In the early 1800s Russia was seeking further expansion. This expansion wasn’t particularly for great wealth, promoting religion or discovering new territories but rather was an expedition primarily focused on finding a new, reliable food source and to acquire furs for the Russian claims along the American Pacific coast. While the entirety of Alaska isn’t nearly as frigid and unforgiving as is often portrayed, neither is it as bountiful as other competing colonies that existed in the Americas. For this reason, Russia had sought further expansion to the south, in modern-day northern California.
While the Spaniards had California largely sealed up due to various claims, even though they couldn’t always enforce them, the Russians were able to discover a place for themselves. Although throughout the Pacific Northwest there would initially be a language barrier. The Spanish hadn’t developed a strong enough presence and so the Spanish language hadn’t established a foothold, nor the English in the north, the Americans in the west and the Russians, in comparison, were relative newcomers and sparsely populated along the Alaskan coast. Instead, the main language, or the language for trade as English is today and French was a few hundred years ago, was Chinook Jargon.1 This seems to be the agreed upon language in which to conduct all local trade.
Ivan Kuskov was one of the first to have established a relationship and an agreement on land rights with the local Indian chief, Valenila, of the Olamentko tribe.2 A proclomation was sent off to Spain which wasn’t received until years later in 1812 but meanwhile, Kuskov began constructing temporary buildings in the newly established area in what is now known as Campbell Cove. Officially, the Russians claimed they established the foothold as a base of exploration but food was a much more important reason as was hunting otter. An additional note from the Spanish claimed that the Russians were largely outnumbered by the native Alaskans they brought along; according to their numbers, there were only 40 Russians but 130 Aleut men and 20 Aleut women who traveled along the expedition.3
By 1811 Kuskov wanted a stronger, more secure site. Eventually he decided upon where Fort Ross (Ross another word for Russia although Fort Ross was usually referred to at the time as Slavlansk or Slaviano-Ross4) would be permanently settled due to its quality of soil, timber and available water supply.5 While there are disputes on the exact day and month Fort Ross had been claimed, the official day for the Russian flag raising event using a full-sized ship’s mast in the center and raised the flag over Fort Ross on 30 August 1812.6 The initial years proved to be expensive at a rough cost of 54,000 rubles at the time with about 40% of those costs relating to military expenses, 30% for tools and construction and other goods consuming the rest. Bells and an organ apparently consumed 2% of the entire budget.7
The tribe nearest to the new Fort Ross construction were the Kashia who welcomed the Russians as they feared the Spanish. Likewise there were also the Pomo who helped the Russians (by this time and in this location there were an assumed 95 Russians and 80 Aleuts) build a new redwood fort.8 But 1812 proved to be a year in which the new fort would be on its own as Napoleon was in Russia and the requested goods could not be counted on to arrive; these troubles were compounded because the Spanish stubbornly refused to trade, seemingly wishing to starve the Russians out of their new claim. And this was further troubled because the United States was involved against a war with Britain, the War of 1812. The new colony was truly a world unto itself. But the new fort had expected the need to be self-sufficient, at least at first, as a food station was established on the Farralone islands where roughly 30 Russians and Kodiak Indians (not including their families) were sent to collect sea lion and sea gull meat, along with their eggs, and to hunt for furs. The Russians and the natives lived in an ancient time in stone homes and used every part of the animals such as the sea lion bladders for water sacks.9
While the Spanish were content, for the moment, to attempt to starve out the Russians, this didn’t mean that they grew accustomed to their new neighbors. By 1815 the Spanish under the guidance of the Spanish governor Pablo Sola grew irate and sent an invasion force to rid the Russians from Fort Ross. However, upon arrival, the Spanish had found they were outnumbered, outgunned and faced an incredible wall. And rather than encourage a fight, Kuskov gave the Spanish and option: To enter the fort and be served dinner, or to die just outside the gates.10 The Spaniards chose dinner. But Sola, although momentarily humbled, responded with pettiness by arresting every possible Russian or Aleut hunter found in Monterey.11 Knowing they were on thin ground, and that they didn’t have near the reserves that the Spanish had, Kuskov sought to try to follow Spanish laws, maintain good relationships and sought to develop a Spanish-Russian contract system.12 Four years would pass before Yakov Podushkin in 1817 was able to gain the release of the Monterey prisoners.13
Continuing to advance their claims and to make it as legal as possible, Captain A. Hagmeister was sent to Fort Ross with a document stating the cesession of land since 1812 which several Pomo chiefs signed. In addition, the chiefs added the note that, “…with the occupation of the place by the Russians… [allowed the Pomo to] live in security from other indians.”14 And while it doesn’t seem to be directly added, it can be safely assumed they were protected from possible Spanish incursions as well.
Fort Ross’ demographics were beginning to change. While citing the Spanish numbers earlier, they’re a rough gauge to use for the time. However, in June 1820 Kuskov tallied the adult male population at 23 Russians, 3 yakuts, 5 Creoles and over 100 Aleuts, Kaodiaks and other Alaskan natives. By 1821 six Hawaiians and Idnaisn were added to the adult working males.After adding the population of women and children, the total population rested at 273, including 54 children under 16.15
While the relationships with the various tribes seemed to be going well, after Fort Ross had become a more permanent structure, the tribes, Kuskov noted that, “they appeared very seldom, especially the men.” And Fyodor Luetke reported after visiting a Miwok village in 1818 mentioned the indifference among the tribe toward anything Russian.16 While the Indians seemed to be happy toward the Russians initially, as it created some tribal peace and somewhat protected them against the Spanish, their relationships still led them to maintain their reservations.
Furthermore, Fort Ross was not proving to be a success with the Russian state. While food was important, it was also important that profit come from the new claim. During his first trip, Kuskov snagged over 2300 sea-otter pelts in 1808, however, in 1818, that annual number hit an all time low of 13.17 The relationship with the Spanish was also being harmed due to the existence of Fort Ross and it had been considered, especially after administrative changes in the North American colonies, that Fort Ross may be evacuated at some point.
By 1821 Karl Von Schmidt became the new commandant over the fort. One of his first actions was to extend agriculture production in the region which would be enough to export excess product to Alaska. Likewise the Russians continued to live off of the land as much as possible. Combs and lanterns were made from sheep and oxen horns and the Russians even constructed several bells for California Missions as gifts to the Spanish.18
It will be noted as well that the Russiasn under Kuskov didn’t merely observe the decline but he had attempted to fix the problem. As early as 1816 Kuskov took the recommendation from Baranov to establish a shipyard after noting the close proximity to the forests surrounding the fort. However, the collected effort of this shipyard was able to muster only seven sailing vessels over eleven years and was completely scrapped in 1827.19 Some of this was due to the climate of the area combined with the ignorance of the Russians in how to prepare the wood and how wet the region was year round which caused the wood to rot quicker and so, the ships only lasted roughly five years after their construction. The ships also happened to be more expensive for the people of Fort Ross to build considering the time it took to transport the timber and it was ultimately cheaper to buy similar ships from the Americans.20 This is noteworthy because if the Russians had been trained or had learned how to adapt to their environment and to use the wood properly, the fate of Fort Ross, at least considering it as a shipyard, even a temporary one, may have been enough for the claim to find success. A report on how the wood was treated is best noted from a report in October 1822 which stated that in 1821 in the summer the wood “… had been left outside northwest of the fort had rotted, and the ship-wright said it could no longer be used.”21 Thus, the ships rotted earlier because the wood to build them wasn’t cared for which would likely translate to other failures within the ships, and along with it, the colony.
The agricultural issues, however, continue to cause problems within Fort Ross. As with the shipyard, agriculture was attended to in the same lazy, incompetent way. Reporting from Fort Ross, Fleet Captain-Lieutenant Cavalier Leontii A. Hagermeister reported on 1 February 1818, “Concerning the agriculture, I am obliged to destroy the agreeable idea which, judging by the quality of the climate has been formed and cosoled [sic] in the distance. The first inconquerable [sic] impediment at the present time consists in not having sufficient hands. The workmen sent from Sitkha, excluding a few, are the worst of the worst, not accustomed in Russia to work or labor,… the Aleutians for this kind of work are also un-qualified, and constant and long examples are necessary to incline them to these new occupations…”22
While the lack of a work ethic was the fault of the leadership at Fort Ross along with the workers themselves, there was also something quite different in the area compared to their homes, whether Europe or Alaska. As noted by Goldstein and Brinkman, “…the people who came here initially were not well versed in agricultural techniques, so they did not know how to adapt to deal with the soil conditions. The native people of the region (in particular, the Kashaya Pomo) tend not to live along the coast, using the coast primarily for resource procurement. Instead, they made their settlements well inland, away from the wind, fog, and inhospitable soils.”23 Naturally the area was chosen for the furs which the Russians had sought and because it was a suitable area for possible expansion, however, one point where the Russians are not at fault considering the knowledge at the time, is not knowing that the soil wasn’t particularly conducive to what the Russians had wanted to use it for since Fort Ross was attempting to grow in areas where there were steep slopes which resulted in high erosion and thus, soil bearing low nutrients.24 While Fort Ross could have had a meaningful shipyard if the Russians had applied themselves, and thus, it may have saved itself from the abysmal fur numbers in 1818, the failed agricultural attempts cannot be laid completely at the feet of the leaders at Fort Ross.
The Russians, as their stereotype portrays however, are prone to bash themselves against the problem until it is resolved. By 1826 Fort Ross was finally able to export its agriculture and livestock north to the colonies in the Pacific. However, it was a far cry from what the Russians had originally sought. Still, they were able to build other products of quality such as leather works, iron products and pine resin as the Fort drifted away from making furs its primary export.25
Fort Ross continued to lumber along in the ensuing years. The fall of the Spanish empire did change the relationship the Russians had with the neighboring Spaniards but only slightly. By 1832 the California governor still warned Hispanic settlements to remain vigilant against the Russians however, in 1833 General Alferes Vallejo who was a commandant in the Sonoma Frontier, had arrived at Fort Ross with a letter for goodwill if the Russian empire would recognize the Mexican Republic.26 The Commandant also left the fort after purchasing a number of guns.
By 1841 the Russians had recognized the limitations of Fort Ross. The American expansion westward and the lack of success in the Americans had encouraged the Russians to begin selling Fort Ross. The improvements, although not the land, were sold to John Sutter for $30,000 which were to be paid in installments. $5,000 was to be paid each year for two years followed by $10,000 in cash for the third and fourth years.27 The following months saw most of the population leaving Fort Ross for Alaska.
Before completely leaving, the Russians had managed to fail at one last task: collecting payment from Sutter. While Sutter did pay the Russians, he used one of his employees to create a new contract and backdate it before the original was signed. Sutter also had designs to become King of California who sought to use “baptized” indians to kill ranchers which would then allow Sutter to steal the dead rancher’s lands.28 Sutter’s plans, however, were too obvious and the Mexican government quickly put an end to it. Sutter was stripped of his land, and later, fort Ross, and it was given to Manuel Torres. Benitz bought the land grant and due to its close proximity to San Francisco and the oncoming gold rush, managed to do very well for himself. Although the Kashia indians were finally outside the protection of the Russians and were left on their own. They were severely mistreated and called him the, “man with the big black whip.”29
If we reflect upon Fort Ross and its founding, we can see that no matter how great the land would have been, that it would have been mistreated. While their interactions with the indians were agreeable, it may have only been that way due to their sparse population and because the natives had feared the Hispanics. Although, the presence of the Russians at Fort Ross was good for indian relations even between fellow natives as it prevented some conflicts from starting that may have otherwise occurred. However, the lazy approach to shipbuilding and forcing agriculture on an area where it wasn’t nearly as bountiful should’ve been enough to tell the Russians that they ought to change either their way of doing things, or their location.
Today Fort Ross is a California State Historical Park and designated a National Historic Landmark. The Kashia Pomo are still located around the community. If nothing else, Fort Ross at least became an interesting point in Californian history about the Russian attempt to colonize the Americas.
1 Farris, Glenn J. p 477
2 Illyin, Marina D. p 7
3 ibid. p 7
4 ibid. p 11
5 ibid. p 9
6 Watrous, Stephen p 14
7 ibid. pp 15-6
8 Illyin, Marina D. p 10
9 ibid. p. 11-2
10 ibid. p 13
11 ibid. p 13
12 ibid. 13
13 ibid. p 15
14 ibid. p 15
15 Watrous, Stephen pp 16-7
16 ibid. p 22
17 ibid. 25
18 Illyin, Marina D. p 20
19 Allan, James M p 52
20 ibid. p 56-7
21 ibid. p 57
22 ibid. p 52
23 Goldstein, Lynne, and Robert A. Brinkman p 5
24 ibid. p 6
25 Allan, James M p 52
26 Illyin, Marina D. pp 20-1
27 ibid. p 24
28 ibid. p 24
29 ibid. p 25
Allan, James M. “Searching for California’s First Shipyard: Remote Sensing Surveys at Fort Ross.” Index of /ANTHPUBS/UCB/Text, https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/anthpubs/ucb/text/kas081-005.pdf.
Farris, Glenn J. “Recognizing Indian Folk History as Real History: A Fort Ross Example.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, 1989, pp. 471–80. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1184529. Accessed 21 Jun. 2022.
Goldstein, Lynne, and Robert A. Brinkman. The Context of the Cemetery at Fort Ross: Multiple Lines of Evidence, Multiple Research Questions. https://holyassumptionmonastery.com/files/Retreats/20200627_StPeterAleut_WellmanNavarro/20200627_DrLynne-Goldstein-cemeteryreport.pdf.
Illyin, Marina D. “The History of Fort Ross – Fort Ross, California.” Https://Www.fortross.org/Lib/137/the-History-of-Fort-Ross.pdf, https://www.fortross.org/lib/137/the-history-of-fort-ross.pdf.
Watrous, Stephen. Ivan Kuskov and the Founding of Fort Ross. https://www.fortross.org/lib/40/d645920e395fedad7bbbed0eca3fe2e0/ivan-kuskov-and-the-founding-of-fort-ross.pdf.