Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Russia in America

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Yeah the interesting thing about it is that at least four countries at that time were trying to establish a presence in California. The push west was encouraged so much because the powers in Washington knew that a critical mass of settlers would win the day, not military posturing, and they were right.

  2. I had no idea about this part of your country’s history.

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: