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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.