Monday, November 10, 2014
Somebody call Sarah Palin! There’s a Russian fort on the California coast! They’ve got cannon and muskets too!
It’s true. I swear.
There was a Russian settlement in northern California, built in the early 1800s. Just far enough north so as not to alarm the Spanish who settled up to the San Francisco area and far enough south to keep the British in Canada at ease.
I did not know this. I knew the Russians had settlements in Alaska, but not in California. I learn something new every day. It’s not that hard as there’s so much I don’t know. And what I do know is usually wrong.
While England, France and Spain traveled west across the Atlantic seeking new lands and riches, Russia went east and by the late 1700s had established a number of settlements in what is now Alaska. The biggest problem was that these settlements were not self-sufficient. Food and supplies had to be shipped from Russia. Shipments could take up to two years to reach Alaska. Another problem is that the most sought after fur-bearing animals, especially sea otters, had been hunted to near extinction.
Which is why 25 Russians and 80 Aleut fur hunters, commanded by Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Company, came ashore at Sandy Cove in the spring of 1812.
The purpose of this settlement was to provide food and materials to Russia’s Alaskan settlements and to hunt sea otters for trade. (A ranger let me touch a sea otter pelt and it was extremely soft and luxurious.)
Over the following months, the fort and buildings were constructed to withstand a Siberian winter.
The fort consisted of outer walls with two blockhouses, one seven-sided and the other eight-sided, on opposite corners.
While Fort Ross successfully grew cabbage, lettuce, carrots, turnips, beets and other crops, they had less success with wheat, which is what Russia’s Alaskan settlements really wanted. At its peak, Fort Ross only provided half of Alaska’s wheat. Fort Ross also raised cattle, horses, sheep and pigs.
As for hunting, they obviously didn’t learn their lesson because they also hunted California’s sea otters almost to extinction.
In addition to food and furs, Fort Ross built ships and other boats, made barrels, manufactured bricks, harvested lumber, and repaired guns and other equipment.
Despite trading bans by the Spanish and Mexican governments, trade between Fort Ross and Californios farther south flourished. Trade items included grain, beef, cloth, tools, coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco, boats, iron products, and leather.
The Russians built a storehouse, called a magasin, for their trade goods.
The park had recently completed the reconstruction of this building. Because the Russians kept such good records, the park filled the magasin with goods that the Russians would have had in stock.
Other buildings that were constructed included the Kuskov house and an Orthodox church. Note the two cannon in the foreground.
Additional buildings included barracks and officials quarters (building on left) and the Rotchev house (building on right). Alexander Rotchev was the last administrator of the fort. Ivan Kuskov was the first.
It took almost 30 years, but the experiment failed and Fort Ross was sold to an American.