- Historic Sites
Russians In California
An Imperial colony on our West Coast was their aim; Fort Ross was their military outpost; and the stakes—higher than they realized
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
On the swell of the morning tide, with all sails full, the Juno ran before the wind into San Francisco Bay. As the ship approached the Golden Gate, Fort San Joaquin—so unimposing that at first it seemed merely a group of rocks, rather than the main defense of the harbor—was sighted on the southern point. A "great commotion” within the fort, plainly visible from the ship, revealed the garrison’s alarm at the unannounced arrival of a strange vessel. A soldier with a speaking trumpet hailed her in Spanish: ”What ship is that?” For nearly half a century the Californians had been expecting the reply that now—at nine o’clock in the morning on April 8, 1806—they heard for the first time: “Russian.”
The Juno was instructed immediately to cast anchor near the fort, under the guns of the battery. “Si señor; si, señor,” answered the Russians, but they only simulated efforts to comply with the order. The ship continued swiftly into the deserted bay until she was out of range of the fort’s battery. Then, prudently covering the beach with her own small cannon, she finally let go the anchor.
The appearance of the Juno in California culminated two hundred years of Russian expansion eastward from the Urals to the coasts of North America. Early in the sixteenth century, at the moment when English colonists were founding Virginia and Massachusetts, Cossack adventurers in search of sable and other furs swept across Siberia with a speed—and cruelty—unparalleled in the history of European conquest. By 1638, leaving behind them a wake of wanton slaughter, torture, and brutal exploitation of the natives, they reached the Sea of Okhotsk. Soon they were venturing out upon the Pacific, and before 1720 were at the Kuriles.
In 1741, after an earlier voyage in 1727–28 failed to touch the mainland, an expedition led by Vitus Bering, a Dane in the Czarist service, and the Russian Alexei Chirikov finally landed in North America. There the Russians soon made what was probably the greatest fur strike of all time, an almost incredible harvest of seal, blue fox, and sea otter pelts, which were marketed in China at extraordinary profit.
The rest of the world took notice; the long, relatively uneventful era of Hispanic supremacy in the Pacific was coming to an end. Spain, of course, although her massive and ornate imperial façade would not collapse until the next century, was especially apprehensive of the Russian presence in the northern ocean. For the vast and undefined province of Upper California, whose coast line alone had been explored, and that imperfectly, lay exposed to any intruder. After 1750, when garbled reports of Bering’s discoveries commenced to reach western Europe, intrusion by Russia seemed imminent. The Spanish embassy at St. Petersburg repeatedly warned Madrid of Russian ambitions in the New World; and the able Bourbon Charles III acted.
A vigorous official, José Gálvez, was sent to New Spain as visitador general, and in 1769 he launched five “sacred expeditions” of leather-jacketed troops and Franciscan missionaries—two groups proceeding overland from Mexico through deserts and mountain ranges, and three by sea along the wind-buffeted coast —to establish Spanish settlements in California at last. That year the Mission and Presidio of San Diego were founded. The following spring a fort was erected at Monterey “to defend us from the atrocities of the Russians, who were about to invade us.” But not until 1776, a week before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the other side of the continent, did the occupation of San Francisco begin. For the moment the Spaniards could advance no farther northward. They spent the rest of the century completing the chain of nineteen missions—spaced roughly a day’s journey apart along the coast—between San Diego and San Francisco.
Spain had acted none too quickly in California. By this time every maritime power—Britain, France, Holland, the United States—was alive to colonial and commercial possibilities in the Pacific. No one realized how high the stakes actually were, but the known stake in furs was high enough. Captain Cook’s account of his famous voyage of 1778–79, in which he dwelled on the wealth of furs in Nootka Sound near what is now Vancouver Island, electrified Europe and America. English and Yankee vessels commenced taking pelts in northern waters. A French expedition under the Comte de La Pérouse reconnoitered the coast in 1786, and put in for ten days at Monterey.
The growing number of foreign vessels in the region increased Spain’s suspicions. Measures were taken to seal California from the rest of the world. Trade was forbidden. Additional guns were mounted at the tiny presidios. But audacious Yankees poached furs along the sparsely settled coast, openly defying the Spaniards, who lacked ships to chastise them.