Red Sails in the Sunset

No, I can’t see Russia from my house in Sonoma County, but I might’ve had a glimpse a couple hundred years ago. With Tsar Putin gobbling up the Crimea and eyeing the rest of the Ukraine, I started thinking about how things might have been if the Russkies still had a foothold here in California. That unsettling notion prompted me to make a trip up the coast to explore their vanished colony and contemplate what might have been.

Peter the Great was the first Russian to covet territory in the New World.

Peter the Great was the first tsar to covet territory in the New World.

In 1725, Peter the Great took time out from building his new capital city, St. Petersburg, to try colonizing the Pacific territories of North America before Spain beat him to it. He made little headway, but his lust for expansion was continued by Catherine the Great who, sixty years later, had herself a tiny settlement in Alaska. The formidable empress gambled that the lucrative fur trade would make it self-sufficient, but crippled by harsh weather and a shrinking otter population, and constantly dependent on supplies from the mother country, the venture collapsed. Seeking warmer weather and more furs, Russia looked south to California, and in 1812 dropped anchor in a picturesque cove up the coast from Bodega Bay. Twenty-five Russians disembarked to climb the bluff and found a colony they dubbed “Ross,” one of many words meaning “Russia” in their language. Along with them were eighty Aleut Indians with half as many hunting boats.

The Russians couldn't have chosen a more beautiful spot to drop anchor.

The Russians couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful spot to drop anchor.

Abundant redwood forests provided materials for a sturdy stockade incorporating two-story blockhouses with cannon ports. Officers’ quarters were built along with a barracks, magazine, storehouses, a small chapel and a manager’s house boasting the first glass windows in California. A stream feeding into the cove provided fresh water, but a well was dug inside the walls for a siege that never came. With no enemies to threaten their tiny paradise, the Russians ventured well outside the walls to plant vegetable gardens and erect windmills, a cattle yard, bakery, bathhouses, a threshing floor, cabins for their Indian workers, and, eventually, a cemetery. On the shores of the cove rose a forge, tannery, boathouses, storage sheds, and a shipyard where California’s first ships were built. Three Russian ranches created buffer zones against encroaching Mexican and, later, American interests, and a Russian Orthodox priest was brought in to conduct services. Times were good.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, Fort Ross was Russia's first and last foothold in California.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, Fort Ross was Russia’s first and last foothold in California.

Crops initially flourished as did the hunt for seal, otter and sea lion in the Farallone Islands thirty miles west of San Francisco, but by the early 1830s both endeavors had peaked and began to decline. Production of large quantities of beef and dairy goods proved unprofitable, as did those ambitious plans for shipbuilding. In 1839, with Ross Colony failing fast and the devastating Crimean War at home, Tsar Nicholas I pulled the plug, and three years later the settlement was sold to Captain John Sutter (of gold rush fame) for $30,000. On New Year’s Day, 1842, the Russian flag that had flown over the colony for only thirty years was lowered for the last time, and over a hundred colonists sailed into the sunset.

Russian orthodox services were conducted in the coony's small chapel

Russian orthodox services were conducted in the colony’s small chapel

The loss of Fort Ross, as Californians came to call it, was the beginning of the end of Imperial Russia’s dreams of empire in North America. Desperate for cash and disenchanted by the high cost of maintaining his struggling New World colonies, Tsar Alexander II put Alaska up for sale. Hopes for a bidding war between the United States and Great Britain fizzled, and in 1867, after only a couple of weeks of negotiating and despite naysayers dismissing it as a worthless, frozen wasteland, the American government ponied up a paltry $7.2 million in one of history’s most astonishing real estate bargains. Alaska was now a U.S. territory and, happily for us, a permanent thorn in our old enemy’s side.

Imperial Russia hoped to launch a shipbuilding industry on these very shores.

Imperial Russia hoped to launch a shipbuilding industry on these very shores.

A visit to Fort Ross today is a delightful trip back in time and, for me anyway, an irresistible invitation to speculate about what might have been. What if the fur industry hadn’t collapsed, if Russia’s shipbuilding industry had flourished and crop production exceeded all expectations? What if Russia had held on to Alaska and planted colonies throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia? Would a St. Basil or a New Moscow have risen to rival San Francisco? Can we imagine the horror if these had become communist states behind the Iron Curtain? Would there have been a Great Wall of Russia hundreds of miles long separating them from American and Canadian territory? Happily the Russkies are gone, the otter, seals and sea lions are back, and Fort Ross welcomes tourists and school children eager to learn about Russian California. Sometimes history gets it right.

The flag of the Russian-American Company last flew in 1842.

History smiled on the U.S. in 1842 when the flag of the Russian-American Company flew for the last time..





1 Comment

  1. Liz
    Jun 3, 2014

    Bravo, Michael! Another wonderful piece of history and something most Americans are totally unaware of — all brought to us via your excellent prose (you might want to fix one little typo: in the second paragraph, it should be sixty years… Sorry, can’t help myself…).

    I have been along the Russian River but never to Fort Ross. Perhaps my next visit, we could go there together.

    Thanks so much for this terrific blog.

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