The Russian chapel at historic Fort Ross on the California Coast
The Russian chapel at historic Fort Ross on the California Coast
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Authors Note: The title of this article, “Dealing With My Coronavirus Adversity: The Strength I Gain From Three Historic Californians” could be more elaborate. The full concept might be stated as “Dealing With My Coronavirus Adversity: The Strength I Gain From Knowing How Three Great Historic Californians Struggled With the Adversity of Their Time.”

By Lee Foster

A sense of profound adversity washes over me and many others in 2020 as we work through the coronavirus crisis here in California and around the world. There is a sense that our entire way of life is under grave threat and will change.

I draw strength in dealing with my adversity from studying three great leaders in California history. Often, I think about all the challenges of their times. I will return in the future to meditate at their sites regarding their responses to their own adversity. After this medical crisis ends, I will travel around California once again and report on the travel experience at their locations.

My adversity heroes are Junipero Serra at his Carmel Mission, Manager Alexander Rotchev at his Russian Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast, and John Sutter at his Sutter’s Fort in east Sacramento.

Junipero Serra at His Carmel Mission

I appreciate how Junipero Serra dealt with the extreme adversity of travel in his time. He was capable of enduring major deprivation. He also managed despite a foot/leg infection that plagued him throughout his time in the New World. 

Junipero Serra was a respected professor of philosophy at a Franciscan college in Mallorca by age 30. But he had a desire to go to the New World to baptize the natives and extend the power of Spain. The Spanish king accommodated his wish. When he arrived in Mexico at Veracruz, Serra walked all the way from the ocean to Mexico City. Along the way, he caught a foot and leg infection that would cause him suffering for the rest of his life. He wrote that he thought it was from a mosquito bite.

After Serra spent years in Mexico City and at various central Mexico missions, he was sent to manage the abandoned Jesuit Missions in Baja. From Loreto he was granted his life wish—to journey north to California and attempt to convert the natives who knew nothing of Christianity. He embarked on the 800-mile trek north from Loreto in Baja to San Diego in California. There he founded the first California Mission.

Starvation and Health Adversity

Life was never easy for Serra. His overland group leaving Loreto for San Diego nearly starved. His foot/leg infection kicked up and he had to be carried on a stretcher part way. A Spanish supply ship missed San Diego initially, but circled back, with many sailors dying of scurvy. The local natives in San Diego attacked his group and slew his assistant with an arrow through the head. The assistant bled to death in Serra’s arms.

Eventually, Serra took a small Spanish galleon north from San Diego to Monterey Bay, where he founded the Carmel Mission in 1770. Throughout his life, his ability to endure deprivation was legendary. Think of what travel was for him, compared to our day. For example, when he headed north from Loreto to San Diego, all he had for provisions was some bread and cheese.

Serra was able to endure extreme hardship in travel and daily life. In his world there was no assurance that he would find food or meet indigenous people who would welcome him. He also had no GPS, relying on sketchy reports and his own instincts. He traveled often along river courses or ocean shorelines.

Old Age Adversity

Serra was already 57 years old when he founded the Carmel Mission in 1770. That was old age in his era. He had 14 years remaining before he died on a simple bed, three boards and a blanket, in 1784. Serra chose a fertile and congenial site for the mission, five miles south of the Monterey Presidio, the military installation in the Spanish colonial system. Carmel was the second of the 21 missions that Franciscans founded in California from 1769 to 1821.

To survive and report back that he had accomplished anything with his life, Serra had to be a skilled diplomat, agriculturalist, and linguist. One wonders if he ever had doubts as to his Faith, and whether the task of saving the souls of indigenous people and expanding the Spanish empire was worth it. It took him six months to make his first native convert at San Diego before he moved north to Carmel.

One wonders if Serra ever cursed the decision of Spain’s King Carlos III, who decided in 1768 to send missionaries to California. Carlos hoped to thwart the ambitions of Russia in this remote territory.

Controversy will always surround Serra’s legacy, concerning his treatment of the native people. Despite that, there is agreement that he was a gifted agriculturalist. He inaugurated the vegetable, fruit, and cattle industries for which the state of California is now famous. Serra planted the first grapes in California at the San Diego Mission.

Junipero Serra's California Mission at Carmel
Junipero Serra’s California Mission at Carmel

Manager Alexander Rotchev at Russian Fort Ross 

I appreciate how Manager Alexander Rotchev dealt with the adversity of his situation. The Russian Fort Ross grand experiment was failing. He was in charge in the final years, as Manager 1838-1841. By all accounts, he was highly competent and cultured. But the entire enterprise, based on the profit from sea otter furs and agriculture, was doomed. Rotchev presided over the liquidation in 1841.

Manager Rotchev was the CEO as Russia realized it would not succeed in the grand vision to colonize what is now the California coast of North America. I suspect he experienced some dark days in his spirit in the final years. His struggle with adversity was that he had to admit to himself and his colleagues the failure of a great undertaking.

Russia established its beachhead settlement in Sitka, Alaska, in 1808, in search of furs. But agricultural crops could not flourish in the extreme Alaska weather. Farming and livestock raising, plus further fur harvest, had to occur farther south in California because of the climate issue and the depletion of sea otters. 

Failed Agriculture Adversity

Rotchev may have wondered about the wisdom of an earlier Manager, who had chosen this spot on the Sonoma Coast for Fort Ross in 1812. The original landing party consisted of 25 Russians and 80 Alaskan natives. However, the soil around Fort Ross proved to be thin and not particularly fertile. Coastal fog was not ideal for growing oats and wheat. Even Rotchev’s valiant efforts to establish farms farther south and inland in the final years proved insufficient.

Perhaps Rotchev speculated that the first Manager, Ivan Kuskov, also a highly competent executive, should have settled a few miles to the south. Maybe Rotchev cursed the plague of mice that destroyed the crops one year. Maybe he wished that more of his Russian comrades saw themselves as farmers.

The original rationale for the Russians coming to Alaska and then California was the fur trade, especially for sea otter furs, but also fur seals. Sea otters provided some on the most desirable furs in the world. They had evolved to support their 103-degree temperatures in 55-degree ocean waters by developing a fur of unsurpassed fineness and density.

Failure of the Sea Otter Fur Enterprise

Already by 1820 the sea otters were beginning to be depleted around Fort Ross, as they had been hunted to unprofitable low numbers around Sitka. Skilled Aleut Alaskan hunters, employed by the Russians, launched their nimble sea-lion-skin kayaks to slay the sea otters with atlatl spears. Eventually, the hunters had to proceed from Fort Ross all the way south to the Farallon Islands to catch enough sea otters for the China and Europe trade. The undertaking needed to be profitable or it would collapse.

Possibly Manager Rotchev was occasionally discouraged by the conceptual organization of his enterprise. His venture was the Russian American Company, owned by its shareholders, which included the Tsar. If he couldn’t turn a profit, the entire operation would be pulled back.

Perhaps he envied the advantages of the Spanish, to the South in San Francisco Bay. The Spanish had both the fervor to baptize the natives and the desire to set up a permanent colonial outpost. Rotchev’s people had built at Fort Ross the first Russian Orthodox chapel south of Alaska, plus an elaborate stockade. However, the church was for the Russians. Any desire to proselytize the local Kashaya Pomo natives was limited.

Political and Economic Change Adversity

Also, politics and commerce were not trending favorably for Fort Ross during Rotchev’s time of responsibility. After a good relationship with the Spanish, the Russians found the Mexicans, upon gaining their independence from Spain, made more demands. The Mexicans taxed ships anchored in San Francisco Bay. Trade was becoming more competitive, with prices falling, due to the supply of manufactured goods from British and New England ships.

More Americans and Mexicans were streaming into the Russian territory, as Mariano Vallejo expanded north from his base in Sonoma. Manager Rotchev might have finessed some agreements, but the Tsar was suspicious of and did not approve of any treaties that brought into question Russia’s absolute ownership of the land.

In wistful moments Manager Rotchev may have walked down to the beach from this Manager’s House within the stockade. Maybe he walked down to enjoy a sunset and contemplate what had been accomplished on this remote beach. The Russians had built four ships here from the redwood and Douglas fir trees in the hills above the Fort. Russia had assembled some of the finest carpenters and craftsmen of the era.

Finding a Buyer

At least, Manager Rotchev could comfort himself on one matter. He had been clever enough to find a buyer for all the movable assets at Fort Ross. He sold everything to a new entrepreneur in California, a Swiss man named John Sutter. Sutter had an inland enterprise called Sutter’s Fort, at Sacramento. Sutter’s representative came to buy and offered $30,000, payable in installments. This would show to Rotchev’s credit on the annual balance sheets.

The Russian chapel at historic Fort Ross on the California Coast
The Russian chapel at historic Fort Ross on the California Coast

John Sutter of Sutter’s Fort 

I appreciate how John Sutter dealt with the adversity of his accidental destruction. He had worked hard to create an agricultural empire at the inland California site of Sacramento. But he was wiped out by a totally unexpected event. It was as if an asteroid had destroyed his world. 

John Sutter’s experience of adversity was a reminder that something totally unexpected can destroy us. The event might be totally unpredictable. Sutter, a Swiss entrepreneur, had the most accurate and profound vision for a thriving California, based in the agricultural lands around Sacramento.

He championed a secular dream unlike Serra’s theological vision. Sutter based his hope for an agricultural utopia in California on diversified crops and livestock, rather than Manager Rotchev’s chancy supply of sea otter furs. Sutter’s idea of a prosperous California based on abundant agricultural wealth did prevail. A cornucopian future proceeded, but an accident of history wiped Sutter out. Moreover, he caused the accident himself.

Destroyed by the Gold Rush

That accident was the Gold Rush. John Sutter’s prototype settlement, which you can see today as a state historic park, included craftsmen from the East Coast and Europe. This meant wheelwrights, leather workers, coopers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. They each had a room at his Fort where they practiced their craft. Sutter and all the folks associated with him prospered. His livestock multiplied. His fields grew plentiful. California presented him with some of the most fertile soil on the planet.

The formal details are as follows: After arrival in 1839, Johann Augustus Sutter received a 48,000-acre land grant from the Mexican Governor Alvarado. Mexico was then in charge of California. On this land in East Sacramento, Sutter built a whitewashed Fort. He named it New Helvetia after the Latin word for his native Switzerland.

Destroyed by Gold Discovered at His Own Sawmill

Of course, one material the enterprise needed was lumber. Sutter developed a saw mill at Coloma on the American River in partnership with one James Marshall. Marshall ran his sawed boards down a water chute at the mill known as a millrace. He noticed, on January 24, 1848, that some small rocks gathered with the dirt and debris in the millrace. The small rocks seemed heavy. They had a golden cast. Could they be gold? He sent some rock samples to Sutter, who performed tests on them. Yes, they were gold! Sutter tried to suppress the news, but the news was too good to keep quiet.

What happened in the next years devastated John Sutter. Thousands of energetic young men arrived in San Francisco to seek their fortune in the foothills of the Sierra, east of Sacramento. They were often well-educated and well-funded, being the second sons in wealthy families. Only the eldest son could inherit the farm. After arriving by ship and jumping ship, along with the crew, they allowed the ships to rot in San Francisco harbor.

Adversity of the Hungry Horde Eating His Livestock and Crops

They took riverboats up to Sacramento and got off at what is now Old Sacramento. Maybe they bought a pick, shovel, and gold mining pan from a wily hardware merchant named Leland Stanford. Finally, they marched east to the Gold Country, passing Sutter’s Fort. There was no law and no order. The hungry horde with dreams of golden wealth slaughtered and ate all of Sutter’s livestock. They consumed all of his crops. They destroyed Sutter. By 1852 he was bankrupt.

John Sutter spent the rest of his life trying to comprehend what happened. He begged Congress for a bailout bill, asserting his contribution to the development of California. Despite 15 years of petitioning Congress, he got nothing. The State of California gave him a $250/month pension.

Possibly he dwelt often on the irony that he destroyed himself. His own sawmill operation discovered the gold. He caused himself to be overrun. Of course, his dream of California agricultural wealth proceeded, with the development of The Delta and the Central Valley. The terrain offered some of the most fertile farmlands on earth. But Sutter was not part of the dream.

John Sutter's Fort at Sacramento, California
John Sutter’s historic Fort, called Sutter’s Fort, in Sacramento, California

In Conclusion 

The Coronavirus challenge we now face calls on each of us to react to adversity with imagination and with considerable practical skill, as individuals and as a society. These three heroes in California history faced obstacles of a similar magnitude. Major challenges are an expectable aspect of the human condition. Our response may be the only factor under our control. I gain strength from the struggles of these three great Californians. Consequently, I will appreciate these three leaders even more when I return in the future to visit the places they made famous. 

If You Go 

When travel returns in California after the Coronavirus crisis, you can meet the spirits of these remarkable men on your own adventures to their sites.

Junipero Serra’s Mission is in Carmel, California. Details at https://carmelmission.org/ and in my article on Serra at https://www.fostertravel.com/junipero-serras-california-missions-starting-from-carmel/.

Manager Alexander Rotchev’s Russian Fort Ross is on the Sonoma Coast. Details at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=449 and in my article on Fort Ross at https://www.fostertravel.com/the-russian-incursion-into-california-fort-ross/.

John Sutter’s Fort is in east Sacramento. Details at https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485 and in my article on John Sutter at https://www.fostertravel.com/california-dream-of-agricultural-wealth-john-sutters-vision/.

Lee Foster is an award-winning travel journalist living in Berkeley. The three sites associated with these leaders are trips in Lee’s latest travel guidebook/ebook, Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Lee’s ongoing reportage on travel, especially now on California, can be seen on his website at www.fostertravel.com.

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