When The Russians Landed
Ellie S. Thomas
© Copyright 2011 by Ellie S. Thomas
In 1741 the Bering Expedition returned home from Alaska with nine hundred sea otter pelts which were greatly prized for their warmth. They told of the bear, lynx, wolves, whales, sturgeon, eagles, hawks, ducks and loons; otters, whales and seal lions that were so plentiful that there was a lucrative trading enterprise just waiting to be exploited. And did they ever!
The Russians emptied Siberian jails and shanghied peasants whom they brought to the New World to hunt and over forty posts were established as far north as the Yukon. The Aleuts became indispensible to the Russians and entire villages were enslaved to provide otter skins and the unhappy people were beaten and killed , the women molested, until the excesses reached the ears of the Czar and he chartered the Russian-American Company to regulate the trade.
By 1797 competitors moved in on the Russian-American Company, and the fur traders trapped and killed until the animals were almost extinct; leaving the colonies faced with starvation. The herds of seals and otters dwindled to small, far-reaching colonies and then the whaling ships began on the whales. Fort Saint Dionysius was built in hopes of resisting the Hudson Bay Company's incursions but it was hard to police the vast, frozen area effectively.
Alex Baranov was governor of the small Russian capital of Sitka, Alaska from 1799-1818. Sitka was already over 150 years old. Its old Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Michael could be seen from far out to sea and it was a landmark for many years.
In 1808 Governor Baranov decided to send Ivan A. Kuskov to explore the area to the south and the explorers made Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay) their base of operations. The Chirikov landed a party of fur traders and Aleut hunters there in 1812 under Kuskov and they began building a fortress in northern California that would become the first Russian colony in the United States.
The Indians gave up 1000 acres to the Russian-American Fur Company in exchange for three blankets, two axes, and a bunch of beads and Fort Ross was built and garrisoned before the Americans ever found out it existed.
'Krepost' Ross, the latter an archaic name for Russia, was built on a high plateau a hundred feet above the surf...it boasted a chapel with two mis-matched towers, a double cross, and an ornate altar. There were two block houses and an officer's quarters, an arsenal, and a warehouse. It stood behind a fourteen foot stockade built of California redwood.
By 1822 there was a smithy, forge, tannery, and a bathhouse and many acres under cultivation. A Russian visitor wrote, ' The inhabitants of Fort Ross live in the greatest accord witrh the Indians who work as day-laborers for day wages. They willingly give their daughters in marriage to the Russians and Aleuts and ties of relationship have arisen which strengthen the good understanding-'
The Sonoma Valley was a wonderful region of good soil, sparkling water, and green pastures and by 1817, they'd brought the first grapevines from Peru and set out the first fruit trees in the inner valleys; conversely, they'd nearly decimated the fur-bearing animals in the coastal waters so now, they turned to ship- building. They began the first shipyard in California and some fifty ships a year made use of the only facilities north of Hawaii.
The major commodity was lumber from mills at Fort Ross but the inhabitants could also provision in-coming ships, to some extent, with fresh water, fish and foods from the warm soil; however, they could not produce enough to support the population and provision, too, thus it was doubly important that they had someone to trade with...
Nicolai Resanov, chamberlain to the Czar, sailed south ignoring the Spanish embargo on trade and landed at the embarcadero to seek help for the starving Russian settlers at Sitka. He fell in love with the daughter of the Commandant at the Presidio and the connections with her family allowed him to establish a thriving business between the Russian colonists and the farming community... They exchanged tobacco, sugar, kitchen utensils, iron, cloth and wax candles for grain, peas, meat, tallow, flour, and hides.
The Russians undoubtedly enjoyed great benefits from their contact with the Americans but before long it was quid pro quo. The fur trade had all but disappeared by 1813, Napoleon had invaded Russia, and Britain was on the Russian side.
Thanks to Napoleon, the Russians had gained strength in the Pacific and were friendly with King Kamehameha. They could provision, rest, and exchange Chinese silks in Hawaiian ports. Many ships carried guns and liquor north to the natives on the Pacific coast and fruits to the settlers. They took lumber, pelts, fish, grains, and meat back. But once Britain joined Russia against Napoleon, and her armies were busy on the eastern coast against the colonists, few American captains dared to leave the safety of neutral ports.
Baranov was prone to assist: he built up his fleet and bought, or leased American ships knowing their captains and crews would be safe under the Russian flag. Fort Ross became an important port of call- then, in 1837 a Mexican corporal from Sonoma got smallpox at Fort Ross and it spread, whole villages wre wiped out and the colony was finished.
Johann A. Sutter bought Fort Ross for $30,000 in 1841. Madame Rotchev's husband, Alexander, had been the last commandant. He was a poet, translater of five languages and she, the former Princess Helen Gagarin, was a noted beauty. She gave up her place in society to marry him and later said her years at the fort were the happiest of her life. Mount Saint Helen was named after her.
Visitors had been delighted with their hospitality, their choice library, fine wines, and wonderful piano music.. Mme. Rotchev begged Johann Sutter not to destgroy the garden house where she'd spent so many happy hours but he didn't understand Russian construction and once it was moved, his men couldn't put it back together.
For forty years the Russians continued staunch friends with America....Alexander offered to mediate in the War of 1812 and barely concealed a mutual dislike for Britian. In later years, Russia was the only major power sympathetic to the Lincoln administration and they showed their support by stationing their fleet in American harbors for seven months in case England got any ideas about helping the South during the Civil War.
In the Sonoma Valley there's been life under the souvereignty of many diverse flags: British, Spanish, Russian, Mexican, and United States. The last Spanish mission went up in 1823, eleven years after Fort Ross. Saint Francis Solano de Sonoma, named in honor of a Peruvian saint, was the last and most northern of California's twenty-one missions.
Most Californians hated and feared the Spanish but they did bring a measure of civilization and culture to the area. They built beautiful churches and brought education and healing to many. But the Russians brought development, too. They brought naturalists who named the California poppy, they brought the grape, and around Sevastopol, they introduced the Gravenstein apple, which continues to be the major variety there. Today there are nearly 15,000 acres of apple orchards and up to 2,000 carloads a season are shipped out...however, in twenty years of tenure, they had cut the herds of fur seals by ninety per cent and it was years before the animals recovered.
The men interbred with the native populations, altering their culture and ways of life and today, Leningrad has the largest collection of Pomo and Miwak artifacts and craftwork in the world.
Today there is little left of the Russian presence at Fort Ross...perhaps fifty graves remain in the small cemetary. In the 1820 census at the fort, forty-two Indian women were listed as married to, or co-habiting with the Russians and to their credit, many of the men took their wives back to Russia with them. Descendents of these people live in the Soviet Union but some Kashaya Pomos living near Fort Ross still have Russian ancestors and use Russian words.
"What an enchanting land is California," wrote Rotchev, the man of letters. "Everything is fragrant, the hummingb ird flutters, vibrates and shimmers over a flower. The soil yields marvelous fruit. I spent the best years of my life there."
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