"Failed attempt to build Russian America." Fort Ross State Historic Park by JLBG

It is well known that Alaska was once a part of the Russian Empire and was finally sold to the US government but it is often forgotten that the Russian Empire had once an outpost as far south as California. Fort Ross and dependencies was the southernmost point in the Russian colonization of North America. It was designed as an agricultural settlement to supply fresh food to Russian Alaska. It was the site of California's first windmills and shipbuilding, and Russian scientists were among the first to record California’s cultural and natural history. The following is a brief report of this failed attempt that lasted 29 years in California and 83 years in Alaska.

After Christopher Colombus discovered America, the French and the English proceeded to the exploration and the appropriation of the continent from the east coast, the Spanish from the south but in the mean time, the Russians did the same from the north-east.

In 1741 Vitus Bering discovered the Aleutian Islands. After his death, members of his crew returned to Moscow with close to a thousand sea otter fur pelts of great value on the Chinese market that lead to the sea otter fur rush. In 1784, Grigory Shelikhov, a Russian fur trader established a Russian settlement on Kodiak island, in Alaska. He failed to convince the Russian authorities to take California. However, in 1799, the Russian American Company was established with the participation of members of the Imperial family. They were granted by the tsar the monopoly on hunting and trading furs. In the following years, the Russian American Company moved its headquarters from Kodiak to Sitka and hunted sea otter furs all along the coast, as far as California.

In 1806, Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, ruler of the Russian American Company in Sitka visited in San Francisco the Spanish governor of Alta California, José Darío Argüello, in order to establish an alliance and get fresh food for the starving Russian colony in Alaska. No Russian spoke Spanish and no Spaniard spoke Russian but fortunately several members of the Russian delegation and most Spaniards spoke French. They agreed to form a close bond between the new Spanish province of California and the Russian American company.

Rezanov fell in love with María Concepción Argüello, daughter of the governor. He went back to Russia to ask permission to the tsar to marry María Concepción but died during the years long trip and was buried in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. María Concepción waited for his return. When she learned his death 5 years later, she was desperate and became a nun. Another consequence of his death was that the projected alliance between Spain and Russia was abandoned. It might have changed the course of history.

In 1811, Ivan Kuskov sailed on board of the Shirikov to Bodega Bay, where he established a settlement named Port Rumiantsev. The following year, with 25 Russians and 80 native Alaskans, Fort Ross was built in less than 6 month. Ivan Kuskov remained the commander of the fort until 1821.

In 1816, under the commandment of Otto von Kotzebue, the Russian circumnavigational ship Rurik moored in Port Rumiantsev for several month. The Russian biologist Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz (German speaking scientist from Dorpat, in the Russian Empire, now Tartu in Estonia) and German poet and botanist Adelbert von Chamisso (born as French Louis Charles Adélaïde de Chamissot de Boncourt, that emigrated to Germany to escape the French Revolution) lived in Fort Ross for several weeks and described hundreds of still unknown plants and animals. Chamisso gave to a new poppy the name of his friend. That was « Eschscholtzia californica », the California poppy, now the state flower of California.

Later in their sailing, Kotzebue named an island in the Marshall Islands as Eschscholtz Atoll. Everybody knows this atoll but under another name: it was renamed in 1946 to Bikini Atoll. I wonder why it was renamed at this date (when atomic bomb experiments began) and did not find any clue but this is another story. Let us remain in California.

Several commanders followed Ivan Kuskov. Three farming settlements were established inland by the Russians : Kostromitinov Ranch, along Russian river, close to the present days nearest bridge to the Ocean, Chernykh Ranch on Purrington Creek, a tributary of Russian river, between nowadays Firestone and Occidental and one further south, Khelbnikov Ranch, east to Bodega bay, along Salmon Creek.

In 1836, Ilya Voznesenskii, a Russian scientist from St. Petersburg, stayed in Fort Ross and performed studies of plants and animals, as well as ethnographic studies of the native Kashaya people. The collections of Voznesenskii are now displayed in the St. Petersburg Ethnographic Institute. In 1837, the first detailed weather records in California were recorded at Fort Ross by the agronomist Igor Chernykh. In 1841, Voznesenskii and Chernykh (an Agronomist) performed the first climb of a volcano that they named Mount Saint Helena, now Mount Saint Helens.

The political situation in California and around had dramatically changed since Fort Ross’ building. Mexico had taken its independence from Spain in 1822 and was opposed to the Russians as they supported Spain against Mexico in the independence struggle. The USA had now claims over the Pacific coast. The Russian American Company made little profit as sea otters had been decimated and agriculture was not successful enough.

A new commander arrived in 1836 at Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev, together with his wife born Princess Elena Pavlovna Gagarina and their three children. The new commander tried to improve the situation but in 1840 was finally commissioned to sell all the settlements of the Russian American Company in California. Mexico had not the money. The Hudson Bay Company was not interested. In 1841 John Sutter, from Fort Sutter (now Sacramento) bought the settlements for $30,000. That included the fort, the houses, the cannons, the shipyard in Bodega bay, the cattle (more than 2,000), the crops, etc…

The Russians, together with the families they had built, mostly with native women, around one hundred altogether, left Fort Ross and sailed to Alaska in December 1841. That was the beginning of the end of Russian America. The actual end was in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the USA for 7.2 million dollars (7 millions for the Russian government and 200,000 for the Russian American Company).

Fort Ross, now a State Historic Park is the only testimony of what was once Russian America. The other testimonies are in the Kuntskamera, St. Petersburg Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Besides that, a Rock Opera was performed in Moscow in the 80s, based on the love affair between Count Rezanov and the beautiful María Concepción.

There are plenty of websites dedicated to Fort Ross. I will mention those that I have found the most interesting.
Fort Ross State Historic Park is the official Fort Ross website and offers a wealth of detailed information. I will point out especially the Cultural History and Chronolgy.

Fort Ross Interpretive Association (FRIA) “is dedicated to the preservation, research, and interpretation of the cultural and natural history at Fort Ross”

  • Intro Updated Mar 18, 2009
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Reviews (12)

Comments (14)

  • Yaqui's Profile Photo
    Oct 25, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    Howdy Jean-Louis! I'm going to see this place someday. Thanks for the lovely tips! It helps with planning. Nice page!

  • Segolily's Profile Photo
    Jan 27, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    My friend thoroughly enjoyed her recent 3 day visit as a parent helper with her son's school class as they pretended to be original settlers. It was a great hands-on learning experience. I have yet to get there though it has been on the menu for years.

  • travelgourmet's Profile Photo
    Sep 7, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    Jean-Louis. Thanks for the info on Fort Ross. Great tips. "Bikini" is a derivation of "Pikinni" of ancient times, Eschscholtz by Russians in 1800's, Bikini from 1946, named after Bikini bathing suit.

  • TheWanderingCamel's Profile Photo
    Aug 30, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    We were lucky enough to have sunshine all the way when we drove the coast road north from SF to Eureka. Thanks for telling the tale of the doomed lovers. leyle

  • Beausoleil's Profile Photo
    Jun 15, 2009 at 9:53 PM

    Wonderful history on our favorite picnic spot on the California coast. When it gets hot at home, we head to Fort Ross. Great Pages!

  • Bwana_Brown's Profile Photo
    May 13, 2009 at 11:27 AM

    Another great page Jean-Louis! I knew the Russians had sold Alaska but never realized they had settlements in California! Your Pacific coast views at Fort Ross really do look rugged, beautiful and dangerous.

  • SteveOSF's Profile Photo
    May 4, 2009 at 4:50 PM

    Even though I visit Sonoma County often, I have only been to Ft. Ross once. I did not relaize that the chapel was an original builing. You created a nice page on this out of the way spot on the coast loaded with great historical information.

  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo
    May 4, 2009 at 3:16 PM

    This compliments the rest of the area you visited, and better

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Apr 23, 2009 at 10:52 PM

    This is indeed a very much fascinating and maybe rather unknown part of history! I love your intro description and the coast looks pretty rough :-))

  • Basaic's Profile Photo
    Apr 4, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    Great introduction to a little known piece of history and to Naked Ladies.


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