- 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
The Americans were spreading out everywhere in California. They were coming through the passes of the Sierras and by ship around the Horn. When Wrangell passed through Monterey en route to Mexico in 1835, a young sailor before the mast of the Pilgrim, Richard Henry Dana, gave him a letter to be forwarded to Boston. Dana’s observations of the potential wealth and present defenselessness of California, together with the reports of fellow countrymen who had come west, were public knowledge in the United States. The drive against Mexico had begun. Texas was independent. Soon Frémont and his party would enter California, and it also would be detached from Mexican rule.
The end of the Hispanic era, too, was in sight. Squatters were taking land in the vicinity of Ross and Sonoma. These intruders, who were to stage the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846, simply “would not give up the places occupied by them,” complained Lieutenant Dimitri Zavalashin, who conceded that the only choice remaining to the Russians was to fight the Americans or leave. It was the better part of wisdom to depart.
The Russians left early in 1842, and everything movable was transferred from Ross to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento, including the dismantled buildings. Sutler recalled that Madame Rotchev begged him not to destroy her conservatory. But his men “could not put it together because they did not understand the workmanship of the Russian carpenters.”
History moved swiftly in the next decade. In 1848 gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, and all Sutter had acquired from the Russians, together with all that he had in the world, was engulfed in the rush for wealth. In 1850 California joined the Union, and a new phase of history began.
Throughout their twenty-nine years at Ross, the Russians had regarded Mounl Mayacamas, as lhe Indians called it, the highest peak in the region. Shortly before their deparlure Ivan Vosnesensky and Gyorgy Tschernikh climbed to the crest, and named it Mount St. Helena, probably in honor of the reigning Czarina, or the saint whose day it was, rather than in honor of Helena Gagarin. From the summit of this formidable mountain, 4,343 feet above lhe sea, the Russians looked out over some of the richest and most beautiful country in California: the Napa and Sonoma valleys directly below with their farms, orchards, and vineyards; and to the south, the great sheet of bay, quite silver in the sun. Today the region is dotted with cities and towns. Smoke rises from the industrial plants on the shores of the incomparable harbor. The silver bridge, tiny but distinct, leaps in its great trajectory from Oakland to San Francisco; and there in the sunlit distance rise the towers of the metropolis. All this was at stake when the Russians contended in the great international struggle for California.
*For another view of Rezanov, see George Howe's "The Voyage of Nor'west John," in the April 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE.