fort Elizabeth (on Kauaʻi i) founded (and abandoned 1817)
1842 – Russians left Fort Ross
1850 – California became a state
1867 – Russians left Alaska
1909 – Fort Ross became a California State Park
2012 – Fort Ross Bicentennial (visiting Sakha woodworkers crafted two Sergeh posts)
2014 – Sakha Cultural Festival (Gualala Arts Center, Gualala Regional Park, FRSHP)
2019 – Sakha resurgence of representation at Alaska Native Day and other local venues.