“Sea otters don’t have a layer of blubber to help them keep warm, unlike other marine animals,” he said. “Instead, sea otters have the densest fur for insulation.”
Birnbaum, programs manager for Fort Ross Conservancy, was leading me on a private tour of the walled compound at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a National Historic Landmark situated on the scenic northern coast of California’s Sonoma County, about a dozen miles beyond the town of Jenner.
It was a grey, blustery day, and we were inside the combination warehouse/company store, or magazin, one of seven recreated and restored buildings, along with a stockade, now occupying what was once the site of Settlement Ross. Established in 1812 by Russians working for the Russian-American Company, the settlement’s name derived from Rossiia, the word for Russia.
Russians had colonized part of America? This was news to me. I knew that such nationalities as the English, French and Spanish had been early builders of our country, but not Russians. It was clear that my East Coast education in U.S. history was lacking.
The Russians had settled some 75 years earlier in Alaska. They ventured farther south to this coastal locale to cultivate new sources of food to help sustain the Alaskan settlement, and to expand their fur trade to enrich the Russian-American Company. Tsar Paul had chartered the Company in 1799 to control Russian exploration, trade and settlement in North America. Sea otters, once prolific along these shores, were essentially the Russian settlement’s initial cash crop. Their pelts were highly valued, and competition for them among hunters was fierce.
For 30 years, Settlement Ross was a thriving multicultural, mercantile community of some 300-400 Russians, Kashaya Pomo, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians, Aleutian and Kodiak Islanders, and Creoles – the children of Russian men and Native North American women. Each ethnic group set up its own neighborhood within the vicinity of the fort.
The Russians were entrepreneurial and industrious. They created a shipyard and built the first ships in the cove. They had a tannery, a forge and a bakery. Coopers built barrels and carpenters built furniture. They erected the first windmill west of the Mississippi River. Cattle and sheep roamed the hills. There were vegetable gardens, wheat fields and an orchard, and some of the trees survive today. The Russians even planted the first grape vines in the region, thus helping to set the stage for Sonoma County’s development as a premier wine region, in which the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area bears their name. When hunters decimated the sea otter population, trade shifted to agriculture and livestock.
By all accounts, daily life was active and peaceful, certainly prompted by the fact that the settlement never was subjected to attack. Presumably, the 41 cannons on the grounds of Fort Ross were a deterrent.
“It was a class-conscious society and not always a happy one, but it was a place of great harmony and exchange where people learned to work together,” Birnbaum said.
He and I continued our walk through the other buildings. My favorite was Rotchev House, built around 1836 and named for Alexander Rotchev, the last manager of Ross. Made of redwood from the nearby forests, it’s the only original Russian-built structure still standing at Fort Ross, although it has a new roof. It’s also the oldest standing wooden building between Alaska and Monterrey, CA, and is a National Historic Landmark.
Rotchev and his wife, Elena, were a refined couple, and so was their home. He was intelligent, well-traveled, schooled in the arts, and a poet. Descended from nobility, she, too, was accomplished in the arts and sciences, and was multi-lingual. Their home had a library and a piano – somewhat incongruous for a frontier home. They were noted for their hospitality and served fine French wines.
The other buildings are: the officers’ barracks; the Kuskov House, named for the founder and first manager of Ross; the chapel, which was never actually consecrated as a church because no priest was ever permanently assigned there; and two blockhouses in the stockade for defense. I climbed to the top of one to experience the panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Across the bluff from the chapel we could see the wooden crosses of the cemetery.
Even with the diversity and activity at Fort Ross, Company officials decided to abandon the colony. The yield from farming and ranching failed to match expectations. Shipbuilding wasn’t sustainable. Despite trade with the Spanish, Mexican Californians, the U.S., Europe and China, profits were limited. In 1842, the last of the Russian settlers departed. In following years, Fort Ross was a ranch under several owners. The state purchased the property in the early 1900s, and preservation and restoration have been underway ever since.
I was satisfied to learn from Birnbaum that, unlike my own situation, students here learn about the Russian presence in early California as part of their 4th and 5th grade curricula. A school group happened to be there when I was. They were dressed in period costumes and assigned roles as artisans, militia, gardeners and such to act out.
“Settlement Ross was an early experiment,” Birnbaum said, “The Russians today have helped restore and refurbish Fort Ross, and are proud it was here.”