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From Russia with Love: Fort Ross and Russia's Failed Attempt to Conquer California

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With Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, worry about Russian efforts to encroach on American democracy is at an all-time high. What many of us don’t know, is that these fears have existed since well before the Cold War. In the early 18th century, Russian leaders who traveled to the West Coast truly believed that “all this country could be made a corporal part of the Russian empire.” And for a brief time in the 1800s, on a small patch of land overlooking a stormy sea in what is now Sonoma County, a little sovereign Russian settlement flourished, before circumstances forced them to abandon any dream of a Russian North America.

ivan kuskov 200.
Ivan Kuskov | Public Domain

In 1799, the Russian-American Company, backed by the Russian government, established Redoubt Saint Michael near present day Sitka in Alaska. The settlement was inhabited by rough and tumble Russian fur traders, sea otter hunters, and native Alaskans. By 1800, Russians had managed to over-hunt the Alaskan sea otter so much that they were being driven to extinction. The people of the settlement were starving, with many suffering from scurvy.

The Russians saw the future -- and it was south. Not only were they interested in cornering the fur market -- and lured by the magnificently hairy California sea otter -- they also knew there was money to be made in ranching and agriculture. Food could not only be traded and sold; it could also be sent to the suffering settlers in Alaska.

In 1809, longtime Russian-American Company employee Ivan Kuskov began to search for a place to establish a foothold in Spanish California. The peg-legged captain first established a small, ramshackle settlement at Bodega Bay in what is now Sonoma County. Called Rumiastev, it was to be a temporary base until Kuskov found a more permanent settlement. Kuskov and his men soon found the perfect place thirty miles north, above a small cove which could act as a harbor. According to Allan Temko, author of "Russians in California:"

"One hundred feet above the water, protected on three sides by the ocean, was a flat tableland where the Pomo Indians had established the village of Mad-Shui Nui. Kuskov had no need to look any farther. For “three blankets, two axes, three hoes and a miscellaneous assortment of beads”- some accounts say he included three pairs of trousers in the transaction- he purchased about 1000 acres from the natives."
fort ross canons
Fort Ross Chapel |  sandwich/Flickr/Creative Commons

Relations between the Spanish colonizers and the Russian traders were tense. At one time the Russians had as many as 500 soldiers on the California coast, which was not much less than the Spanish had. While the Spanish attempted to ice the Russians off the continent, there was little they could do to stop them.

In 1812, construction began on the new fort at Mad-Shui-Nui. Twenty-four Russians, 100 otter hunters, and native men from Alaska and Hawaii began to build fortifications and construct wooden buildings using the large redwoods indigenous to the area. Temko writes:

"Work continued on the little fort throughout the spring and summer, but some portions remained unfinished when Kuskov dedicated the colony with a ceremony on September 11. He named it Rossiya -an ancient name for Russia, which was shortened to Ross, the name it is still called today."

The celebration -- which included the raising of the Tsar’s flag, music, and speeches -- came during a particularly challenging time for Russia, and the entire Western World. Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. Three days after the joyous opening at Fort Ross, Napoleon invaded Moscow.  The War of 1812 between America and Britain strangled ports and therefore supply and demand all over the continent. Despite all this, Kuskov was determined to make his forlorn, windswept settlement at the edge of the sea a success. According to Temko:

"Though hampered by the inefficiency and laziness of his men, the majority of whom were convicts from Siberian penal camps, he continued his efforts to make improvements to the fort. He drove his recruits to build more buildings at Ross, including a windmill, he enlarged and enhanced installations at Bodega and established a permanent post on the Farallon Islands. He fenced in and tilled the land, even starting a vineyard in 1817 with grapevines from Peru. Three years later, the colonists planted 100 fruit trees-apple, pear, cherry, peach, and bergamot-and a garden filled with roses and flowers."

Native Alaskans and biracial Russian-Alaskan women were encouraged to migrate from Sitka to Fort Ross to marry men at the settlement. According to Temko, by the 1820s there was a town of fifty or so homes outside the fort’s protective walls. Russians lived in “pretty little houses” close to the fort.  Aleuts from western Alaska lived in cabins a little farther out, and on the outskirts Native Californians resided in their “cone shaped huts.” Fields, vineyards, and gardens were planted, and the Russians sold and traded not only fur pelts but valuable California redwood. Food was sent to Russians in Alaska. At its peak, there were around 400 people living at Fort Ross.

fort ross stamp
Russia postage stamp of Fort Ross

But the little outpost’s days were numbered. Although the Russians were not significantly threatened by the new Mexican rulers of California, the force of American’s manifest destiny was creeping up on the tiny fort. In 1823, President James Monroe conceived the Monroe Doctrine, partially because he and the government believed that the Tsar was “occupied with a scheme worthy of his vast ambition…the acquisition of the gulf and peninsula of California and of the Spanish claim to North America.” The adoption of the Monroe Doctrine let Russia and all other imperial countries know that if they tried to expand their holding in North America they would be itching for retaliation from Washington. The same year the Monroe Doctrine was implemented, Ivan Kuskov died in Russia after leaving Fort Ross in 1821.  

Fort Ross would be led by a series of Russian leaders after Kuskov’s death. The last -- and most impressive -- was the cultured adventurer and poet Alexander Rotchev. Rotchev took over control of Fort Ross in 1835. With him came his highly educated, aristocratic wife, Princess Helena Pavlovna Gargarina, “a very beautiful lady of twenty Aprils, who united to her other gifts an irresistible affability.” Along with the newly arrived wives of other officers, the Princess brought a mini-Renaissance to the rustic, rough outpost. Temko explains:

"…for the first time, Ross lost its masculine somberness. The ladies were elegantly dressed, there were parties and dancing, Princess Helena had a glass conservatory- it caused a sensation in California- where she spent her happy hours tending her plants. The Rotchevs erected a summer house in the fruit orchard…with an open pavilion adorned with the Imperial colors. The commandant's house in California was the only one in California that pleased a finicky visitor, Count Eugene Duflot de Mofras, who “appreciated the joy of a choice library, French wine, a piano and a score of Mozart.”
church service
Church service at Fort Ross | Friends of Fort Ross Facebook

However, the Russians of Fort Ross were living in a twilight fantasy world. By the late 1830s -- thanks to the hunters who stalked them for their pelts -- the California otter was virtually extinct. American citizens were increasingly coming out West, squatting on land closer and closer to Russian holdings. “Ross was doomed,” Temko writes, “the stock-holders of the Russian-American Company asked to be relieved of the burden of maintaining the colony, and on April 15, 1839, the Tsar approved the decision to withdraw.”

The Russians officially abandoned Fort Ross in the waning months of 1842. The town’s holdings were sold for $30,000 to a Swiss immigrant named John Sutter. In a few years, California would be utterly transformed when gold was found at another property he owned named Sutter’s Mill. The old fort was sold once again, before being peddled to the California Historical Commission. In 1966, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is noted as “the site of the first windmill, the first glass windows, the first European varietal grapevines, the earliest shipbuilding and the botanical ‘discovery’ of the California poppy.”

The settlement is now known as Fort Ross State Historic Park. Visitors can visit the original Rotchev House, as well as several recreated structures, including the twin-domed Russian Orthodox Chapel that is a replacement of the original 1824 chapel, which burned in 1970. Services are still held in the chapel on special occasions.

The legend of Fort Ross also lives on at the Fort Ross Dialogue, a Russian-American conference now in its seventh year, which is held to “facilitate dialogue and cooperation between the American and Russian people.” Interestingly, the Asia News Monitor reported in 2017 that Russia’s Consulate General in San Francisco helps support the Fort Ross State Historic Park.   

Top Image: Fort Ross in 1828 by A. B. Duhaut-Cilly | Public Domain

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