Author’s Note: This article “The Russian Incursion into California: Fort Ross” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
There was a time in California when Russia might have played a larger role in the state’s history. In its quest for furs, the Russians established a North American beachhead at Sitka, Alaska, at the dawn of the 19th century.
But Sitka was too far north to grow vegetables and wheat. So Russian explorers ventured by boat to California. There they planned to harvest sea otters and farm arable land. They chose Fort Ross. However the Russians misjudged the location of their settlement, which was still too far north. If they had built a few miles closer to San Francisco Bay, they would have had more opportune farming.
The Historic Story
The Russian colonial incursion into California occurred at what is now called Fort Ross State Historic Park. The park sits on Highway 1, north of Jenner. Details: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=449, 707/847-3286.
The Russians established Fort Ross in 1812. The landing party consisted of 25 Russians and 80 Alaskan natives. They manned the outpost until 1841. At that time they sold the property to John Sutter of Sacramento. He transported whatever was valuable and portable to his inland Sutter’s Fort. None of the original Fort Ross buildings survived. However, you can see today a superb reconstruction. The present site includes the first Russian Orthodox chapel south of Alaska and the stockade. In addition you can see a replica of the Commander’s House. It contains exhibits on the Russian-American Company and the Russian occupation.
Be sure to allow time to enjoy this Russian settlement. It is a gem of historic reconstruction and interpretation.
Before the Russians arrived, the site was a village of the Kashaya Pomo Indians. According to one account, the Russians purchased the land from the Indians for “three blankets, three pair of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads.” At the time of settlement, Spain, France, and Great Britain were so involved in various wars that no one made an effort to challenge the Russians.
The Russian settlers built the structures of oak and fir. They used joinery techniques common in maritime carpentry of the period. A wood palisade surrounded the site, as it appears today. The fort had two blockhouses, complete with cannons. The stockade contained houses for the commander and officers. In addition there was a barracks for the employees, and various storehouses. The chapel was built in 1824.
In the first years the settlers focused on hunting for sea otters. The pelts were extremely valuable in the China trade. Kodiak Islanders from Alaska did most of the hunting. They used bidarkas (hunting kayaks) and atlatls (throwing sticks with darts).
By the 1820s hunting was depleting the otters, so agriculture and stock raising became more important. However, the coastal fog and rodent attacks on crops limited the agricultural success. Moreover, the Russian men saw themselves primarily as hunters. By the 1830s the venture was becoming unprofitable and the Russians were ready to sell to the highest bidder.
Fort Ross Cove
Below the fort is Fort Ross Cove, the original sandy beach where the fur-gathering Russians landed and constructed ships. This beach, complete with a meandering stream, is a seldom-appreciated aspect of the impressive Fort Ross restoration. The Russians actually built four ships on this sandy beach between 1816 and 1824, using redwood and Douglas fir from the forests in the hills.
In 1873 the land was acquired by George W. Call, who organized the 15,000-acre Call Ranch. A wharf was built and a 180-foot chute was constructed from a bluff to slide lumber and bulk cargo onto ships anchored in the cove. Lumber, dairy, vegetables, and fruit were shipped out to the ready market in San Francisco.
The fastest way to get to Fort Ross from San Francisco is to journey north to Santa Rosa on Highway 101, then west on Highways 12 and 116 to the coast at Jenner. Fort Ross is 11 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1.
Be Sure to See
Fort Ross itself is the icon on which to focus your time. A day could be absorbed in enjoying the many re-creations here, including a sealskin kayak such as the Alaskans in the Russians’ employ used to harvest the sea otters.
Best Time of Year
Fort Ross is a viable outing any day of the year, but the Fort Ross Festival celebration on the final weekend of July would be a good time to visit. As many as 150 costumed participants gather, including some from Russia. Sometimes, tall ships from various California ports come to the Fort Ross beach and fire their cannons in salute, with the Fort firing back. Folkloric song and dance of the Russian period is re-created.
Fort Ross Lodge emphasizes a coastal environment with panoramic views. Some units have fireplaces and hot tubs. Fort Ross Lodge is at 20706 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, CA 95450, www.fortrosslodge.com, 707-847-3333.
For a commanding view overlooking the Russian River, magnificent at sunset, the place to dine in this area is River’s End Restaurant & Inn, 11048 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, https://www.ilovesunsets.com/, 707-865-2484. Try the local seafood specialties.
For Further Information
Fort Ross State Historic Park is on Highway 1, 11 miles north of Jenner, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=449, 707/847-3286.
Another resource is Sonoma County Tourism, Santa Rosa, www.sonomacounty.com, 707/522-5800 or 800/576-6662.