- 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
Meanwhile, the Spanish frontera del norte finally had been extended above the Golden Gate by the establishment of the last two units in the mission chain, at San Rafaël (founded in 1817) and Sonoma (1823). As replies to the Russian intrusion in California they were tardy enough, but they did hasten the settlement of modern Marin and Sonoma counties. With the padres came troops and rancheros, who in 1822 became subjects of the new Republic of Mexico. They were led by the great man of the period, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. After the missions were secularized by order of the Mexican government—San Rafaël in 1833, and Sonoma in 1834—Vallejo’s power was unopposed in the region. His splendid feudal hacienda, Casa Grande, which stands in broad fields in the Petaluma valley, was designed to resist further Russian encroachment. The two-story adobe structure, whose continuous open balconies and wide sheltering roofs give it exceptional architectural distinction, was essentially a fortress. It was laid out in a U-plan around a large patio; the walls were four feet thick; and there were caches of arms and defensive earthworks in the surrounding fields. The long northern side faced Ross—only forty miles away. If Vallejo was unable to expel the Russians, although he sometimes dreamed of making the attempt, they certainly lacked the strength to chase him from Casa Grande.
A modus vivendi developed. There was a steady exchange of produce between Ross and Casa Grande. The Russians were permitted to open a commercial agency in Yerba Buena, as the trading station that would become the city of San Francisco was then called. Nevertheless, Ross went into steady financial decline. As the fur trade fell off, expenditures exceeded receipts by five to one.
The later commandants at Ross perceived that the basic wealth of the colony consisted of the immense forests that today comprise the “Redwood Empire,” one of the richest stands of timber in the world. They sold what lumber they could in California and Hawaii, but the market was necessarily limited. Shipbuilding was attempted, but the tan oak—unsuitable for this purpose in any case—was used while the wood was green, and the four vessels that were built did not last on the water. The Russian carpenters even prefabricated houses, ingeniously designing them to be assembled without nails; but few of these structures were needed on the coast. During the Gold Rush, ready-made buildings were to be shipped tremendous distances by sea to California. But by then the Russians were gone.
One hope remained for the salvation of the colony. Mexico, which won independence in 1821, was eager to obtain Russian recognition—eager enough to consider making a cession of land in return. The governor of Alaska, the distinguished explorer Ferdinand von Wrangell, hoped that he could thus obtain the lands of the missions at Sonoma and San Rafaël, and perhaps the entire territory north of the Golden Gate; but negotiations were fruitless. Wrangell did lay the basis for a commercial treaty, but Czar Nicholas I, whose motto was “orthodoxy, autocracy, and national unity,” would not countenance dealings with the upstart republic.
Ross was doomed. The stockholders of the Russian. American Company asked to be relieved of the burden of maintaining the colony, and on April 15, 1839, the Czar approved the decision to withdraw.
Two years were required to close down the settlement. They were spent in an atmosphere that suggests Chekhov’s drama The Cherry Orchard. The last commandant, Alexander Rotchev, wrote lyric poetry and translated Shakespeare, Schiller, and Victor Hugo into Russian. His wife, the blond young Princess Helena Gagarin, was the most brilliant woman who had yet appeared in California. Vallejo, like everyone else, was captivated by her. She was “a very beautiful lady of twenty Aprils,” he wrote with his usual eloquence, “who united to her other gifts an irresistible affability.” Even the Indian chief Solano was fascinated by her; and if Vallejo’s account can be trusted, he and his warriors once planned to steal her during a visit that she and her husband made to Sonoma.
The wives of two or three other Russian officers had also come to California, and for the first time Ross lost its masculine somberness. The ladies were elegantly dressed; there were parties and dancing; and the Princess had a glass conservatory—it caused a sensation in California—where she spent happy hours among her plants. A summer house was erected in the fruit orchard—there were nearly three hundred trees now—and when the Rotchevs dined with their guests in the open pavilion, it was hung with the imperial colors. The commandant’s house was the only one in California that really pleased a finicky French visitor, Count Eugene Duflot de Mofras, who “appreciated the joy of a choice library, French wines, a piano, and a score of Mozart” when he visited Ross.
At last arrangements were made for evacuation. The Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to take over the task of provisioning Sitka; and the ruler of the Sacramento Valley, John Augustus Sutter, purchased the buildings, furnishings, equipment, and stock of the fort for $30,000. The land, to which the Russians had no title in spite of the payment made to the Indians, was not offered for sale. Later it came into the hands of American ranchers.