California’s Sonoma County is known worldwide for its fine wines, but for Russians, it is the home of Fort Ross, a settlement founded by Russians 200 years ago to supply food to their outposts in Alaska.
The settlement lasted under Russian ownership less than 30 years, but it endures as a place of importance in both Russian and American history. Just how important it is to Russia was demonstrated three years ago when Fort Ross, now a 3,400-acre state park, was threatened with closure because of California’s budget problems. Russia dispatched its American ambassador to Fort Ross to help save the park, and Viktor Vekselberg, the billionaire president of the Renova Group, stepped in with financial support.
Renova, a Russian firm with investments in mining, oil, telecommunications, and other businesses, set up the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, which is spending $2 million over two years on Fort Ross improvements and activities.
Russia’s claim to the area dates to March of 1812 when Ivan Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay with a crew of 25 Russians and 80 Aleuts and created a settlement for the Russian-American Company. Kuskov showed he came to stay by planting cannons on a high bluff above what was called a “doghole” port (not big enough for a dog to turn around).
The arrival of the Russians could have clashed with Spanish interests in the region, but the Spanish, seeing they were outgunned, decided not to fight the Russians and instead traded and partied with them. Kuskov raised the Russian-American Company flag over the settlement in August of 1812 and named it Fort Ross, highlighting the connection to Imperial Russia (Rossiia).
The colonists planted crops and orchards, set up a sealing station on the remote and deserted Farallones Islands west of San Francisco, and hunted California sea otters to near extinction. They enlisted work from Native Americans in the nearby Kashaya Pomo settlement, but did not try to convert them to their religion or enslave them. Instead, they married them.
Almost 30 years later, the sea otter population was depleted, and the efforts at farming were defeated by several factors, including fog and gophers. In 1841, the Russian-American Company sold the fort to John Sutter of Gold Rush fame, turned their pigs loose (where they went feral and still are a nuisance to local gardeners), took their Native American wives and children and went home to Russia. The Kashaya Pomo are still trying to locate their distant kin with the help of modern Russians.
The fort eventually ended up in hands of an American ranching family, the Calls, who donated it to the park system. The Call ranch house is part of the park as is the historic orchard that the Russians planted. The only surviving original structure is the Rotchev House, named for the last settlement manager, Alexander Rotchev.
Since Sonoma County was the farthest that Russian explorers traveled, Fort Ross appears in every Russian schoolchild’s history book. For many years, Russian visitors to California were frustrated by the fact that they could not visit Fort Ross. During the Cold War, Soviet citizens were not permitted in Sonoma County because it was the site of a secret military listening post.
It took Perestroika and a lot of lobbying for the government to finally loosen up enough to let the Russian Children’s Peace Chorus go to the fort and sing. Then in 1991, when Perestroika was in full bloom, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, sent a good will cruise ship full of scientists, business people and government officials down the West Coast. When it docked at San Francisco, a bus convoy took them to Fort Ross. The government had declassified its secret post enough to let them into Sonoma County.
At Fort Ross the party was in full swing as Russian-Americans, Russian Orthodox priests and history buffs gathered to welcome the visiting Soviets with Russian music and with food cooked in great cauldrons over open fires. Then word came the Soviet military had staged a coup and no one knew where Gorbachev was.
The captain of the Soviet cruise ship was beside himself. Who was his boss? Would he be shot when he got back to Russia? Should he continue the voyage or get everyone on planes to the USSR? Just then the rangers shot off one of the fort cannons. Cannons are startlingly loud. The captain keeled over with a heart attack. He was helicoptered to a hospital in Santa Rosa, and released a few days later when he learned Gorbachev was fine, the coup had failed. Boris Yeltsin had climbed a tank in Red Square and the army chose him over old bosses, and the voyage could continue.
On July 28 and 29, Fort Ross will be the scene of festivities again to celebrate the Fort Ross Bicentennial. Docents and volunteers will don their Russian period clothing, make music, cook, and shoot off cannons. The Kashaya Pomo, who still have their home in the area, will turn out in regalia to dance; historians will lecture, and the museum at the fort will show off its collection of artifacts from the Russian settlement. Tall ships accompanied by Russian longboats and Aleut kayaks will sail into the doghole port and fire their cannons, too. Visiting Russians will be wined and dined with vodka, California caviar and Sonoma County wines.
Priests will conduct services in the Russian graveyard above the fort where some of the Russian men are buried. Their graves were excavated in the 1980s by archeologists from the University of Wisconsin, and then the bodies were reburied and the graveyard was consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church. The simple wooden Russian crosses on the lonely bluff above the sea drive it home emotionally just how far from home they were when they died.
The priests will also celebrate a mass in the fort’s chapel—a beautifully simple building. It collapsed in 1906 during the great earthquake, and was rebuilt. Then in 1970 it burned, and was once again carefully reconstructed using the old tools Russians would have employed to construct the original chapel. Much of the fort is lovingly restored. Storerooms are full of the trade goods the Russians would have sold to the Spanish and Kashaya. Weaponry from the period fills the armory. The state parks’ Living History program lets schoolchildren and their teachers relive the lives of Russian settlers for two or three days, gardening, fishing, cooking outdoors, firing the cannons from the blockhouses at each corner of the fort. California school kids have learned to love the fort as much as their peers in Russia revere it.
As part of the bicentennial celebration, “Juno & Avos,” a Russian rock opera about a Russian count who married the daughter of the commandant of a Spanish fort in San Francisco in 1806, will have its West Coast premiere in San Francisco July 25 and Santa Rosa July 27 to benefit the Fort Ross Conservancy.
On August 25, which is the anniversary of the Fort Ross flag raising in 1812, the fort will hold a formal dedication ceremony to honor those who lived and died in the settlement. Dignitaries from Moscow and from Tot’ma, Kuskov’s birthplace and the sister city of Bodega Bay, will attend. Of course, someone will again fire the gloriously loud cannons.
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.
IF YOU GO:
Fort Ross State Historic Park will be open Fridays through Sundays until Sept. 3 and will be open only on Saturdays and Sundays thereafter.
While the Renova Fort Ross Foundation funds park improvements and activities, it does not fund the park’s operating costs, and so the park is still threatened by California’s continuing budget problems. Sarah Sweedler, president and CEO of the Fort Ross Conservancy, said the conservancy is undertaking a letter-writing campaign to ask the state to keep the park open every day through September.
“We have visitors coming in from around the world, and given the importance of the bicentennial we believe the park should be open this year to receive them,” she said. “Fort Ross is common ground, a place where Russians and Americans work together to secure this place of shared history. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous, pristine stretch of the California Coast.”
There is a state campground at Salt Point Park north of Fort Ross. Reef Campground, a primitive campground in a protected canyon near Fort Ross, is closed.
The park’s hours and campground availability are subject to change. For information, visit the Fort Ross Conservancy website at fortross.org or the state park website through parks.ca.gov. For park information, call (707) 847-3286 or (707) 865-2391.