- 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
Thus far open warfare had been avoided, but relations with the Spaniards grew tense. Kuskov decided that Bodega was too exposed to serve as the main Russian base. The rugged terrain north of the Russian River (the Russians named it the Slavianka, “charming little one”) seemed more promising. Headlands curved above the gray ocean, and the land fell steeply to the sea in cliffs and deep, wooded gulches. The high coastal plateau was hemmed by a forest of titanic redwoods that extended to Oregon. So secluded is this spot that even now it is thinly populated.
Thirteen miles above the river and thirty above Bodega, Kuskov discovered a safe cove. San Francisco was eighty miles away. The little harbor, fronting on the open sea, was inferior to the enclosed anchorage at Bodega (which in any case Kuskov intended to keep), but it could be used nevertheless. One hundred feet above the water, protected on three sides by the ocean, was a flat tableland where the Porno Indians had established the village of Mad-Shui-Nui. Kuskov looked no farther. For “three blankets, two axes, three hoes, and a miscellaneous assortment of beads”—some accounts say that three pairs of trousers were also included—he purchased about one thousand acres from the Indians. If the payment seems niggardly, it may be said for Kuskov that this was the only known occasion during the colonial period when the California Indians were given anything at all for their land. The Spaniards did not pay them even beads.
Kuskov wintered in Sitka, but on March 15, 1812—a fateful year in the history of both Europe and America—he was back in California to construct a fort. He laid out a quadrangle about one hundred yards square, its corners corresponding roughly to the cardinal points of the compass; and his force of ninety-five Russians and eighty Aleuts, aided by some local Pomos, went to work.
Huge redwood trees were felled. The logs were hewn into posts and planks; and a stockade commenced to rise. At the northern and southern corners were blockhouses, fitted with cannon ports. These bastions were designed to control all the approaches to the fort. Eventually, when there was a full complement of forty-one guns, the fort did become impregnable to any force the Spaniards could have mustered.
Throughout the spring and summer, work continued on the doughty little fortress, but some portions remained unfinished when Kuskov dedicated the colony with a ceremony on September 11. He named it Rossiya—an ancient name for Russia, which sometimes was written simply as Ross. Usually the establishment was called Fort Ross, the name that has persisted. In the context of world history the dedication of Ross, in its lonely setting of natural grandeur, was an event of minor but poignant significance. The raising of the Czarist standard, to the accompaniment of salutes, prayers, and singing, occurred at a moment when Russia’s very survival as an independent nation was in peril. Napoleon occupied Moscow only three days later, and on the day following that, the city was set afire, probably by French looters. It burned for six days; and a month afterward began the dismal retreat westward across the snow.
The colonists endured their first winter in California with great hardship, largely because the Spaniards refused to provide them with food in exchange for cloth and iron they offered to trade. The situation was made worse by the outbreak of war between the United States and Britain; the Yankee ships on which so much depended were soon bottled up in their home ports. But in 1813 the authorities at Monterey relented. Goods and produce valued at $14,000 were exchanged. The Russians received cattle and horses, wheat, beans, dried beef, tallow, and other supplies. Yet they could never count on this commerce. Spanish policy often hardened without warning.
Kuskov, however, did not sit idle. He was handicapped by the inefficiency and laziness of many of his men, the majority of whom were convicts from Siberian penal camps; but he was an enthusiastic builder and farmer, and he drove them as hard as he could. More buildings, including a windmill, were erected at Ross; the installations at Bodega were enlarged and improved; a permanent post was established on the Farallon Islands. The Aleuts went out regularly in their bidarkas. Land was fenced and tilled. A vineyard was started in 1817 with grapevines brought from Peru. Three years later an orchard of one hundred trees—apple, pear, cherry, peach, and bergamot—was planted on an enclosed rise of land some distance from the fort. There was a garden of roses and other flowers.
Slowly the settlement became more comfortable. Women arrived from Alaska; none at first was Russian-born, but some had Russian fathers. There were marriages, and children were born. Population passed two hundred.
Fear of Spanish retaliation declined with each year. The Napoleonic Wars had dealt Spain blows from which she had yet to recover, and her American possessions were moving toward independence. Russia, on the other hand, emerged from the fighting as one of the great victors. One sign of revivified Russian power was the arrival of the brig Rurik in San Francisco on October 2, 1816.