Fort Ross – When Russians Colonized North America
Fort Ross was a Russian-American Company settlement in California which was built during the 19th century. This settlement represents the southernmost extent of the Russian colonisation of North America. The Russians, however, did not remain at Fort Ross for long, as they sold it away after occupying it for about 30 years. Subsequently, the settlement passed through the hands of several private individuals, before becoming a property of the Californian state. Fort Ross today is a State Historic Park.
Fort Ross is located in Sonoma County, in the western US state of California. The fort was established by the Russian-American Company, a trading monopoly that established colonies in North America during the 19th century. The Company was founded in 1799, and initially established colonies in Alaska.
The Russians, however, soon ventured south, due to the difficulty of supplying provisions to the colonists, harsh environmental conditions, and the declining sea otter catch (for the fur trade) in Alaskan waters. Several expeditions were sent to California to locate potential sites that would be ideal for a settlement, and negotiations were carried out with the Spanish, who were in control of the area.
Fort Ross (Frank Schulenburg / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Eventually, the Russians decided that a cove and promontory up the Sonoma Coast from Bodega Bay would be the best place to establish their colony. Therefore, in March 1812, the first Russian settlers arrived at the chosen site to build a settlement. These settlers consisted of 25 Russians, most of whom were craftsmen, and 80 Aleuts. The expedition was led by Ivan Kuskov, who had selected the site.
The Fort is Constructed
The settlers built a stockade, blockhouses, and log buildings, according to traditional models from Siberia and Sitka (a Russian colony in Alaska). The new settlement became known as ‘Ross’, supposedly “to highlight poetically its connection with Imperial Russia (Rossiia)”. Although the settlement is now known as Fort Ross, it only acquired this name later, during the middle of the 19th century. Fort Ross is known also as ‘Ross Colony’, ‘Ross Settlement’, ‘Ross Fortress’, and ‘Ross Office’, the last of which was used by Company officials.
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The buildings inside the stockades included the house of the manager, the residences of other officials, barracks for Company employees, storehouses, and a chapel. This area was defended by cannons, as well as sentries stationed in the blockhouses. Additionally, there was a well to supply water in the event of an emergency.
A view of Fort Ross, 1828, by Duhaut-Cilly, from the archives of the Fort Ross Historical Society. (A. B. Duhaut-Cilly / Public Domain )
The structures outside the stockade included mills, threshing floors, bathhouses, and farm buildings. A cemetery was also established outside the stockades, as were vegetable gardens, and an orchard. After 1820, many of the Russian settlers chose to live outside the stockades. The population in this area also included the Aleuts, as well as the local Kashaya natives.
Fort Ross was established as a commercial settlement, and the company was hoping to use it to profit from the fur trade. This, however, was not meant to be. Although there were plenty of sea otters in the area, their population began to dwindle as early as 1816. By the 1820s, the sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction.
The Company also hoped that Fort Ross could be used to supply provisions to their colony in Alaska, but this too proved to be a disappointment. It took some years for agriculture at Fort Ross to develop. Even at its peak in the early 1830s, however, the amount of produce still fell far short of Company expectations.
The Settlement is a Success
The settlers at Fort Ross were more successful at other commercial ventures. Stock raising, for instance, was one of them, though it was never turned into a major enterprise by the Company. Other successful enterprises at For Ross included tanning, milling, brickmaking, and blacksmithing.
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In 1814, the first known wind-powered flour mill in California was built by the settlers of Fort Ross. A second windmill was built not long after. This windmill is reported to have been able to grind more than 30 bushels of grain a day. A third mill, powered by hand and animal, was subsequently built.
Replica of the Fort Ross windmill, the first built in California (MARELBU / CC BY 3.0 )
Interestingly, Fort Ross also became a base of operations for a number of Russian scholars. These included men who whose expeditions were funded by the Russian government, or by private means, as well as Company employees who had an interest scholarly pursuit. These men dabbled in various fields of knowledge, including “geography, botany, zoology, entomology, geology, meteorology, and ethnology”, thereby providing much information about the region. The works of these scholars are still useful even today.
By 1839, the Company decided that Fort Ross was not as profitable as they had hoped, and decided to abandon it. The growing number of Mexican and American settlers, which the Russians were unable to compete with, was another factor contributing towards the abandonment of Fort Ross.
After liquidating the settlement, the Company offered all of its Californian holdings for sale. However attempts to sell Fort Ross to the British, French, and Mexicans all ended in failure. In the end, the settlement was sold to a private individual, John Sutter, in late 1841. On the 1st of January 1842, the flag of the Russian-American Company was lowered at Fort Ross, and its last remaining colonists left to return to Sitka.
In the subsequent decades, Fort Ross became a working ranch , and changed ownership several times. In 1906, it became the property of the Californian state, and was designated as a State Historic Park. In 2009, Fort Ross was one of California’s state parks marked for closure, due to a financial crisis that forced the state to cut costs. It was, however, rescued by Renova, a Russian private company.
Today, Fort Ross is a tourist attraction open to the public, and charges a “regular day use fee”. Apart from the historical monuments at the site, visitors can also enjoy the natural scenery, as well as participate in various events organised throughout the year.
Top image: The reconstructed Russian chapel at Fort Ross today. Source: Frank Schulenburg / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren
A&E Television Networks, 2021. Russians establish Fort Ross in California. Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/russians-establish-fort-ross
Crawford, A., 2012. When Russia Colonized California: Celebrating 200 Years of Fort Ross. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/when-russia-colonized-california-celebrating-200-years-of-fort-ross-880099/
Fort Ross Conservancy, 2021. Fort Ross State Historic Park. Available at: https://www.fortross.org/
State of California, 2021. Fort Ross State Historic Park. Available at: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=449
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Russian-American Company. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Russian-American-Company