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Up The Road: Fort Ross And The Russians In California

Franco Folini

We continue exploring unique state parks—this week, Fort Ross. How many states can boast of Russian settlement? Just California, Alaska, of course, and Hawaii, though none were U.S. states at the time.

Before the California Gold Rush, there was a California Fur Rush—actually, a worldwide fur rush. Sea otter pelts were particularly prized, with more than a million hairs per square inch—the densest hair of any mammal, the softest, warmest fur.

Hunters from America, England, Spain, France, and Russia plied the very lucrative trade in otters and seals. Imperial Russia, expanding its eastern frontier, claimed the territory from the Aleutian Islands to Alaska but trapped much farther afield.

The Russian-American Company first sailed south to California, onboard a contracted American ship, in 1803, looking for more sea otters. (Czar Alexander I and President James Madison were both company officers.) A decade later the Russians settled into a more defensible area, well north of Spain’s last missions, to build Fort Ross, a farming and provisioning outpost, alongside a large village of the native Kashaya people.

Thanks to its preservation as a state historic park, today we can all still visit Fort Ross, to experience what remains of Russia’s California experiment along the remote Sonoma County Coast and imagine the rest.

Happenings here bring the past into present time—everything from Pomo dance performances and Native Alaska Day to the traditional Russian Winter Village Celebration. Get tickets early for major events, including the July Fort Ross Festival—borsch cookoff included—and October’s Harvest Festival.

The weathered redwood fortress perched on the headlands, surrounded by moody cypress groves, was home to Russian traders and trappers for 40 years. The original stockade, 14 feet tall, featured corner lookouts and 40 cannons. Inside the compound were the manager’s house, employee houses and barracks, a jail, and multiple warehouses and artisan workshops.

Perhaps due to the Russian Orthodox belief that only God is perfect, the fort was constructed with no right angles. At the fort and just outside, the industrious Russians and their work crews raised cattle, grew food crops, and made household goods plus saddles, bridles, even 200-ton ships and prefabricated houses.

When the sea otter population was decimated and agricultural and manufacturing ventures fell short of expectations, Fort Ross packed it in. The Kashaya Pomo held a mourning ceremony to mark their departure—a testament to the visitors’ amicable long-term relations with the local people, a rarity in California.

John Sutter, founder of Sacramento, was so desperate for building materials and furniture that he bought Fort Ross for $30,000, a hefty sum he never paid. Sutter dismantled entire Fort Ross buildings for the lumber, and carted off rooms of furnishings and tools for his own fort.

As for the sea otters, long thought to be extinct here, a few survived—found in the 1930s along the Big Sur coast. From these, California’s current sea otter population descends, some 3,000 individuals in the wild, still struggling to survive despite marine mammal protections.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.