Russian expansion to America in California
Along the Sonoma coastline just north from Bodega Bay is this solitary fortress guarding a lonely and quiet cove at Fort Ross. Back in the 17th and 18th century this coastline was highly contested by both the Spanish with their Carmelite missions running all the way to Sonoma and the Russian expansion to America who plied the Northern California coasts all the way to Alaska in search of an expanding fur trade, and pushing Russian interests further east into the lands of the New World. Considering that the Spaniards only had missions located along its California corridor compared to this Russian fortress/settlement that was highly armed and s strategically placed, the Russians had the upper hand controlling the coastal areas all the way to Alaska.
By the early 1800’s entrepreneurial Russians were exporting over 62,000 fur pelts of fur seal and sea otter yearly, building extensive settlements and trade with local indian tribes who were experts in hunting the coastal waters of California. This eventually became a significant fur trade market, accounting for large income streams to private expeditions and the royal Russian coffers. The larger demand in fur increased voyages to the new world, pushing for more exploration and development of settlements for storage, trade and supplying provisions for the voyage back to Russia. At the same time the Spaniards and British were keen on the Pacific Northwest territories and were envious of Russian dominance of the fur trade. The newly formed United States during the same period making inroads to the west coast via the Columbia River, and laying claim to the entire Pacific Northwest territories.
Fort Ross settlement
Decreasing pelt stock and limited provisions in the Alaskan frontier pushed Russian exploration further down into Northern California to tap into the still plentiful otter and seal population. After much exploration of Northern California, the area just north of Bodega Bay was chosen to develop a settlement called Ross which referenced imperial Russia (Rosiia). Ross settlement was chosen in 1811 for its small bay due, mild climate and availability to grow food, easy access to good lumber and labor with the local indian population. The combination of Alaskan Aluets, Russians and native Indians were a cohesive organization working in genuine cooperation. Also, the local Indians supported giving their coastal lands to the Russians in trade for trinkets and security from other Indian tribes and the Spaniards.
The settlement grew and increased efforts were made in farming production to grow wheat and other grains, vegetables and fruit and eventually some vineyards and raising animal stock which became more successful to their agricultural efforts. Cattle, horses, mules, and sheep allowed for substantial export of beef, wool, tallow, butter and hides back to the northern territories in Alaska. Small cottage industries developed for wood harvesting, ship building along with the various small craft trades like wood, metal and leather craft to support the settlement and trade with the Spanish missions which did not manufacture any products to use and eventually relied on Russian made products. Also during the growth of the Ross settlement, trade was also increased with Americans and British ships traveling around California. Of all the most serene places in Sonoma, Fort Ross settlement is placed perfectly on the coastline to make trade easier along the Northern California coastline.
Despite the growth of the settlement, becoming more self sufficient and starting small cottage industries in manufacturing and finished products, losses were mounting. The Russian settlement was also starting to decline with the almost complete decimation of the seal population by the early 1830’s. The fort was eventually abandoned in 1839 due to lower expectations of their agricultural, ship building, manufactured goods and ranching operations. The sale of the buildings, assets, livestock and manufacturing were marketed to the British, the newly formed Mexican government, French interests and the Americans. Finally all assets of the settlement were sold to Captain Sutter of the famous Sutter ranch in Sacramento. The sale was agreed and completed in late 1841 and the last 100 Russian colonists set sail back to Sitka on January 1, 1842.
It’s interesting to know that with European interests in the New World expanding west towards California, Imperial Russia was also keen on expanding eastward with the interest in raw materials like the fur trade and other cottage industries. What we are left with is one small settlement at Fort Ross which is now a historic state park that you can visit.
To visit Fort Ross
Head north from Jenner from Hwy 1 about 11 miles, there will be signs to the park entrance along the coastline
The visitor center and grounds are open only Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 4:30 pm
Day use fee/parking is $8 per car
For more information 707 847-3221 Offices
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