Fort Ross, once shown on maps as “Fort Russe”, is a remnant of the Russian effort to build a thriving fur industry. This southernmost settlement of the Russian empire was supposed to grow wheat that could be shipped north to Sitka. A secondary goal was to provide an additional source of pelts after the population had been decimated by overharvesting of squirrels, sea lions, otters, and foxes.
The Russian Fur Trade
The Russian-American Company was established by Czar Paul I, July 8, 1799, with de facto political authority and a monopoly of trade in Russia’s North American possessions, principally Alaska. It was administered by a board of directors in St. Petersburg, with control of affairs in Alaska by appointed governors general. The Alaskan headquarters of the company was established at Sitka in 1799, but for many years prior to that, the Russians had seen fur trading as a valuable asset. The Chinese Emperor and his court prized furs, and the fur market in xx, on the border between the two countries, was where buyers and sellers met.
Except for the period 1802-4, when a revolt by Native peoples drove out the Russians, Sitka remained company headquarters. But, the growing Russian population in Sitka could not feed itself. They were too far north to grow wheat. In 1812 a company outpost was settled at Fort Ross in present-day California. Its purpose was to grow enough wheat to supply the residents of Sitka and to provide a base for the Aleut and Tlingit hunters who went out in their badarkas to catch otters and sea lions.
Although the Russians had originally hoped that the fort would be in climate that would allow them to grow wheat, they were never successful, and, in fact, had to beg the Spanish missionaries in San Francisco for flour. The wheat fields at Fort Ross never succeeded because gophers ate whatever the Russians planted.
At one point the Spanish presidio commander thought about sending an armed force to drive the Russians out, but the fort was so well defended, with guard towers, a palisade fence, and cannons, that the Spanish decided that an attack would be pointless.
Who Lived at Fort Ross?
The population of the colony at Fort Ross consisted of a multicultural, multiethnic community brought together by czarist Russia’s mercantile fur acquisition and trading enterprise, the Russian-American Company. At Fort Ross, the community was divided into four ethnic residential areas:
- Upper level Russian management lived within the stockade.
- Ethnic Russians and Creoles (people who were the offspring of Russian/Native unions) of lower standing lived in a village of small houses with kitchen gardens. This village was located outside the stockade to the west.
- A Native Alaskan village of small wood or plank houses and possibly some semi-subterranean dwellings was located on the ocean bluff in front of the stockade. Here resided single Native Alaskan men, some Native Alaskan families, and other households consisting of Native Alaskan men and Kashaya and Miwok women and their children.
- The Kashaya also lived in a small village northeast of the stockade and in many other villages in the coastal hills above Ross. By far the most populous group was Native Alaskan.
“Although Fort Ross had the appearance of a military installation, it was never involved in warfare. For three decades, Russian colonists lived and intermarried with Native Americans, traded with Spain and the United States, and made a living through agriculture, otter-hunting and shipbuilding. The area was peaceful; it was the farthest outpost for the Russians and the farthest outpost for the Spanish.”May 9, 1868, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California
Within a weathered stockade built from redwood timber are barracks, officers’ quarters, and a small, unadorned Russian Orthodox chapel with a simple belfry. (The only original building from the Russian era is the home of the colony’s last manager, Alexander Rotchev, a one-story family dwelling stocked with reconstructions of period furniture and housewares.)
The End of the Russian Era
In 1841, Russian colonists gave up their enterprise and sold the colony to pioneer Captain John Sutter, who transported its equipment and supplies to his own fort in Sacramento. The area served as ranch land for more than sixty years, until California designated it as a state historic park in 1906.
This is the same John Sutter who was responsible for the Gold Rush. In addition to his ranch at Fort Ross, Sutter had purchased land on the banks of the South Fork of American River. He intended to build a sawmill in Coloma. On January 24, 1848, one of his employees saw several flakes of metal in the tailrace water and recognized them to be gold. Though he tried to keep it a secret, the word spread quickly and triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849. Sutter lost interest in his Fort Ross property, and the buildings slowly fell into ruin.
The Alaska Purchase
Although Sutter had purchased the Fort Ross, Russia still laid claim to large tracts of the land. Agreements with the United States, Spain, and Great Britain (c. 1824) confirmed the company s control of North American territory north of 54° 40′ but, after commercial and political rivalries with Great Britain increased and revenues from the colonies decreased, Russia decided to sell its holdings in America and refused to renew the fur company’s charter, which expired in 1862.
Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Henry Seward, persuaded the Russians to sell Alaska. Under terms of the Alaska Purchase concluded March 30, 1867 (15 Stat. 541), otherwise known as “Seward’s Folly,” “any Government archives, papers, and documents relative to the territory and dominion aforesaid, which may now be existing there,” were supposed to be transferred to the United States.
“The Russian-American Company was chartered by the Russian government in 1799 to conduct monopoly trading in the Aleutians and Alaska and played a major role in the affairs of the North Pacific during the next half century.”P.A. Tikhmenev, A History of the
The above brief translation of Tikhmenev’s comprehensive history of the Russian Trading Company, acknowledged by scholars as a fundamental source on Russian-American history, will be indispensable to anyone curious to learn more about the influence of Russia in the Pacific Northwest. The original Russian text was written, at company behest, a few years before the sale of Alaska to the United States and the liquidation of the Company. Undertaken to “glorify” the activities of the Company, in the mistaken hope of winning a renewal of the monopoly charter, Tikhmenev’s history is based on documents then in Company archives, but later destroyed.
Scenes at Fort Ross
The beach and old chapel at Fort Ross are very interesting to look at, and in part seventeen of “Picturesque California” there are fine pictures of both . . . Part eighteen of “Picturesque California” contains a fine reproduction from photographs of this quaint old Russian stronghold.March 27, 1899, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
For Further Reading
Russian America: the Great Alaskan Venture 1741 – 1867