Monday, September 26, 2011

Rossiya--California's Russian Fort

The Russians have landed. They came ashore undetected and it was months before the rest of the world knew of their continued eastward expansion. By then it was too late to block their colonization, for the Russians had built themselves a wooden, well-armed and vigilantly- manned fort which they named, Rossiya.

So might an 1812 newspaper have declared when it was finally discovered that ninety-five Russians along with forty-five native Alaskans (Aleuts and Kodiak Islanders) had sailed their ship, the Chirikov into a cove along the rugged northern California coast, boldly coming ashore where there was good farm land and fresh water.

There had been no one to stop  them. Nearly half a century earlier, in 1769, the Russians presence in the Pacific Northwest had prodded the Spaniards into occupying Alta California. But on that day in 1812, their northernmost Spanish settlement was at San Francisco Bay, many miles south.

France, Great Britain, and Russia--along with the other major powers of the time--were involved in a European War. Napoleon's army was in the heart of Russia, headed toward Moscow and England was at war with a small but rebellious colony which had broken away and named itself The United States of America.

During the summer that the fort was built, the world had been so engrossed in their own immediate problems they had neither known nor guessed Russia's plans for further colonization. And so, what had begun nearly 250 years earlier, under the reign of Russia's first Tsar, Ivan-The-Terrible, continued: eastward expansion.

The California sea otter was long thought
 to be extinct due to over hunting. In 
1938 a small colony was spotted
at the mouth of Bixby

Creek Bridge on the
Big Sur Coast.
The Russians had came for several reasons. Sea otter were plentiful here and they desired to hunt them for their valuable fur. The farm land was good and there were wheat and other crops that must be supplied to Russia's Alaskan settlements. Trade with Spanish California was profitable and in spite of the protests and direct orders to leave, the Russians pretended not to understand the Spanish language and openly traded along the coast. And there was, of course, the very real but unspoken motive of further colonization.

1838 sketch of the Fort
Rossiya settlement.
The village and fortress of Rossiya contained forty or fifty buildings outside of the stockade. There were the high-roofed cottages of the Russian settlers, the flat-topped homes of the native Alaskans, and intermingled here and there, the cone-shaped dwellings and dance houses of the Pomo Indians who used this area seasonally to collect seafood. With the advent of the Russian settlement, and because the Russians were careful to maintain a good relationship with the Pomo tribe, the Indians stayed. Many were eventually absorbed into the Russian culture through marriage or employment.

Living history in July,
visitors more than
Inside of the fort's twelve-foot-high stockade walls, the Russians built a commandant's house, two blockhouses--one with eight sides and one with seven--a two-storied warehouse, officer's quarters, several miscellaneous buildings, and a church.

The fort's Russian
Orthodox Chapel was
built in 1825. It was
destroyed by fire in
1970 and has since been
completely rebuilt.
There were at least twenty (though some speculate as many as forty) canons mounted here and there within the fort. To be sure, a canon guarded each of the three sally-ports. Other canons of brass and iron stood at the windows of the two blockhouses, their cold black metal barely visible. Some say two canons, one on each side of the altar, stood just inside of the chapel. Sentinels patrolled the walls at night and holidays saw weapons practice. To all intents, the Russians were here to stay. And they did. For nearly thirty years.

In December of 1841, after failing to sell Rossiya to the Mexican government as well as others they had approached, the Russians made an agreement with John Sutter from Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Within a few short months of selling Rossiya, the Russians had packed up their belongings, boarded their ship, the Constantine, and sailed away. They disappeared from our shores--along with the sea otter they had so mercilessly hunted.

View across the compound
to the eight-sided
Fort Rossiya, now called Fort Ross, still stands. It is weather-beaten, ravaged by the elements, and a hollow shell of its former self. But stand it does--atop the golden headlands of the Sonoma coast. Many of the original buildings are gone, and most of those that remain have been reconstructed, largely out of original materials.

The three sally-ports stand open now. On a clear day the view from the openings is worth the short walk from the visitor parking lot to the old fort site. The giant bell hanging outside the chapel is a child's delight, just made for ringing. Its clear, low tone reverberates throughout the compound and across the countryside. The new Commandant's House with its rough-hewn timber floor and walls smell of dust and times-past. It now houses the Visitor Center and a small gift shop.

Walk through the buildings and about the grounds. Touch everything. There are few ropes here to keep the curious out. Climb the narrow stairs of the two blockhouses, touch the canons still guarding their windows. Examine the exhibits. Enjoy the view. Fort Ross, as it is now called, is a State Historic Park and as such is under the jurisdiction of California's Department of Parks and Recreation. It lies just north of San Francisco. It is a remnant of our historic past when the Russians landed, but did not stay. What they left us is a one-of-a-kind: America's only Russian fort.

Author's note:

The first time we visited Fort Ross was during the late 1950s when the fort lay right alongside The Old Coast Highway and was so intriguing, it demanded we stop. Our kids loved exploring the buildings, climbing into the blockhouses, and ringing the church bell. The next time we went back more of the buildings had been reconstructed and plans were in the making for eventually restoring the fort to its original state. This is a place your family will love--especially your children.

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