- 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
Although the vessel was commanded by Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue of the Russian Navy, and flew the imperial war flag, she ostensibly was bound on a round-the-world voyage of exploration. The expedition had been personally underwritten by Count Rumiantsev, acting as a private individual, for he had retired from office two years earlier. Aboard the Rurik were two eminent young scientists: the entomologist Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, and the naturalist and poet Adelbert von Chamisso.
Yet Kotzebue evidently was more interested in showing the flag in civilized ports than in braving unmapped coasts in the Arctic. He behaved in San Francisco with singular hauteur, insisting for example that the Spaniards salute his ship deferentially with a larger number of guns than was usual. The Spaniards for their part acted with traditional politeness and warm hospitality.
Then Governor Pablo Vincente de Sola arrived from Monterey to demand the immediate abandonment of Ross. Suddenly Kotzebue became amiable. He replied that, although justice seemed clearly on Spain’s side, he was without authority to act in the matter, but he would be glad to bring it to the attention of his emperor. Sola (it would seem gratuitously) agreed to refrain from violence against the intruders until the Czar ordered them to leave. More profound developments were taking place which eventually compelled the Russians to leave California. Russia was preoccupied by ambitions in Europe and Asia, but the fate of Ross was actually determined by events in the New World.
Of most immediate importance was the approaching extinction of the sea otter: by 1821 the catches had fallen off so alarmingly that the Czar issued a ukase that barred foreign vessels from the coast north of San Francisco.
Meanwhile the United States had become aroused. To the American people Alexander was the incarnation of political evil. He had lost all trace of his youthful liberalism; instead he stood guilty before the young Republic as the author of the autocratic Holy Alliance —“unholy,” Americans called it. Russian provocation is frequently overlooked as one of the main reasons for Monroe’s epochal message of December a, 1823—now known as the Monroe Doctrine—but both the President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, as well as the Congress, suspected that the Czar was “occupied with a scheme worthy of his vast ambition … the acquisition of the gulf and peninsula of California and of the Spanish claim to North America.” It was Rezanov’s scheme.
The Americans were not acting selflessly. They were aware that the harbor of San Francisco was, in the words of a secret report received by Congress, “one of the most convenient, extensive, and safe in the world, wholly without defense, and in the neighborhood of a feeble, diffused, and disaffected population.” Already some Americans were determined that the magnificent bay should be controlled by no other nation than their own. The Monroe Doctrine made it clear to Russia that she could contemplate no further expansion in the New World without the risk of battle with the American fleet. Thus ended the grandiose plans of Rezanov and Alexander, of Rumiantsev, Baranov, and Kuskov. Within a few years all of them were dead, and the impulse toward colonization—never strong at the Russian court—failed to survive them.
Eighteen years remained to the Russians in California after the Monroe Doctrine was issued in 1823. By paradox this final period was the most pleasant in the history of the colony. As the settlement lost economic and political justification for its continuance, it acquired comforts, such as window glass, which were counted as rare luxuries in Spanish California. When the French traveler Bernard Duhaut-Cilly arrived at Bodega on June 3, 1827, he found none of the “rudeness” of the presidios he had visited. Instead, he saw “well-made roofs, houses of elegant form, fields wellsown and surrounded with palisades.” The place had a “wholly European air.”
Fort Ross, after fifteen years of steady improvement, stood impressively complete. At the north and south rose the turrets of the blockhouses. At the eastern corner was the chapel built in 1823, surmounted by a belfry and a low dome; it was built into the stockade and seems to have been fitted with gun ports, so that it too could be used as a defensive bastion. Diagonally across from the chapel, but standing separate from the walls, was the “fine house” of the commandant. There were seven other buildings within the stockade: officers’ quarters, storehouses, a kitchen, and a jail. Discipline was severe at Ross; floggings were administered; and social distinctions between officers and men were strictly enforced.
Outside the walls was the “town.” Some fifty structures were scattered among gardens, vineyards, and cultivated fields. Close to the stockade were the “pretty little houses” of the Russian colonists; it is difficult to have a clear idea of them from drawings of the period, all of which disagree in detail. Further away were the “flattened cabins” of the Aleuts and the “cone-shaped huts” of the California Indians. According to Duhaut=Cilly, sixty Russians, eighty Aleuts, and eighty Indians, together with their families, were living at Ross at this time. The total population must have been about four hundred.