Fort Ross


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Fort Ross

Fort Ross Chapel
Fort Ross Administration Building
Fort Ross Bell
Fort Ross Cannon
Fort Ross Cannon
Fort Ross Battlements
Fort Ross Battlements
Fort Ross Battlements
Fort Ross Outer Building

Russian Mission
Date Founded: August 13, 1812
Founder: Ivan Kuskov
Named for: A shortened version of "Rossiya," the Russia of Tsarist days
19005 Coast Highway 1
Jenner, Calif. 95450
Directions: Fort Ross State Historic Park is located on a scenic bluff of the Sonoma coast, 11 miles northwest of the town of Jenner on Highway 1. It is about a two-hour drive from San Francisco.

Contact Information: 707-847-3286

Fort Ross represented the farthest reach of Russian Imperialism. As such, it provided a major impetus for the establishment of the Franciscan Missions in Alta California.


Fort Ross was founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Company, a trading and fur trapping firm whose primary shareholders were members of the Czarist family. The Russian-American Company supported a number of outposts, mostly in Alaska. But the company's ships made frequent forays south -- sometimes as far as Baja California -- in search of sea otter, seal and sea lion pelts. Fort Ross served as a staging area for sea mammal hunting as well as a source of agricultural products for the Northern colonies. In addition, from 1818 to 1824, the area's rich forests provided raw materials for shipbuilding.

The Russians had nothing but problems. Excessive hunting led to the virtual disappearance of the sea otter and other fur-bearing animals. The Aleut Indians, whom the Russians had brought from the Aleutian Islands for their hunting skills, were willing confederates, but other Native Americans, notably the Tlingits, were hostile. The most pressing problem for the Russians, however, was that they could not grow enough food to feed themselves.

Farms and herds were established farther south at today's Sitka, Alaska in 1804, but they were no more successful there. The soil was poor, the climate cold and the growing season too short. Trade with American ships - furs for food - helped, but it was not the answer. A company official therefore was dispatched in 1806 to Spain's northern province of California. His immediate mission was to try to buy supplies, but he was also to investigate prospects for the fur trade.

Russian History in North America

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin once joked that he wanted to replace the Russian legislature with a body similar to the American Congress. This coming together should come as no surprise, a Russian diplomat said, since the first Americans, after all, were Russian immigrants.

Well, that is stretching the historical record a bit, though the ancestors of today's Native Americans probably did cross the Bering Sea from Siberia to Alaska on ice or on a land bridge. Of Course there was no Russia then, or United States, or England, or any other nation state, but it makes a good post-cold war conversation opener. California's modern Russian connections are very strong.

The discovery of America for Russia and the Russians began in the XVII century. Among early attempts to reach the unknown continent, a voyage of Semen Dezhnev through the Bering Straight in 1648 is among the most remarkable events. Commemorating his accomplishment, the northern most point of Siberia has been named after him -- the Dezhnev Cape.

After the Dezhnev triumphant, a number of Russian pioneers have been sailing what was to become the Bering Sea. But the first official expedition to the American shores was commissioned by Peter the Great shortly before his death in 1725, and was actually launched in 1728 under the command of a Russian naval officer Vitus Bering. This expedition was quite short-lived but it convinced Bering that the American continent was not attached to Siberia.

After much preparation and delay, in June of 1741, Bering sailed toward America in a square-rigger named the Saint Peter. This time he was accompanied by another similarly built ship, the Saint Paul, commanded by Captain-Lieutenant Aleksei Chirikov, a man younger and abler than Bering. While the plan was for both ships to stay together, stormy seas soon separated them.

During the Summer and Fall of 1741, Bering and Chirikov separately sighted the great shoulder of northwest America. But Bering's crew was soon besieged by scurvy. Weak from sickness and lack of food the Saint Peter put in a bay along a large island off Kamchatka where the ship broke up. Here Bering died in early December giving the island his name. His survivors spent the winter on the island, subsisting on the seals and the other abundant wildlife. Next year in 1742 they built a small boat from the wreckage and eventually made it to Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka.

Chirikov, who returned to Kamchatka in 1741, spread the news about the Aleutian Indians and the fact that sea otter swarmed in the offshore waters all along the coast. These stories were further substantiated by Bering's men who brought back with them bundles of blue fox, seal and sea otter furs -- 900 of these furs at their lowest valuation would bring 90,000 rubles in trade with the Chinese (a huge sum of money in those days, enough to have paid for a quarter of the cost of the entire expedition from the time it left St.Petersburg).

While the Russian government was too busy in Europe to pursue the newly-discovered America, local pioneers seized on the opportunity to make fortunes in furs. By 1743, a Cossack leader named Emelian Basov financed by a trader Andrei Serebrennikov built a shitik. Originating on the Volga river, a shitik was a flatboat, almost keelless, so it could be easily beached but remarkably stable. Some shitiks could carry as many as 50 men and several tons of supplies.

The "Fur Rush"

In the Summer of 1743, Basov and some 30 pioneers (called promyshlenniki in Russian, a rough equivalent to American hunting frontiers' men), went to the Bering Island. His crew, in accordance with the Russian custom, took the voyage "on spec:" each member of the hunting expedition was assigned an agreed-upon number of shares. If the voyage went well, then everyone would collect, if not, they would be paid nothing. Basov returned safely, bringing back a rich reward in furs: a total value of over 200,000 rubles! After this he made three more trips, all successful, after which he, most likely, retired.

Basov's luck triggered a steady stream of pioneers in search of furs. Individual fortune hunters would band together, build a shitik, and challenge the seas. In the process, the promyshlenniki traveled not just to the Bering Island, but to the entire chain of the Aleutian islands. The Aleutians indians were quite friendly and fur business flourished.

By 1781, after some three decades of disorderly hunting and trading, merchants named Grigorii Ivanovich Shelikhov, Ivan Golikov and a relative of Golikov, formed the Shelikhov-Golikov Company. Unlike individual promyshlenniki, Shelikhov wanted to establish a permanent presence in the northwest Americas, targeting the Kodiak Island as the most desirable place for his base of operations -- off the mainland, yet close to it. Shelikhov knew that the nearest European settlement to Kodiak was the Presidio of San Francisco, founded about eight years earlier.

In August of 1783, just two years after developing a plan of action, Shelikhov's flotilla of three ships carrying over 200 men, cattle, seeds, and other supplies was on its way. Shelikhov and his wife Natalia Alekseevna, a courageous and determined lady, were on the larger galiot the Three Saints with two other ships called the Saint Michael the Archangel and the Saint Simeon. By late July 1784, two of the three ships cast anchor in a bay on Kodiak Island naming the place the Three Saints Bay. In just 18 months Shelikhov and his men built a neat village with seven or eight individual dwellings, a number of bunkhouses, a counting house, barns, storage buildings, a smithy, a carpenter shop, and a ropewalk. In addition, a dozen or so outlying stations were established.

This was an amazing accomplishment. Not only all this was done with a severe shortage of tools (most tools were lost with the third ship, the Saint Michael the Archangel), but also in a hostile environment. Unlike the Aleutians native indians, Kodiak native indians were quite aggressive. It took a great deal of diplomacy on Shelikhov's part not just to maintain peace, but lure the natives into his labor force. Opinions vary on exactly how this was done, but all concur that, most likely, it took patience, generous presents, and honest payment for any work done for the pioneers. However it was done, natives were cooperating willingly and many of them moved their dwellings close to the first Russian village.

After leaving meticulous instructions with one of his aides with a special emphasis on kindness and fairness to the natives, Shelikhov went back to his home town, the Siberian City of Irkutsk. Arriving there in the early months of 1787, he brought only a modest amount of furs, since hunting was not the top priority during this initial phase of establishing a permanent foothold. His goal at this stage was to interest Empress Catherine the Great in new, far-away lands. His partner Golikov succeeded in presenting Shelikhov's reports and maps to the Empress. She grew extremely interested in the project, immediately envisioning borders of Russia expanding to the Americas and beyond. Catherine the Great also conceived a plan to station some Russian naval ships in the Pacific to send a message to the world that Russia stands ready to protect its newly acquired lands. Finally she told Golikov that she wished to see both him and Shelikhov in St.Petersburg at her palace.

In January 1788, Golikov and Shelikhov set out in their three-horse sleigh (the uniquely famous Russian troika) on a 3,700 mile journey. But the route was served by 3,000 men and 10,000 horses located in post stations at 50-mile intervals, by February they arrived to St.Petersburg.

Encouraged by a friendly reception, Golikov and Shelikhov asked for a fur trade monopoly for their company, protection by the Russian armed forces, the right to employ native American indians, and a loan. But in September 1788 the Russian Senate refused their requests. About the only thing they received were special swords and gold medals with the Empress' portrait.

Undeterred by these reverses, Shelikhov persisted in his efforts to build a successful base of operations for himself and Russia in the American northwest. The colony was gradually growing, and by 1794 eight monks from the Valaam monastery arrived to Kodiak. This marked the official establishment of a Russian Orthodox mission there. Soon there were churches and schools for the natives. When 70 years later Alaska was sold to the United States, Russian Orthodoxy was so entrenched among the Aleuts, Tlingits and Eskimos, that to this day the Russian Orthodox Church is the predominant religion in Alaska.

Aleutians Native American Indians Help Build the Russian America

Shelikhov died of a heart attack in 1795 and his wife, Natalia, took over the newly formed Russian-American company. Her work was greatly aided by Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov, who was appointed in 1791 to manage the colony armed with a five-year contract and 10 shares of the company's stock.

Baranov's biography reads like that of many a world-famous explorer of his day. After running away at the age of fifteen from home in a small town in central Russia, he traveled far and wide, made and lost fortunes, always fascinated by the unknown. Shelikhov had his eye upon Baranov for sometime, and in 1791 while Baranov was passing through one of his reverses, and before Shelikhov death, Shelikhov convinced Baranov to manage the Russian-American Company.

Baranov's genius for managing was soon bearing fruit. After picking a reliable right-hand man, a wooden-legged Ivan Kuskov, he imposed a strict discipline on all his 110 Russian charges, and set out to win favor with the natives, with whom he had a way, as was soon to be demonstrated. He learned their dialects, he listened to their grievances, he never talked down to them. He toured Kodiak, visiting the villages, meeting the chiefs, bargaining, promising that those who contributed to the company's operations would never be in want. A single man, Baranov even married the daughter of an Indian Chief, whose tribe would later fight alongside Baranov's Aleutians and Russians. These good-will gestures soon paid off. By Summer of 1792 he could count on 900 natives in 450 baidarkas (small, two-man Aleutian sea-going canoes). His energy was such, that when a tidal wave all but swept the Three Saints village away, he used this as an opportunity to rebuild in a more desirable place.

In 1812, on Baranov's orders (by now the first Governor of Russian America), Ivan Kuskov founded Fort Ross in an area to the North of San Francisco. Fort Ross served as a trading post and a source of agricultural products for Russian America in Alaska. Kuskov's wife, Elizabeth, must be given much credit for the success of Fort Ross. She mastered the language of indian tribes living in the lands adjoining Fort Ross and established extremely cordial relations with them. Russian soldiers and settlers from the fort could roam the surrounding woods without any fear of being scalped by the native American indians. Spaniards, on the other hand, from San Francisco and Catholic missions, would always travel armed and in groups. Baranov's urge to expand Russian America resulted in establishment of a Russian fort named Elizabeth (Yelizaveta) in Hawaii. Due to certain errors in judgement by Baranov's emissaries there, Russians were not successful in establishing a permanent presence.

Ecclesiastical History

In 1784, the first russian settlement ("Three Saints Bay") was established on Kodiak Island by Gregory Shelikhov. The creation of the Russian-American Company by Emperor Paul I in 1799 finally regularized the governance of Alaska, or Russian-American Company as it was officially known. After the establishment of the settlement, Shelikhov and his partner Ivan Golikov petitioned Catherine II and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to send missionaries to care for spiritual needs of the russian settlers as well as those Native Americans who had been baptized by the "promyshlenniki" (trappers) in Alaska and to preach Orthodox Christianity to the Native Americans. The Holy Synod responded by assembling a missionary team of four priests, two deacons, and two monks from the Valaam Monastery, located on Lake Ladoga, north of St. Petersburg. The Synod charged Archimandrite Joasaph Bolotov with the supervision of the mission, and after perilous journey of 293 days across European Russia and Siberia, the team reached Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794.

The mission began to bear fruit immediately. In 1794 the Three Saints church was founded in Old Harbor, the first Orthodox Church on North American Continent. The hieromonk Macarius (Makary) settled on Unalaska (the largest island in the Aleutian chain) but soon extended his work to twenty-four more islands. Macarius baptized some 2,500 Native Americans and blessed more then 536 marriages. The hieromonk Juvenaly penetrated to the inner regions of Alaska and converted some 5,000 people to the Orthodox faith, until he was killed in 1796 near Lake Iliamna, thus becoming the first martyr for Orthodoxy in the New World. By 1796, the missionaries had baptized a total of 12,000 Native Americans. The success of the initial mission prompted the Holy Synod to set up an auxiliary bishopric for Alaska (attached to the see of Irkutsk, the main see for all of Eastern Siberia). Archimandrite Joasaph was elected as the first Orthodox bishop of America. On the return trip to Alaska, however, the S.S. Phoenix, the ship on which Bishop Joasaph was traveling (along with Father Macarius and his assistant, Stephen) was shipwrecked off the coast of Unalaska, with no survivors. The work of the mission continued; in Kodiak, the church was staffed by hieromonk Athanasius and deacon Nectarius, who established a school for both Russian and Native American children. However, Deacon Nectarius was called to Irkutsk in 1805, and Father Athanasius returned to Valaam in 1825. The only member of the original team who remained in America was Father Herman. After the death of Joasaph in 1796, Father Herman founded a hermitage on Spruce Island (in the Aleutian chain). Although he retired from active missionary work, his exemplary life and acts of charity spread his renown throughout Alaska. Father Herman wasn't afraid to stand up to colonial authorities to defend the rights of the Native Americans, and when disease or famine struck the Aleuts, he whole-heartedly and single-handedly cared for the people. During his lifetime, and after his death in 1837, miracles were attributed to his intercession. In 1970 Father Herman was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in recognition of his saintly life and work in North America.

Orthodoxy continued to grow and gain roots in the Native American communities in Alaska. Proof of this was demonstrated when the Spanish authorities in Northern California captured a party of Orthodox Aleuts on hunting expedition. The Spanish pressured the Aleuts to convert to Catholicism, but the Aleuts refused, citing their previous conversion to Orthodoxy. One of the Aleuts, Peter, was tortured to death because of his refusal to renounce the Orthodox faith. The other Aleuts were later released unharmed by an order of the Spanish governor. Peter therefore became the second Orthodoxy martyr in the New World, and the first Native American to be canonized by the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox mission received "new life" with the arrival of Father Ioann Veniaminov in 1824. Father Ioann and his family settled in Unalaska where he continued Macarius' work; he devised an alphabet for the Aleuts, and then proceeded to translate the Scriptures into Aleutian. He also composed catechism in Aleutian entitled, "A guide to the Kingdom of Heaven". In 1834, he moved to Novoarkhangelsk (now Sitka) to work among the Tlingit Indians. After the death of his wife, he was consecrated as bishop of Alaska in November 1840. Following Russian Orthodox custom he had first been tonsured as a monk, and assumed the name of Innocent. Upon his return to Alaska, Bishop Innocent founded a seminary (1841) in Novoarkhangelsk and continued to open more schools and orphanages for the children of the region. Any Alaskan resident, regardless of ethnic background, was allowed to enroll at these schools and to receive an education. Instruction was carried out both in Russian and in the local languages. Bishop Innocent also expanded the territory covered by the Alaskan diocese; new mission centers were set up deep in the Alaskan interior, at Nusagag on the Kuskokwim River (1842) and Kenai on the Yukon (1845). By 1850, the Alaskan diocese consisted of 36 parishes with 12,000 communicants. The work of translating the Scriptures, the service books, and the catechism into Tlingit, Aleutian, and other local languages was augmented by the labors of Father Elias Tiskov and Father Nadejdin.

Bishop Innocent was also given responsibility for the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Far Eastern Siberian territories, and in order to better serve the entire region, moved his see to Yakutsk in the winter of 1851-1852. He thereupon consecrated Father Peter, the rector of the seminary in Novoarkhangelsk, to be the auxiliary bishop for Alaska. In 1868, Bishop Innocent was elected to be Metropolitan of Moscow, becoming the highest-ranking clergyman within the Russian Orthodox Church. After his election Innocent continued to support the missionary activities of the Russian Church in Asia and America. He established the Siberian Missionary Committee to oversee the staffing of missions. In order to ensure a supply of high-caliber clergy for the missions, this Committee asked for clerical volunteers to serve ten years in the mission field. In return, the Committee paid generous salaries and guaranteed a full pension to the missionary on his retirement. As a result, the missions of the Russian Church received a steady stream of well-educated and motivated priests who were able to leave Russia and their homes because the Committee gave them the financial independence necessary for them to concentrate on mission work. Metropolitan Innocent died in 1879, and was canonized in 1977 as the "Apostle to America" because of his mission and labors.

Bishop Peter (Lysakov), Saint Innocent's successor as bishop of Alaska, held that post until 1867, when he was succeeded by Bishop Paul (Popov) (1867-1870). In that year, the Russian Empire sold its colony to the United States.

The Russians had build an outpost in Northern California in 1812, and the first Orthodox church in the continental United States was build at Fort Ross. Although the outpost was closed in 1841, the San Francisco area remained a magnet for russian immigrants. In 1867 the Russians in San Francisco established Holy Trinity Church (now Holy Trinity Cathedral). Finally, in 1870, an english-language Orthodox parish was created in New York by Father Nicholas Bjering, a convert to Orthodoxy.

Russians in Northern California

Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, a Russian-American company official, was dispatched in 1806 to Spain's northern province of California. His immediate mission was to try to buy supplies, but he was also to investigate prospects for the fur trade.

Spanish authorities were not happy to receive Rezanov. Spain's hold on its frontier province was fragile, and it did not wish to assist another power that might threaten its claim. Besides, trade with the Russians was illegal.

Rezanov knew that he must succeed, or the colony at Sitka might starve. In the midst of the negotiations, which seemed doomed to failure, the count announced that he had fallen in love with Doña Concepción Argüello. It was no coincidence that she was the daughter of the commandant of the San Francisco Presidio. The fifteen-year-old Doña Concepción, swept off her feet by the gallant count, who was thirty-five years her senior, pled his cause. The authorities of church and state, including her father, were won over, and Rezanov was furnished the goods he needed.

But the marriage had to wait. Doña Concepción, a Roman Catholic, must secure permission from Rome, and, for Rezanov's part, the Tzar and the Eastern Orthodox authorities at St.Petersburg must consent to the marriage. Rezanov sailed for Sitka with his cargo of supplies, vowing to return to his betrothed as soon as possible.

Alas, he was never seen again in California. Rezanov died tragically enroute to Russia. Doña Concepción learned of his death only after years of waiting. She never married.

Writers have made much of the star-crossed romance. In many accounts, Doña Concepción grieves her lost love; her life thereafter is desperate and empty. The evidence suggests a more commonplace affair. Rezanov might have intended to honor his vows, but his proposal probably was more a matter of expedience than love. Far from wasting away in later life, Doña Concepción, according to one historian, "became a stout and rather jolly woman who found much pleasure in acts of kindness and charity."

Rezanov brought back two ideas from his venture into Spanish California - the desire to establish permanent trade relations, and the wish to found a trading base on what the Russians referred to as the "New Albion" coast north of Spanish territory. Rezanov convinced Baranov of the value of his ideas, and Baranov sent Ivan Kuskov, a company employee of long standing, on a voyage to locate a site suitable for the planned settlement. Moving southward on the ship Kodiak, Kuskov arrived at Bodega Bay on January 8, 1804, remaining there until late August. He and his party of 40 Russians and 150 Alaskan natives explored the entire region, and brought back more than 2,000 sea otter pelts.

By November 1811, Kuskov was ready to head south again this time to build a colony on the New Albion shore.

Establishment of Fort Ross

After arriving at Bodega Bay in early 1812 aboard the Chirikov, Kuskov decided that the most suitable location for the colony was the site of a Kashaya Indian village, 18 miles to the north. The spot was called Meteni by the local Indians. According to one account, the entire area was acquired from the natives for "three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads."

The land offered a harbor of sorts, plentiful water, good forage, and a nearby supply of wood for the necessary construction. It was also relatively distant from the Spanish, who were to be unwilling neighbors for the next 29 years. The fort was completed in a few weeks, and was formally dedicated on August 13,1812. The name "Ross" is generally considered to be a shortened version of "Rossiya," the Russia of Tsarist days.

Life at Fort Ross

The structures were built of redwood using joinery techniques that were typical of maritime carpentry in those days. A wooden palisade surrounded the site, in much the same configuration as seen today. It included two blockhouses, one on the north corner and one to the south, complete with cannons that could command the entire area. The Russian-American Company flag, with its double-headed eagle, flew over the stockade.

The interior of the stockade contained the two story house of the manager, the officials' quarters, barracks for the Russian employees, and various storehouses as well as lesser structures. The chapel was added in 1824. A well in the center provided the colonists with water. Outside the walls were the homes of company laborers, a native Alaskan village, and the dwellings of the local native Americans, whom we refer to today as the Kashaya Pomo.

In the early years, life at the colony under Kuskov revolved around the hunting of sea otter whose pelts were extraordinarily valuable in the China trade. Most of the hunting was done by Kodiak islanders in the service of the company. They would go out in their bidarkas (hunting kayaks), and use the atlatl (a throwing board for darts). These hunters and their families had their own village just west of the stockade, on the bluff above the ocean The Alaskans and their Russian overseers ranged the coast from Baja California to Oregon, in search of marine mammals. Only a small number of Russians actually lived at Ross, and very few Russian women (usually wives of officials) lived there. However, inter-marriage between Russians and the natives of Alaska and California was commonplace. Natives and people of mixed ancestry as well as lower-ranking company men lived in a village complex of some 60 to 70 buildings that gradually grew up outside the stockade walls.

By 1820, extensive sea otter hunting had depleted the otter population to such a degree that agriculture and stock raising became the main occupation of the colony. The company's Alaskan outposts still needed supplies, but try as the might, the Russian colony in Northern California never fulfilled their agricultural goals. Coastal fog, gophers, mice and lack of genuine interest on the part of men who thought of themselves primarily as hunters all combined to thwart the agricultural effort. Ranches and farms were established at inland sites - at Willow Creek on the "Slavyanka" (now known as the Russian River), and near the towns of Bodega and Graton - but still, the colonists could not produce enough to make a profit.

Decline and Rebirth

In 1839, the Russian-American Company signed an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply Sitka with provisions from its settlements in present-day Washington and Oregon. Soon afterward, the Russian-American Company decided to abandon the Ross Colony. First, they tried to sell it to the Mexican government. When that failed, they approached Mariano Vallejo and others. In December 1841, they reached an agreement with John Sutter of Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Within a few months, the Russians were gone. Sutter sent his trusted assistant, John Bidwell, to Fort Ross to gather up the arms, ammunition, hardware, and other valuables, including herds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, and transport them to Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Thereafter, the buildings at Fort Ross that were not dismantled and removed by Sutter were used for a variety of purposes by successive owners. In 1873, the area was acquired by George W. Call, who established the 15,000 acre Call Ranch.

The Call family continued to hold the property until 1903, when the fort and about three acres of land were purchased by the California Historical Landmarks Committee. In March 1906, the site was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic monument. Since then, more acreage has been acquired (a total of 3,277 acres as of 1992) to preserve the site of the old Russian establishment and some of its surrounding environment. Extensive restoration and reconstruction work has been carried out by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, so that today you can again see Fort Ross somewhat as it looked when the Russians were here.


Nicholas C. Gvosdev; _Russian Orthodox Christianity in America_;("The Russian American" N20, 1995)