Fort Ross

Fort Ross (Russian: Форт-Росс, or originally, Крепость Россъ, Krepostʹ Ross — Fortress Ross) is a former Russian establishment on the Pacific Coast in what is now Sonoma County, California, in the United States. It was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America in between 1812 to 1841. It has been the subject of archaeological investigation and is a designated National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, and in Fort Ross State Historic Park.

Fort Ross is an interesting landmark in the history of European imperialism. The Spanish expansion went west across the Atlantic Ocean and the Russian expansion went east across Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. In the early nineteenth century, the two waves of expansion met on the opposite side of the world along the Pacific Coast of California, Russia arriving from the north, and Spain from the south. The United States of America arrived in 1846 from the east.

Russian-American Company

Russian personnel from the Alaskan colonies initially arrived in California aboard American ships. In 1803 American ship captains already involved in the sea otter Maritime Fur Trade in California proposed several joint venture hunting expeditions to Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, on half shares using Russian supervisors and native Alaskan hunters to hunt fur seals and otters along the Alta and Baja Californian coast. Subsequent reports by the Russian hunting parties of uncolonized stretches of coast encouraged Baranov, the Chief Administrator of the Russian-American Company (RAC), to consider a settlement in California north of the limit of Spanish occupation in San Francisco. In 1806 the Russian Ambassador to Japan, and RAC director N.P. Rezanov, undertook an exploratory trade mission to California to establish a formal means of procuring food supplies in exchange for Russian goods in San Francisco. While guests of the Spanish, Rezanov's captain, Lt. Khvostov, explored and charted the northern coast of San Francisco Bay and found it completely unoccupied (by Europeans). Upon his return to Sitka, Rezanov recommended to Baranov, and Emperor Aleksandr I, that a settlement be established in California.

Fort Ross was established by Commerce Counsellor Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Company. In 1808 Baranov sent two ships, the Kodiak, and the St.Nikolai on an expedition south to establish settlements for the RAC, with instructions to bury "secret signs"(possession plaques). Kuskov, on the Kodiak, was instructed to bury the plaques, with an appropriate possession ceremony, at Trinidad, Bodega Bay, and the north shore of San Francisco, indicating Russian claims to the land. After sailing into Bodega Bay in 1809 on the Kodiak and returning to Novo Arkhangelsk, Alaska, with beaver skins and 1,160 otter pelts, Baranov ordered Kuskov to return and establish an agricultural settlement in the area. After a failed attempt in 1811, Kuskov sailed the brig Chirikov back to Bodega Bay in March,1812, naming it Rumyantzev, in honor of the Russian Minister of Commerce, Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumyantzev. On his return Kuskov found American otter hunting ships, and otter now scarce in Bodega Bay. After exploring the area they ended up selecting a place 15 miles (24 km) north that the native Kashaya Pomo people called Mad shui nui or Metini. Metini, the seasonal home of the native Kashaya Pomo people, had a modest anchorage and abundant natural resources and would become the Russian settlement of Fort Ross. The name of the fort is said to derive from the Russian word rus or ros, the same root as the word "Russia"(Pоссия-Rossiya) and not from Scottish "Ross". According to William Bright, "Ross" is a poetic name for Russia in the Russian language.

Fort Ross was established as an agricultural base from which the northern settlements could be supplied with food and carry on trade with Alta California. Fort Ross itself was the hub of a number of smaller Russian settlements comprising what was called Krepost Ross ("Fortress Ross") on official documents and charts produced by the Company itself. Colony Ross referred to the entire area where Russians had settled. These settlements constituted the southernmost Russian colony in North America, and were spread over an area stretching from Point Arena to Tomales Bay. The colony included a port at Bodega Bay, which was called Port Rumyantsev, a sealing station on the Farallon Islands, 18 miles (29 km) out to sea from San Francisco, and a number of small farming communities, called "ranchos" including Chernykh, near present day Graton, and Khlebnikov, a mile north of the present day town of Bodega in the Salmon Creek valley, and Rancho Kostromitinov on the Russian River.

Local enterprise

In addition to farming and manufacturing, the Company carried on its fur trading business at Fort Ross, but by 1817 sea otter in the area were practically eliminated after 20 years of intense hunting by American and English ships, followed by Russian and Spanish efforts.

Fort Ross was the site of California's first windmills and shipbuilding. Russian scientists associated with the colony were among the first to record California's cultural and natural history. The Russian managers were the first to introduce many European refinements such as glass windows, stoves, and all-wood housing into Alta California. Together with the surrounding settlement, Fort Ross was home to Russians (during the 19th and early 20th century Russian subjects included Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, Estonians, and numerous other nationalities and ethnic groups of the Russian Empire), as well as North Pacific Natives, Aleuts, Kashaya (Pomo), and Creoles. The native populations of the Sonoma and Napa County regions were affected by smallpox, measles and other European diseases, one instance that can be traced to the settlement of Fort Ross. However, the first vaccination in California history was carried out by the crew of the Kutuzov, a Russian-American Company vessel arriving from Callao, Peru which brought vaccine to Monterey in August,1821. The Kutuzovs surgeon vaccinated 54 persons. Another instance of disease prevention was when a visiting Hudson's Bay Company hunting party was refused entry to the Colony in 1833, when it was feared that a malaria epidemic which had devastated the Central Valley was carried by its members. In 1837 a very deadly epidemic of smallpox that came from this settlement via Sitka wiped out most native people in the Sonoma and Napa County regions.

By 1841 the settlement's agricultural importance had decreased considerably, the local population of fur-bearing marine mammals had been long depleted by international over-hunting, and the recently secularized California missions no longer supplemented the agricultural needs of the Alaskan colonies. Following the formal trade agreement in 1838 between the Russian-American Company in Sitka and Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley for their agricultural needs, the settlement at Fort Ross was no longer needed to supply the Alaskan colonies with food. The Russian-American Company consequently offered the settlement to various potential purchasers, and it was sold to John Sutter, a Mexican citizen of Swiss origin. Although the settlement was sold for a minuscule $30,000 to Sutter, Russian historians assert the sum was never paid; therefore, legal title of the settlement was never transferred to Sutter and still belongs to the Russian people. A recent Sutter biography however, asserts that Sutter's agent, Peter Burnett, paid the Russian-American Company agent William M.Steuart $19,788 in "notes and gold" on April 13th, 1849, thereby settling the outstanding debt for Fort Ross and Bodega.

20th century

Afterward, possession of Fort Ross passed from Sutter through successive private hands and finally to George W. Call. In 1903, the stockade and about 3 acres (12,000 m2) of land were purchased from the Call family by the California Historical Landmarks Commission. Three years later it was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic monument; since then, the state acquired more of the surrounding land for preservation purposes. California Department of Parks and Recreation as well as many volunteers put extensive efforts into restoration and reconstruction work in the Fort.

State Route 1 once bisected Fort Ross. It entered from the northeast where the Kuskov House once stood, and exited through the main gate to the southwest. The road was eventually diverted, and the parts of the fort that had been demolished for the road were rebuilt. The old roadway can still be seen going from the main gate to the northwest; the rest (within the fort and extending northeast) has been removed.

Most of the existing buildings on the site are reconstructions. Cooperative research efforts with Russian archives will help to correct interpretive errors present in structures that date from the Cold-War period. The only original structure remaining is the Rotchev House. Known as the "Commandant's House" from the 1940s through the 1970s,it was the residence of the last manager, Aleksandr Rotchev. Renovated in 1836 from an existing structure, it was titled the "new commandant's house" in the 1841 inventory to differentiate it from the "old commandant's house" (Kuskov House). The Rotchev House, or in original documents, "Administrator's House", is at the center of efforts to "re-interpret" Russia's part in California's colonial history. The Fort Ross Interpretive Association has received several federally funded grants to restore both exterior and interior elements. While its exterior has been partially restored, its interior is currently undergoing restoration to reflect the recent research that shows a more cosmopolitan and refined aspect of colonial life at the Fort.

The Fort Ross Chapel collapsed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but much of the original structural woodwork remained and it was re-erected in 1916, but retained the appearance of the American ranch-period modifications when it was used as a stable. Several other restorations ensued, but none incorporated the information in Vosnesensky's 1841 water-colour which portray the chapel with copper-clad cupola and tower, and red-metal roof. It was destroyed by fire in October 1970. A few months later the roof of the Rotchev House was damaged by fire. The current chapel was built during the intensive restoration activity that followed, but retains the American ranch period appearance.

The Russian cemetery on an adjacent ridge has been cleared and the gravesites identified through non-destructive archaeological techniques, primarily soil-resistivity. A large orchard, including several original trees planted by the Russians, is located inland on Fort Ross Road in Sonoma County.

Fort Ross is now a part of Fort Ross State Historic Park, open to the public.

Colonial administrators

Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, a skillful Russian-American Company administrator, served for 22 years in Alaska. He was the founder of Fort Ross and was its colonial administrator from 1812 to 1821.

List of all administrators of the Fort Ross colony:

  • Ivan A. Kuskov, 1812–1821
  • Karl J. von Schmidt, 1821–1824
  • Paul I. Shelikhov, 1824–1830
  • Peter S. Kostromitinov, 1830–1838
  • Alexander G. Rotchev, 1838–1841
Derived place names
  • Along with its status as a National Historic Landmark, the fort itself and the surrounding area (the immediate coastline and the redwood forest some distance inland) are all included in a California State Park under the name Fort Ross State Historic Park.
  • Fort Ross also designates the small rural community that exists between the towns of Cazadero, Jenner, and Gualala, with the Fort Ross Elementary School at its center.
  • Before the Europeans: the Kashaya Pomo at Metini (Fort Ross site) for centuries prior to the Russian arrival.
  • 1542-43: Juan Cabrillo visits San Diego, Farallon Islands, Cape Mendocino, Cape Blanco, Oregon.
  • 1579-1639: Russian frontiersmen penetrate eastward to Siberia and the Pacific.
  • 1602: S. Viscaino explores to the Columbia River region, naming the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes and the Rio Sebastian (present-day Russian River).
  • 1728: Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov explore Bering Strait.
  • 1741-42: Bering and Chirikov claim Russian America (Alaska) for Russia.
  • 1769: Gaspar de Portola traveling overland "discovers" San Francisco Bay.
  • 1775: Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra anchors in outer Bodega Bay, trades with the local Indians.
  • 1784 — Russians Grigory Shelikov and his wife Natalia establish a base on Kodiak Island.
  • 1799 — Russian American Company (with manager Aleksandr Baranov) establishes Novo Archangelsk (New Archangel, now Sitka, Alaska).
  • 1806 — Nikolai Rezanov, Imperial Ambassador to Japan and director of the Russian American Company, visits the Presidio of San Francisco.
  • 1806-1813: American ships bring Russians and Alaska Natives on 12 California fur hunts.
  • 1808-1811 — Ivan Kuskov lands in Bodega Bay (Port Rumiantsev), builds structures and hunts in the region.
  • 1812 — March 15, Ivan Kuskov with 25 Russians and 80 Native Alaskans arrives at Port Rumiantsev and proceeds north to establish Fortress Ross.
  • 1816 — Russian exploring expedition led by Captain Otto von Kotzebue visits California with naturalists Adelbert von Chamisso, Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, and artist Louis Choris.
  • 1817 — Chief Administrator Captain Leonty Gagemeister conducts treaty with local tribal chiefs for possession of property near Fortress Ross. First such treaty conducted with native peoples in California.
  • 1818 — The Rumiantsev, first of four ships built at Fortress Ross. The Buldakov, Volga and Kiahtha follow, as well as several longboats.
  • 1821 — Russian Imperial decree gives Native Alaskans and Creoles civil rights protected by law
  • 1836 — Fr.Veniaminov (St.Innocent) visits Fort Ross, conducts services, and carries out census.
  • 1841 — Rotchev sells Fort Ross and accompanying land to John Sutter.
  • 1903: California Landmarks League purchases the 2.5-acre (10,000 m2) fort property from George W. Call for $3000.
  • 1906: The fort is deeded to what becomes the California State Parks Commission.
  • 1906, April 18: California's major historical earthquake causes considerable damage to the buildings of the fort compound.
  • 1916 — Fort Ross is partially restored.
  • 1970 — A fire at Fort Ross again nearly destroys the former settlement.
  • 1971 — Fort Ross is once again only partially restored.
  • 1974 — Restored Fort Ross officially reopened.
  • 2010 — The Rotchev House is opened as a house museum
  • 2010 — Memorandum of Agreement signed in San Francisco between the State of California and Renova Group,a Russian enterpreneurial company, whereby the Russian company undertakes to fund the continuing upkeep and operation of Fort Ross

The National Weather Service has maintained a cooperative weather station at Fort Ross for many years. Based on those observations, Fort Ross has cool, damp weather most of the year. Fog and low overcast is common throughout the year. There are occasional warm days in the summer, which also tend to be relatively dry except for drizzle from heavy fogs or passing showers.

In January, average temperatures range from 57.0 °F (13.9 °C) to 41.5 °F (5.3 °C). In July, average temperatures range from 66.3 °F (19.1 °C) to 47.8 °F (8.8 °C). September is actually the warmest month with average temperatures ranging from 68.1 °F (20.1 °C) to 48.7 °F (9.3 °C). There are an average of only 0.2 days with highs of 90 °F (32 °C) or higher and 5.8 days with lows of 32 °F (0 °C) or lower. The record high temperature was 97 °F (36 °C) on September 3, 1950. The record low temperature was 20 °F (−7 °C) on December 8, 1972.

Average annual precipitation is 37.64 inches (956 mm), falling on an average of 81 days each year. The wettest year was 1983 with 71.27 inches (1.810 m) and the driest year was 1976 with 17.98 inches (457 mm). The wettest month on record was February 1998 with 21.68 inches (551 mm). The most rainfall in 24 hours was 5.70 inches (145 mm) on January 14, 1956. Snow rarely falls at Fort Ross; the record snowfall was 0.4-inch (10 mm) on December 30, 1987.

Popular culture

Fort Ross serves as the backdrop in the short story "Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin," part of Kage Baker's series of science fiction stories concerning "The Company."

  • Schooner, Dog Hole Landing with Lumber Chutes, Fort Ross Cove

Building Activity

  • Georgi Sokolov
    Georgi Sokolov updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via Annotator
  • Georgi Sokolov
    Georgi Sokolov updated 4 digital references and updated
    about 5 years ago via
  • updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via