05 August 2009

Russian Colonisation of California

I have a vested interest in this story. My family, on leaving Russia, went either to Melbourne in Australia or Winnipeg in Canada. But who knew we may have had a connection to the USA as well?

The Russian American Co. was chartered by Czar Paul I in 1799 as a private trading company in Alaska. A flag was authorised by Czar Alexander I in 1806 and granted to this company, giving the company special recognition in the international trade world.

Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska

From early 1800s, fur trappers of Russian Alaska started to explore the West Coast of the North America, hunting for sea otter pelts as far south as the otters swam. For 40 years thereafter, devel­op­ment of the province continued gradually, at first only as far as San Francisco Bay.

The pre­sence of Russian fur hunters in the North Pacific had already panicked Spain into occupying Alta California. Taking advantage of the chaos created by the war between Spain and Mexico in March 1812, the Russians had freedom to move. In 1812 The Russian-American Co. set up a fortified trading post at Fort Ross, on the Sonoma Coast 100ks north of San Francisco. This, their most south­erly colony in North America, was intended to provide Russian colonies from the frozen north with agricultural goods. 25 Russian and 80 Alaskan men waded ashore, set up a temporary camp, and began building houses and a sturdy wooden stockade for the Ross Colony.

The Russians had come to hunt sea otter and, hope­fully, to trade with Spanish California. It was several months before the civil and military leaders of Alta California were made aware of the devel­op­ment at Ross, and by then it was too late. The fort was complete.

1828 drawing of the Ross Colony

History Hoydens blog noted how the stockade was impressively fortified, in order to give the enemy in Mexico pause to think about invading the Russian outpost. The colony was well armed and well manned. A redwood palisade surround­ed the site, with two block houses, one on the north corner and one to the south, complete with cannons that could command the entire area.

Outside the walls were the homes of company labourers, a native Alaskan village, and the dwellings of the local native Americans. Because the colony had to be largely self-sustaining, there were storehouses and outbuildings for processing the precious pelts, spinning and weaving cloth, a kitchen and a room for pharmaceuticals.

The stockade contained the command­ant’s house, the of­f­icials' quarters, barracks for the Russian employ­ees and various store-houses. A small building, used as the Fort Ross Chapel, was built from 1823-6. This was the first Russian Orthodox church built in mainland USA.

No unmarried Russian women lived at Ross. But inter-marriage between Russians and the natives of Alaska and Calif­ornia was not unknown. Natives and people of mixed ancestry as well as lower-ranking company men lived in a village that gradually grew up outside the stockade walls. Hunting of sea otter, whose pelts were very valuable in the trading world, was done by Kodiak islanders in their Alaskan hunt­ing kayaks. The hunters and their families had their own village out­side the stockade.

But by 1820, extensive hunting had depleted the sea otter pop­ulation so badly that agriculture and stock raising became the main occupation of the colony. Agriculture didn’t interest the Russian sea men, but luckily ship building did. The Russians were first to build ships on the west coast of North America. Four ships were constructed at the Ross colony in Fort Ross Cove.

ComingAnarchy blog noted that as agricultural production in the Fort Ross region declined, a formal trade agreement was signed between the Russian-American Co. and the Hudson Bay Co. in Fort Vancouver. This agreement specified that British Columbia would provide food to Alaska - the kiss of death for the Ross Colony in California.

Rotchev House for the colony's manager

Literrata & Cybernalia blog described what happened when the otter population was decimated and the fur trading business was over. In 1841, the company faced a massive financial loss, so they sold off their colony to settler Captain John Sutter for the sum of $30,000. The Russians packed up everything they could carry and sailed for home. Some left-over animals were rounded up, and the buildings were dismantled. Every­thing salvageable was transported back to Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley.

Today the Fort Ross Compound has one original structure and five restored buildings. The structure of most historical interest at Fort Ross is the Rotchev house, an existing building renovated about 1836 for Alexander Rotchev, the last manager of Ross. Completely destroyed by a fire in 1970, the Fort Ross chapel has since been recreated, bas­ed on whatever historical evidence could be located. Other import­ant Russians buildings have been built from the ground up, still according to the original drawings: the first Russian Orth­odox chapel south of Alaska, the stockade, and four other buildings called the Kuskov House, the Officials Barracks and the two corner blockhouses.

Russian Orthodox Chapel, Ross Colony

The Russian River takes its name from these Russian trappers who explored the river from their Fort Ross trade colony, only 16 km from its mouth. Apparently they called it the Slavyanka River.


questfortherightone.blogspot.com said...

Looks like you've got yourself a new reader, Helen. Much pleased, and I do look forward to more of this. From Beirut, coming from Canada to teach, I find your thoughts much insightful. I do hope you'd drop by my blog, I can just imagine how interesting your thoughts would be.


J Bar said...

Very, very interesting.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

John hopper said...

You do wonder what might have happened if the Russians had not left Alaska, How would the Americans have reacted to a Russian imperial and then later a Soviet outpost in North America? Perhaps it was just as well that they did sell Alaska after all!

Hels said...

Thanks for the email from Maureen Hurley, now using the new blog name Literrata.

John, I find the whole question of statehood, and the historical events leading up to statehood, to be fascinating. 160 years later, all we have is the mythology, not the well- researched history.

Hels said...


after all this time, I am now interested in the Russian community while they still lived in Alaska. In particular, I would like to focus on the period before The Russian-American Co set up a fortified trading post at Fort Ross, California.