- 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
To advance as quickly as possible to California and to remain there, Baranov depended on the assistance of his friends the Americans, who even before Rezanov’s visit helped the Russians to poach furs along the California coast. As early as 1803 he entered into a profit-sharing agreement with Captain Joseph (“Honest Joe”) O’Cain, who commanded a ship bearing his own name, the O’Cain out of Boston. The partnership admirably suited the needs of both parties. The Russians were faced with the depletion of the Alaskan hunting grounds, but had no seaworthy vessels. The New Englanders, on the other hand, could cruise almost at will in Spanish waters, but lacked the skill and equipment to take pelts. For this purpose the Aleuts, whom the Russians ruled absolutely, were incomparable. They were the finest seal and sea otter hunters in the world. In their light bidarkas, two-man skin canoes, they pursued the animals into rocky inlets and among dangerous shoals, harpooning them with deadly accuracy. On this first joint operation Baranov provided the O’Cain with twenty bidarkas, forty Aleuts, and two Russian officers to supervise them. When they returned north in June, 1804, after a hunt that extended below San Diego, they had caught eleven hundred otters.
Other Americans saw the advantages of collaboration with the Russians. The skippers of the Mercury, the Derby and the Peacock also signed contracts with Baranov, and started operating off California. At the same time, Baranov gathered information concerning California from his officers who accompanied the Aleuts; and in 1807 Vasily Tarakanov came back aboard the Peacock with the news his chief wanted: an excellent site for a base had been found.
Scarcely fifty miles above the Golden Gate, but virtually inaccessible to the land-bound Spaniards, who would have to make the enormous circuit of San Francisco Bay to get there, was Bodega Bay. Today this sheltered anchorage is sanded up, but then it could receive good-sized sailing ships. The surrounding territory seemed fertile. There was a plentiful supply of fresh water and timber. The climate was foggy, but mild. The local Indians, who hated the Spaniards, were friendly to other Europeans. Most important, the Spanish claim to the harbor and region, made in 1775, was doubtful. Drake had been there two centuries earlier. If the Russians chose, they could regard the land as part of New Albion. Conceivably, they could maintain that it belonged to the natives. Baranov, who finally had received two ships from Russia, decided the time was ripe to dispatch expeditionary forces. One was wrecked off the Columbia late in 1808, but the Kodiak arrived safely at Bodega for the New Year of 1809.
Forty Russians and one hundred and fifty Aleuts, twenty of them women, brought the Czar’s flag ashore, and stayed eight months. The party was led by Ivan Kuskov, a former clerk in the company, who for years had been Baranov’s trusted assistant. Far from appearing the intrepid leader of a hazardous expedition, Kuskov was a picture of mildness. He wore spectacles, and sometimes, at Sitka, drunken naval officers used to beat him, as if he were a character in a Gogol story. But a promotion recommended by Rezanov had given him new status, and he was to display unexpected strength and resourcefulness in a position of command.
On this preliminary visit to Bodega, which he named Fort Rumiantsev in honor of the powerful minister, Kuskov erected a few temporary buildings, inspected the neighboring countryside, and—like Tarakanov before him—sent his hunters into the forbidden waters of San Francisco Bay. This time, rather than risk an entrance through the Gate (where on one occasion a shot from the fort had destroyed two of Tarakanov’s bidarkas ), the Aleuts made a portage overland across modern Marin County. It was open provocation of the Spaniards, but the catch in furs was worth the risk. For the “precious sea otter … almost unheeded, was swimming about the Bay in great numbers.” The Aleuts began killing otters on Angel Island, within sight of the presidio, and then rashly descended to the southern arm of the bay. Late in March a company of soldiers surprised them ashore, and four of the intruders were killed and two wounded. But sporadic Spanish resistance never deterred the poachers. The Kodiak stayed five months longer at Bodega, leaving with two thousand skins.
Eighteen months later, in February, 1811, Kuskov was back on a new ship, the Chirikov , to make extensive preparations for the founding of a permanent settlement the following year. The Russians were acting slowly, but with considerable thoroughness and skill. That spring and summer they conducted what was actually a trial run of their colonial plans. Fur hunting continued unabated. A post was set up at the Farallon Islands, a favorite haunt of the fur seal, just off the Golden Gate; and during a four-month period three thousand of the animals were killed. Additional buildings were erected at Bodega, and a crop of wheat was sown, harvested, and carried to Sitka. Counting the Aleuts aboard the half dozen American ships that were present, the Russians had a formidable force of five hundred men on the coast: the total garrison of Spanish California was not much larger.