Fort Ross
Woodworking & Coopering

Woodworking & Coopering

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Coopering and carpentry were valuable trades at Fort Ross. Coopers constructed many barrels out of oak and redwood that were needed to store and ship meat, clay, wheat, and other perishable items. Woodworkers, carpenters, and joiners constructed wooden goods for trade with the Californios, such as pre-made houses, carts, carriages, wheels, doors, and longboats. They also made and shipped redwood shingles back to Russia, on ships that they built at the Fort’s shipyard. The Fort itself was constructed out of redwood, and included a stockade, the manager’s house, a storehouse, and barracks, among other buildings.


From The Khlebnikov Archive – Unpublished Journal (1800-1837) and Travel Notes (1820, 1822 and 1824), © 1990, University of Alaska Press. ISBN #0-912006-42-0

  • “The wind prevented the baidarkas from departing, and so Mr. Etholen and I went to the mountain where wood was being prepared for a new ship. We went through the mountains the whole way, a distance of about 12 versts, and returned to the fort at noon. The abundance of valuable trees gracing the hills and valleys was gratifying to behold. The curvature of the various types of oak was such that it will be easy, with the help of templates, to make all the parts needed for the ship. Even in its dimensions, the wood seems destined for this use.” pp.57-58
  • “Chegul’ka, a tireless worker and our sole cooper, makes excellent barrels and finishes skins for everyone’s needs. ” p.64
  • “I wanted to obtain an idea of the types of trees that grow here, and so I asked the promyshlenniks to bring me samples, with leaves, of each variety, which they did:” p.66
  • “Mr. Schmidt built a bath out of redwood logs on the shore of the bay near the warehouse(Port Rumiantsev).The bath consisted of two rooms, one for the officers and one for the men.” p.95
  • “It is virtually impossible to continue building ships. The wood needed is very far away and extremely difficult to bring back because there are not enough men available. The wood is cut in a deep ravine and must then be carried onto a road, where it is loaded onto horses that can take only one log at a time. From there it is taken to a better road and transported to the fort, but the distance is such that no more than two trips a day can be made.” p.97
  • “You have written to request that those Aleuts who work permanently at the fort should receive pay and that those who had distinguished themselves in their work should be rewarded in some form. I have the honor to inform you that, pending approval by the Chief Manager, I consider it possible to pay the Aleut craftsmen the same wages as those that have been authorized by the Chief Manager for kaiurs [category of kaIga] i.e. 10 rubles per month. This concerns the cooper AI’vad and the tanner Tuteg. The woodcutter Sergei Trukhmanov is to receive 150 rubles instead of 100 and also half an issue of flour.” p.100
  • “Then we inspected the buildings. The most useful one is a barn built by Mr. Schmidt to store grain. It is built with planking and is very practical for the crops. After the harvest, the grain can be stored there, and it serves other purposes as well. The cattle pen, where a number of animals had drowned in the liquid manure that had collected there, has now been dried out. The cattle enclosures have all been cIeaned and tidied up. For the winter, sturdy barracks made of bark have been built for the Indians near the Aleuts’ huts. The barracks can accommodate 50 persons. The Indians often help with the work and presently live under the same roof with the Aleuts, where there is not enough room. About a half-dozen little houses have been built. The cooper Chechul’ka and Iakov Babin live on a hill near the Aleuts’ huts in neat and tidy little dwellings made of redwood planking. The cooper built his house with hardly any outside help, relying on his own efforts alone.” pp.101-102
  • “Upon the instructions of the Chief Manager, I told Mr. Schmidt to order more barrels made for salting meat, and the cooper recommended one of the Aleuts who had worked with him earlier.” p.102
  • “Fort Ross sent us 13 kegs for salting meat, but I felt that we needed more, and we therefore decided to buy 13 kegs and 5 big new oak casks from a whaling ship.” p.113
  • “The pine and the spars for the Kiakhta, which we had cut at a great distance from the fort, remained there on the ground for a long time for lack of men to move them or baidarkas to float them to the fort. The wood had to be sawed up and given time to dry.” p.132
  • “The cooper Adamson brought a sample of the pure pitch that had been extracted with the help of a cast-iron cauldron which can take four logs. After this experiment, I assigned two Aleuts to him to cut wood and make a big pile; from the wood, he hopes to extract two large barrels of pitch in less than a month.” p.147
  • “6 redwood barrels” [ship list] p.150
  • “To that end, you must prepare barrels and salt and send them to Farallon during the best time of the year. Use large amounts of salt so that the meat does not spoil so quickly. The barrels should be of sturdy construction.” p.193

From So Far From Home – Russians in Early California, edited by Glenn J. Farris, © 2012, Heyday and Santa Clara University.
ISBN# 978-1-59714-184-0

  • “According to what the said lieutenant stated, they are establishing themselves because they are fortifying and building houses since they already have the square enclosed, similar to a high wall, and although it is of wood it is sufficiently strong and thick, and all of the square would be of some 150 varas, with 31⁄2 to 4 varas in height, with two opposed towers or bulwarks, one of which faces the sea, and the other to the field [ed: land], sufficiently elevated and with artillery, although I did not see the caliber of it; and inside the said square they are constructing housing that is well built, and accordingly it demonstrates as stated that they plan to establish themselves there.” p.78
  • “The following have been forwarded to Mr. Commerce Councillor Kuskov from the New Archangel Office during the Years 1812 through 1815 (according to six accountings): … tools: for carpentry, joinery, barrel-making, metalworking and blacksmithing” pp. 84-85
  • “Other projects included brick-making, tanning hides, milling grains, and even building prefabricated wooden structures. When Karl Schmidt took over as the second commandant of Fort Ross, he made greater efforts toward the development of gardening, cattle husbandry, and the growing of crops, and also continued the colony’s shipbuilding industry.” p.153
  • “Paul (Pavel Ivanovich) Shelekhov, the third commandant of Fort Ross (1825– 1829), also promoted light industry and, according to French visitor Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly in 1828, oversaw construction of ‘prefab’ wooden houses to sell in California and Hawaii.” p.154
  • “Below the hill by a landing for baidarkas [kayaks] have been built a spacious shed and a cooperage, a blacksmithy, a tannery, and a bathhouse.” p.158
  • “As an example, I noticed during my stay at Ross that they put to work: Russians and Creoles (the Aleuts were hunting sea otters). Sentries, artisans, carpenters, cooks etc. . 49 pers[ed: persons] Indians (for reaping and hauling sheaves to the threshing floors, hauling clay for bricks, etc.) . . . 161 pers at work 210 pers” p.163
  • “We went with Mr. Shelekhov to view his timber production. In addition to the needs of his own settlement he cuts a great quantity of planks, beams, timbers, and the like, which he sells in California, in the Sandwich Islands, and elsewhere; he even builds entire houses and ships them disassembled. The trees felled are almost all conifers of several kinds and especially the one called palo colorado (redwood). The only virtues of this tree are that it is quite straight and splits easily; for the rest, it has little resin and is very brittle.” p.224
  • “Outside the enclosure at the foot of the hill on the banks of the brook [ed: Fort Ross Creek]: 1) A forge, a shop for carpenters and locksmiths, and one for handling brass, copper and tin, built of wood 10 meters long and 6 meters wide……4) A cooper’s shop, 20 meters wide and 10 meters in depth.”” p.287
  • “Vasilii Permitin, originally from Tomsk, arrived at Fort Ross in 1820 and was accompanied by his Creole wife, Paraskeva, as well as two sons and two daughters. He eventually had two more sons and two more daughters while at Fort Ross (Osborn 1997: 379). Permitin worked as a carpenter and was fairly prominent in the affairs of Fort Ross, particularly being noted for his shipbuilding skills (Khlebnikov 1990: 44, 97, 144).” p.338

From Russian California, 1806-1860, A History in Documents. Volume I, edited by James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin, © 2014, The Hakluyt Society, ISBN# 9781908145062

  • “A Mexican visitor noted in 1822 that everything at Ross (including the fort itself) was built of redwood because it was abundant, accessible, flexible, cleavable, durable, and attractive. It was used for barrels, too, and later redwood shingles (or shakes) were made to meet Sitka’s demand.” p.29
  • “To offset the decline of ‘otter’ hunting and to occupy the colonists, shipbuilding became one of Ross’s economic activities. It was proposed by Baranov, who misjudged the quality of the local oak. The promyshlennik Grudinin, who had worked as a carpenter under the American shipwright Lincoln at New Archangel in the 1801s, was sent to build ships. There were few qualified carpenters, and the commencement of shipbuilding was conditional upon the completion of the construction of Ross (subsequently, to the contrary, the necessity of renovating the buildings prompted Govermor Murav’yov to halt shipbuilding at Ross for want of hands). The shipyard itself was found below the fort at the mouth of Fort Ross Creek (in 1996 its remains were discovered and examined by American archaeologists). Launched ships were taken to Bodega Bay for outfitting and embarking.” p.31
  • “Russia was also represented by Yakutia (Satha), whose native Yakuts worked under contract to the Company and, together with Russians, reached the easternmost point of the Russian Empire, the settlement of Ross. Here their cattle-rearing (Document 89) and possibly their carpentering experience proved useful.” p.37
  • “Construction continued at Ross. By the middle 1820s the buildings inside and outside the fort dating from the beginning of the settlement (palisade, barracks, houses for employees, barns, and others) had become dilapidated. After strong winter winds and heavy rains had wrought considerable destruction, Shelikhov in 1825 undertook the necessary repairs to the fortifications, re-roofed the manager’s house, storehouses, and living quarters, and built a new, larger barracks.” p.43
  • “By the time of Wrangell’s visit in 1833 Fort Ross enclosed two large stockyards, a dairy ‘for keeping milk and making butter, a shed for the Indians, a threshing floor, and two rows of small Company and private houses with [vegetable] gardens and beds occupied by employees of the Company’. The windmill stood at a distance. ‘Below the hill a spacious shed, a cooperage, a blacksmithy, a tannery, and a bathhouse have been built beside the landing for kayaks.’” p.44
  • “During his sojourn, of the 210 men put to work at Ross (the Aleuts at this time were hunting sea otters), 49 were Russians and Creoles (sentries, ‘craftsmen’, carpenters, cooks, etc.) and 161 were Indians (‘for reaping, hauling sheaves, floor threshing, hauling clay for bricks, and so on’).” p.45
  • “Chernykh began his activities at Ross with the construction of a Scottish wooden threshing machine on the model of an iron machine that was sent there later. The thresher (powered by two horses) and a hand winnowing machine arrived at New Archangel aboard the ship Yelena in the spring of 1836, and after their wooden parts had been made there they were forwarded to Ross in the summer on the Sitkha with the metalworker and blacksmith Semyon Mel’s (a Finlander from Vyborg (Vipuri)) to help put them into operation. Iron tenons and bearings were made for his thresher, while ‘the cams on all of the wheels, as well as the teats on the gears, are of hard laurel wood, as are the conveying cylinders’ (Documents 356 and 374). Thus, the locally made and used components of Chernykh’s machine were all purely Ross manufactures.” p.47
  • “Moreover, most of these secondary activities (hide tanning, tallow making, flour milling, barrel making) were offshoots of what soon became Russian California’s mainstay – agriculture.” p.66
  • “The Kamchatkan agronomist Yegor Chernykh was posted to Ross Counter in 1836 in order to increase agricultural productivity. He constructed a wooden threshing machine to replace wooden threshing floors, substituted oxen and mules for horses as draught animals, and diversified the crop, even reviving tobacco, whose cultivation had been started by Kuskov.” p.71
  • “In order to bolster the settlement of Ross with personnel two Yakuts, who know carpentry, are being sent on the brig Golovnin with their wives, who will, of course, be useful for tending livestock.” p.119
  • “Also among the articles made for Californios or ordered by them at Ross in the first half of the 1830s were ‘two-wheeled carriages’, carts, wheels, barrels, ‘sundry furniture’, doors and sashes, ‘copper boilers’, ‘caps of red cloth’, cartridge pouches, millstones, whetstones, and so on.” p.140
  • “The coppersmith was engaged in odd jobs for Californios, besides Company work. Altogether 15 pairs of wheels of various sizes and one cart with a box were made for Californios for 385 piastres, as well as 6 doors and 6 door frames by the joiner and 5 copper goblets of various sizes; the prices of these things have not yet been set by the counter.” p.234
  • “Flattering myself that Your Honour will graciously favour a positive approval of the above, I make bold also to submit for your consideration the promyshlenniks Vasily Grudinin, Vasily Antipin, and Aleksey Korenev at Fort Ross. The first of these, being a shipbuilder, differs from the other promyshlenniks in receiving 500 rubles, but it seems that he expects management to notice him; the second, the best carpenter, differs in his agility and unflagging diligence, and, in addition to his trade, he is one who cultivates the soil for grain; he and the last, who is likewise a carpenter and a joiner, exhibit commendable behaviour and uncomplaining obedience – according to the assurance of the hon. Commercial Counseller Kuskov – and they merit the attention of management.” p.450
  • “In bringing it to the favourable disposition of Your Honour, I consider it my duty to attest that the zeal for duty of the workmen named above that I have come to know has been evinced in success in other useful but unrelated practices and always in good conduct. Cooper Chechulka, besides his own current work, dresses various hides very well and thereby completely obviates the need to import such goods to the settlement.” p.450
  • “In the beginning of the settlement, owing to the circumstances of insufficient labour and haste, a barracks was built temporarily from squared scrap lumber. It still exists, but a new one should be built in its stead, and for this, too, start to procure the needed timber. In order to avoid heaviness in its transport, I believe that it is more convenient to saw [it] on the spot or to square the round lengths or logs on two sides, leaving squared logs of up to six inches in thickness. But concerning the building of a barracks, inform the honourable governor of the Russian-American colonies and await orders, and do not commence construction beforehand.” p.473
  • “After the procurement of all of the required timber for the construction of the proposed ship, the barracks, and the 30 or more oaken barrels that are to be made, if no other work occurs begin the procurement of timber with an appropriate number of men for the construction of a small outbuilding [svyazka] for visiting Spanish guests, our ships coming from New Archangel, and decent rooms in it for the counter, too.” p. 474
  • “As I expect that the fort and entire settlement of Ross has fallen into disrepair and is in danger of collapsing, then after having built the ship now under construction it will not be necessary to rebuild but instead to repair the old structures; Grudinin, having built this the ship, will come in it to Sitka.” p.488
  • “For the salted meat small barrels must be readied beforehand, so that they each hold from 7 to 8 vedros or less. If [Andrey] Chichulka is also good, then he should be recommended for a bonus.” p.490
  • “The cooper has been given the means for finishing a sufficient number of barrels, and other useful pursuits have been undertaken.” p.499
  • “In his report to me the manager of the counter, Mr Shmidt, complained about the small number of carpenters in his jurisdiction; now, having an opportunity to shift men from Sitka, I am sending a reinforcement of skilled men on the brig Golovnin, namely, 4 carpenters (including a joiner), 1 cooper, one tanner, and 2 sailors who should join the the brig Kyakhta on its return to New Archangel.” p.515
  • “We began to mend the sails and to repair the water barrels, many iron items, and the rigging.” p.523

From Russian California, 1806-1860, A History in Documents. Volume II, edited by James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin, © 2014, The Hakluyt Society, ISBN# 9781908145079

  • “The construction timber will provide an opportunity to build good ships, and with them it will be possible to have considerable trade with the Sandwich Islands, which need it for the building of houses.” p.18
  • “Meanwhile, we managed to re-roof all of the houses and to begin construction of a cattle shed.” p.60
  • “In construction it is proposed to rebuild the fort’s walls, to build another threshing floor for the threshing of grain and a granary for storing it, and, finally, to build a new windmill, if possible.” p.63
  • “The driving wind and floodwater throughout the past winter ruined various buildings. The fort [stockade] was toppled in many places and roofs were torn from houses. And so Mr Shelikhov, while repairing the structure of the fort, again re-roofed the manager’s house and the storehouses. A completely new barracks was built with an addition to the former 3 sazhens in length and 1⁄2 a sazhen in width. The convenience, cleanliness, order, and harmony observed everywhere are a credit to Mr Shelikhov’s management. Now it remains necessary with the required diligence to build a new pen for the cattle; timber has already been prepared for this [purpose], and in the course of the present winter it will be built.” p.64
  • “In the course of last year the following projects were undertaken at the settlement. Two longboats, 21 feet in length along the keel, were constructed for the Californios and sold for 700 piastres each. A communal cookhouse, and attached to it a bakehouse with 3 large stoves, were built. This structure was made 521⁄2 feet long and 21 feet wide. The roof is covered with smooth, double boards. A new 56-foot threshing floor of thick, round blocks was constructed to replace the old one. In the reserve storehouse and the lower storey of the communal storehouse new floors were laid, and new beams were installed in place of the lower rotten ones. Timber was obtained for the new house, which they intend to build inside the fort on the site of the old cookhouse.” p.123
  • “Father Ventura has asked that you make 50 ploughshares, 6 pairs of wheels, 4 6-vedro, 4 12- vedro, and 4 20-vedro barrels, some picks for dressing millstones, a blacksmith’s vice [upornaya natyazhka], and a boot-tree [nakolodka] for the mission.” p.141
  • “Be so good as to order the cooper, Adamson, to prepare in the course of the summer for the ships from Sitka 30 2-vedro [24-litre, or 61⁄2-gallon] oaken casks and 30 kegs for salted meat, all of oak, if possible.” 153
  • “Barrels. Redwood is soft and very suitable for barrels and kegs. From 20 to 50 kegs are always made at the settlement for salting meat, which is supplied to ships coming from Sitka.” p.183
  • “Mr Kostromitinov reports, incidentally, that there was a great storm at Ross on 12 December of last year [1830]. ‘Our dilapidated fort’, he says, ‘could not withstand the high wind, and in each of two places it collapsed for 70 feet, and it some places it was damaged; also, the sail arms of the windmill were broken and part of the roof of the cooper’s shed was blown away, and there was some other minor damage.” p.191
  • “Regarding the salting of meat, I order the counter to observe all of the benefits of economy and to do the salting at that time of year when the grass is lush and the cattle are plump, that is, in June or July, and to make oaken barrels for it well beforehand.” p.196
  • “In the course of the year the personnel were engaged in the following jobs: a house inside the fort, unfinished under Mr Shelikhov, was completed; a small mill with one pair of millstones was built on the stream [Fort Ross Creek] near the settlement; the cooperage was re-roofed with new boards, and the shed for kayaks and bricks was renovated; timber was prepared for a new cattle pen and a new sheep pen; a building for holding [native] hostages, 11 feet, 8 inches square, was constructed inside the fort of thick blocks and roofed with double boards; up to 80 logs and blocks of laurel wood were prepared for New Archangel; new sail arms were affixed to the windmill; a plough, a harrow, a cart, and various horse harnesses were made; and a sufficient amount of hay was stocked for the calves.” p.213
  • “For the Californios and missionaries were built longboats for 500 piastres, two-wheeled carriages for 100 piastres, and 8 pairs of wheels for 320 piastres. In addition, the personnel were engaged in various field tasks. Now I have ordered that a shed be built at Bodega for storing colonial goods bound for Sitka and that they always be delivered to Bodega at a good time of the year.” p.213
  • “The brickmaker made up to 11 thousand bricks; the tanner dressed 180 hides for uppers and soles and up to 149 other sorts of hides; the cooper made up to 60 barrels and 130 small containers of various sorts.” p.213
  • “The occupations of the personnel in the course of the year were as follows. A new cattle barn, 140 feet long and 28 feet wide, was built, and a shed, 70 feet long and 21 feet wide, was added to the brick depot. They started to build a storehouse and a shed at the port of Bodega, and the entire structure of 70 feet [in length] was divided into two sections; the storehouse is nearly ready, although the unusually protracted NW wind greatly impeded the transport of timber.” p.234
  • “The cooper made 129 barrels for salted beef and 232 containers of various kinds for use at the settlement.” p.234
  • “Knowing that the inhabitants of California sometimes request the building of houses here for themselves of redwood logs, and citing one case (in 1827) when they remained offended at being asked by us to pay for the work, to guide the counter I order it to keep to the rule that requires payment for all such work, and at the following estimate and no less: reckon how many carpenters will be needed and for how many days to complete the work here, setting 1 piastre for each man for a day, and then how many days (approximately) the umiak will be in use to deliver the houses to San Francisco, setting 5 piastres a day, and for the work of the carpenters at San Francisco set about 3⁄4 of a piastre each for the whole time that they are absent from Ross; in addition, there is the cost of the materials.” p.246
  • “You are to order the making of tubs for butter and barrels for salted meat from oak beforehand, for it has been noticed that redwood containers absorb all of the brine, regardless of how much it is replenished, and because of this [disadvantage] the butter and salted beef soon spoil. The oaken tubs and barrels that are emptied at New Archangel will be returned annually to this counter.” p.250
  • “In the event of a good harvest of wheat on the new ploughland, the counter will be able to ship a sizeable amount to New Archangel, so that one ship will be unable to accommodate all of it plus the bricks, laurel wood, wooden shingles, etc. Accordingly, two ships will be sent to Bodega, one after the other. On the first, the brig Polifem under the command of Lieutenant Rozenberg, the counter will kindly send all of the bricks, laurel wood, wooden shingles, and old iron and copper articles that have been readied and add as much grain as space permits, and on the second ship as much of the remaining wheat, barley, and other supplies that the counter can spare for New Archangel.” p.278
  • “Il’ya Andreyev11 has been sent to Ross and will likely be useful there, being a good cooper and ploughman.” p.312
  • “According to the latest reports to me, all is well there: during the year there were 20 births of both sexes and 17 deaths; the personnel did not lack food; the usual work proceeded properly; bricks, redwood shingles, hides, and laurel wood were stocked for shipment to New Archangel; the fort’s wall was renovated, so that it can serve for another 4 or more years; the manager’s house and the granary were repaired; timber was prepared for the projected kayak shed, a new windmill (on account of damage to the old one by strong winds), and other necessary buildings, such as a sheep barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a coppersmith’s shop, and a new house inside the fort; at the settlement of Kostromitinov a hut, a storehouse, a threshing floor, and a bathhouse were recently erected at new sites, and a barracks was built, as well as an incline [earthen ramp?] to the dry river for the prompt and easy loading of wheat.” pp.324-325
  • “Having learned with what difficulty and wastage grain threshing is accompanied at Ross, I decided to build a wooden Scottish [threshing] machine and, to my utmost pleasure, I finished it with considerable success.” p.397
  • “This [situation] forced me to undertake the construction of a wooden Scottish threshing machine, which, to my utmost pleasure, I finished with considerable success.” p.399
  • “The brickworks and tannery were in a fairly satisfactory condition; in particular the latter produced a considerable number of good tanned hides. Coopering was improved as much as possible. On the brig Kyakhta, which arrived at New Archangel in 1826, 50 shoe-upper hides, 10 yuft hides, 100 sea lion skins, 150 chamois skins, 4 thousand bricks, 10 barrels of clay, and 5 barrels of pitch, besides a thousand puds of wheat, were shipped from the settlement.” p.475