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The Russian-American Company in California

Fort Ross commemorative stamp
Fort Ross, California
Fort Ross, located just north of San Francisco and the “Russian River,” was the site of the Russian-American Trading Company. The wooden fort, with its onion dome chapel, still stands.

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.

schoolchildren at Fort Ross
Today, Fort Ross is a popular site for school children to learn about this unique remnant of Russian history.

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.

This remarkable silent film by Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin (Russian: Всеволод Илларионович Пудовкин, IPA: [ˈfsʲevələt ɪlərʲɪˈonəvʲɪt͡ɕ pʊˈdofkʲɪn]; 16 February 1893 – 30 June 1953)[1][2] was a Russian and Soviet film directorscreenwriter and actor who developed influential theories of montage. Pudovkin traveled to Mongolia to make the film, and he cast Mongolians who had never seen a film, much less ever imagined acting in one.

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.

Fur trading continued to be a central activity for the Russians and those living around the fort.

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.

The Russians erected their stockade quickly. Their cannons convinced the Spanish that an attack would not be successful. Thinking the next best thing would be to drive the Russians out by starvation, the Viceroy in Mexico City ordered the missionaries not to trade with the Russians; however, the missionaries disobeyed, and occasionally sent bags of flour.

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:

When they Russians established Fort Ross, they brought with them a diverse community of native peoples. These people lived in a separate community outside the palisade, and they established a hunting outpost in the Farallon Islands, just beyond the entrance to San Francisco Bay. They also ventured into the bay, and there were conflicts between the indigenous peoples of California and the new arrivals from the north. Choris, Saint Paul by Triggerhappy is in the public domain.
  • 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.
ft ross map
Located just up the coast from the Russian River, Fort Ross had a small, sheltered bay that later became a put-in point for American trading ships and, even later, for coastal schools bringing lumber from the sawmills further north.
Traces of Russia remain in the reconstructed rooms of Fort Ross. The samovar on the table would have been filled with tea.
The records left by the fort’s botanist provide a fascinating glimpse into the flora and fauna of early California. The records are in Russian, and they are still being translated.
Rather than the fireplaces found in New England historic buildings, Fort Ross shows that the Russians constructed houses similar to those in Siberia, where a central chimney provided heat, the masonry a source of warmth, even after the fire had turned to coals.

“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.)

Rotchov’s house, with its decorative strap hinges, is one of the original buildings.

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.

Fort Ross, with its multi-ethnic population, remained an active outpost until it was sold to John Sutter–the same John Sutter whose famous mill in the California foothills. Sutter’s Mill was the site of the discovery of gold, and that discovery led to the Gold Rush.

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
Russian-American Company

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.

bay at ft ross
This small bay, just below the fort, became a landing site for coastal schooners–sailing schooners, as well as steam–traveling up and down the coast of California. In the 1890s, the schooners carried lumber from logging activities in Mendocino County and as far north as Fort Bragg.

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
Hector Chevigny

The Wreck of the Neva As Narrated in the Description of the Unfortunate Shipwreck of the Frigate Neva of the Russian-American Company — Alaska Historical Society

VN Berkh and The Loss of the Russian-American Company Ship Neva on the Northwestern Shore of America, Near Cape Edgecumbe on the 9th of January, 1813
V. M. Golovnin
— Sitka Historical Society (1979)

The Story of Sitka: The Historic Outpost of the Northwest Coast. The chief factory of the Russian American Company — Clarence Leroy Andrews

1 thought on “The Russian-American Company in California

  1. This article should also recommend Glenn Farris’s excellent book, “So Far from Home: Russians in Early California” published in 2012.

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