Local Notes No. 5 – Fort Ross, the Frontier Outpost of Russian America

Heading west from Santa Rosa, CA, out along the Russian River, there runs thirty miles of charming, bucolic country: a thick canopy of trees and hills and small towns with names like Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Jenner. Eventually, the canopy thins, the sea comes and you can go no more west, so follow the road and turn north – what will then open before you is the Sonoma Coast, an area of unbelievable beauty. Describing its vistas defies the words normally used for this kind of thing – dramatic, yes; stunning, yes; but even more than that, jarring and vertiginous and almost deadly.

Sonoma Coast | The Lodge at Sonoma
It can get foggy – bring a jacket.

New Deal funds led to the construction of a highway along the seaside in 1933. When I drove on it this summer, the good people of the California Dept of Transportation were hard at work shoring up its asphalt against the encroaching seaside. But long before these roads were laid down, before prospectors struck gold and before San Francisco became the Paris of the Pacific, a different, almost alien set of eyes took in the sight of this beautiful coastline – Russian ones.

Fort Ross
Aerial view of Fort Ross, credit Humboldt State University.

In 1812, a shipful of Russians landed at an inlet they named Rumiantsev Bay, in honor of the empire’s Minister of Commerce at the time, the Count Rumiantsev, and founded an agricultural settlement they named Fort Ross. The expedition’s leader was one Ivan Kuskov, previously a paper-pusher at the Russian-American Company, the startup enterprise given royal imprimatur in 1799 to fortify the Russian presence in what was rapidly becoming a race between Britain, Spain, and the sixteen-year-old USA for control of northwestern North America.

(I will take the time here to note that my little note about Russian colonization of Northern California is not designed to downplay the lives and experiences of Native peoples who lived in the area before, during, and after the Russian presence. The presence of imperial Russian traders in California is notable for their complete foreignness, both then and now, as well as the ways in which they tried to make up for that foreignness. However, I would be not doing my part if I didn’t mention that there were large and active indigenous populations in these regions all along.)

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Russia Got Into Its Own "Folly" in Alaska
Detail from a painting depicting Alaskan natives watching a departing Russian-American company ship.

Even before the Tsar’s ukase of 1799, Russians had crossed the Bering Strait in explorations mostly aimed after the economic object of nearly all tsarist expansion from time immemorial – fur pelts. From Ivan the Terrible on down, each tsar in turn sought more virgin forest to harvest yet more furs from the chicest of sources – beavers, sea-otters, sables, ermines, and even squirrels. This long process of Russian eastern expansion suffers from underdiscussion in the broader history of European colonization – although it never involved daring man-o-wars crossing oceans to find new shores, to the Siberians they encountered, the tsarist troops and profiteers were unstoppable marauders, forging their way with cannon and musket in a marshy semi-tundra whose sparse native populations, be they Tatar, Kirgiz, Samoyed, or Yakut, had before mostly concerned themselves with fighting each other.

Russian eastern expansion from the time of Ivan the Terrible on.

By the turn of the 18th century, imperial boots were planted firmly in what we still today call the Russian Far East, and so it was that in 1725, Peter the Great asked for his bravest sailors to test the waters east of Kamchatka for whatever fur-growing mammals might be found in the land across the strait. A few shipwrecks later, Russian traders had figured it out and were engaged in a brisk business from a port like Kamchatka or Okhotsk to the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian islands and back. According to Gibson, one successful summer’s hunt for pelts in the Aleutians could net between 10,000 and 30,000 rubles, doubling the money invested to outfit the expedition.

The capacity for such profit sparked a fur rush of sorts, with hundreds of voyages being launched from the middle of the century on. This had predictably tragic environmental consequences – otters were extinct in the Kuril Islands by 1780, and fading fast from the Aleutians by the next decade. In order to impose some discipline on the crush of trappers headed across the Bering, the Tsarina Catherine granted the first state licenses for otter hunting in the late 1780s, a system which was updated by her successor, Paul I, in his 1799 edict forming the Russian-American Company, which won the right to a strict monopoly on fur trading and bore the responsibility of creating more substantial settlements in North America.

Paul’s decision to grant the monopoly to the RAC represented a break from previous Russian imperial strategy and also marked the introduction of a dynamic form of corporate management – the joint-stock company. This new corporate form allowed individual shareholders the right to invest capital and own separate chunks of the business, as well as transfer those shares freely without impacting the existence or operations of the company. What’s more, early practitioners of the joint-stock form figured out they could limit their liability to only capital invested, a development which essentially turned them into modern corporations as we understand them today. And although the Dutch and British had had wildly successful joint-stock companies operating colonial enterprises since the early 1600s, most notably in their respective East India Companies, Russian exploration had for two centuries neither birthed nor adopted the same organizational model.

When they finally did, it allowed them to focus. Under the leadership of A.A. Baranov, the RAC founded two settlements, Pavlovskaya and Novo Arkhangelsk, which became the modern day cities of Kodiak and Sitka. After receiving intelligence that there were long stretches of the California coast to their south unoccupied by other imperial powers, Baranov dispatched his lieutenant, Kuskov, with instructions to leave some plaques claiming the land for the Tsar and also to set up camp and do some settling.

Tikhanov - Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov (1818).png
AA Baranov, first leader of the Russian-American Company.

Walking the well-maintained grounds (thanks, CA Parks & Rec) of Kuskov’s krepost’, I found myself wondering what these outcast Russians must’ve thought about the new landscape they found themselves in. Homesickness is written into the very planks of the structures they built – one of the most striking details at the amply sized fort is the small Orthodox cross hewn in soggy oak standing atop the church.

The Fort Ross church (right) and its little Orthodox cross, beating back the tides.

Only the higher-ups and visitors actually stayed within the fort walls – most other Russians lived in smaller houses just outside the fort, while the indigenous Kashaya people who were more populous and integral members of fort life lived in another village a short distance to the south.

What did these people do all day? For starters, they didn’t actually end up hunting much fur – beaver and otter populations plummeted too quickly wherever the Russian trappers went to set up a real business. By 1834, the RAC’s leadership was so desperate to save something of their founding livelihood that they called for a twelve-year moratorium on all fur trapping and thereafter imposed a strict quota system.

Instead, the colonists at Fort Ross turned their attention towards other economic activity – Kuskov was a gifted gardener, and established farms of grain and barley with minimal success, but also of grapes, peaches, and pears which were modestly more successful. The Russians figured out ranching as well, grazing herds all the way down the bay to where modern-day road-trippers like myself make the turn out from Jenner onto the coast. They even tried their hand at shipbuilding, assembling California’s first windmill as part of a semi-industrial effort. This fizzed out after only a few attempts.

View of the fort to the south.

Truth be told, it seems that the Russians at Fort Ross, and especially the RAC higher-ups there, spent most of their time waiting for company resupply ships and thinking of life back home. A French visitor in 1828, A.B. Duhaut-Cilly, noted astutely that, “In the apartment of the governor are found all the conveniences valued by Europeans but still unknown in California.”

The possessions and house of Alexander Rotchev, the Fort’s last administrator, are still at the Fort today and in them you can see the truth of Duhaut-Cilly’s observation. Rotchev and his family spared no expense in attempting to live on the Sonoma Coast like the genteel Europeans they thought themselves to be – they kept a score of Mozart on the piano at all times.

The Rotchev house, the only building still standing since the Russian period.

Like any discerning Europeans of their time, the fort’s higher-ups investigated their California surroundings with a scientific eye. The first vaccinations in California were reportedly done at the fort in 1821. The reports of one Captain Golovnin’s stay at the Fort in 1818 include the first written mention of the native population intentionally burning large grasslands to inhibit future wildfires. Yegor Chernykh, a rancher at the Fort, kept systematic weather records for the first time beginning in 1837. Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii, a friend of Chernykh’s, left for a surveying trip in 1841 which led him eventually up the Sacramento River to the door of one unassuming miller named John Sutter.

Inattentive, however, to the pioneering exploits of their scientists in California, the Russian-American Company had decided by 1840 to call time on their outpost at Fort Ross. None of their attempts in hunting, farming, or industry had ever panned out, and by the late 1830s, they were spending some 40,000 rubles per year just to keep the colony afloat. Rotchev, the administrator, asked around if any of the surrounding great powers were interested in taking over for the Russians; when both the British and Mexicans declined, he went up the river and knocked on Mr. Sutter’s door himself. After 30 years of trying, Tsarist Russia unceremoniously sold away its most distant outpost in North America to a miller better remembered today for the gold others found on his property and the rush it inspired. Rotchev and his patrician family got onto the same boat as the other hundred or so farmers, ranchers, and would-be shipworkers who called Fort Ross home and sailed for RAC headquarters at Sitka. Russian California was no more; before another 30 years were out, Russian America would be gone too, sold to the American government at William Seward’s request in 1867 for $7 million.

A lovely painting of Fort Ross, with all the drama of the Sonoma Coast on full display.

What can we learn from the Russians’ experience in California? Plenty, not least of which the important lesson that for all the incalculable transformation wrought by other colonial enterprises around the world, we have to remember that none of them were ever sure things, and indeed very many of them did fail. I wrote my senior thesis about another, earlier attempt by a German banking family to establish a pearl fishing colony in Venezuela – that one ended with everyone dying in the jungle, either from horrible disease or a machete to the head, so the Rotchev family was probably better off having just taken the long boat ride up to Alaska.

Another lesson is the variance in interactions between colonists and indigenous peoples: the cossacks who conquered Siberia swept over unprepared peoples with ease, while Baranov was a butcher of a colonist, slaughtering native Alaskans and building Sitka on the bones of a Tlingit town. By contrast, it seems that the colonists at Fort Ross like Kuskov and Rotchev worked hard to maintain cordial and mutually respectful relations with the Kashaya and other groups of indigenous people in the area. Some sources claim the indigenous groups even played their own imperial politics, preferring the Russian approach to the heavy-handed Spanish, and balancing one against the other.

Lastly, we can’t forget about the environmental impacts of extractionary colonial economies – those extinct Kuril Islands otters aren’t coming back – but nor should we pat ourselves too much on the back, lest we think we’ve got all the answers. The RAC tried moratoria and quotas beginning nearly 200 years ago. It will likely take more than that to save our fish.

Fort Ross is today an interesting curiosity and a great state park lying on one of the prettiest stretches of coastline on the planet, but for a quarter-century it was the nexus of imperial hopes and worries from Moscow to Sitka and including London, Washington, Paris, and Mexico City. Not bad, I say, in the end for a bunch of promyshlenniki.

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