The Backyard Traveler: Fort Ross interprets pioneer Russian settlement

Russia once rented part of California. While the notion seems kind of absurd today, in the early 19th century the Russian government cut a deal with Spain, which claimed control over the region, to have a small colony on the northern coast of California.

The Russians were interested in the area because of its economic potential, the fact it would allow trade between Russia and Spain, and it could provide supplies to Russian colonies in Alaska. The short growing season in Alaska and the dangerous journey from Russia in the winter months, when supplies were most needed, caused the Russians to look south for a farming and trading base.

Thus, in March 1812 the Russian-American Company, a fur-trading arm of the Russian government established Fort Ross, a colony on the coast of Northern California, a few miles north of Bodega Bay.

Today, a monument to those days can be discovered at Fort Ross State Historic Park, located about an hour and a half north of San Francisco (12 miles north of Jenner) via scenic Highway 1, which runs along the California coast.

By September of 1812, the Russians had completed a redwood stockade complex at Fort Ross, which included blockhouses with cannons, several log homes, storage buildings, barracks, an armory and, in 1825, a traditional Russian Orthodox chapel.

According to history books, the name "Ross," was derived from a then-current literary word for Russia ("Rossiia"). In fact, the settlement wasn't built to be a military outpost but rather a commercial trading post and was generally referred to it as "Ross Office" or "Ross colony" by the Russians.

In addition to the stockade, a number of dwellings were built outside of the walls of the complex by native Alaskans, who had traveled south with the Russians, as well as several of the indigenous Pomo Indians, who chose to work at the fort.

By 1828, more than 200 Russians, Alaskans and Native Americans lived at the colony. Other businesses and structures also had appeared by this time, including a bakery, cattleyard, windmill, farm houses, gardens and orchards (which still exist).

The colony's value as an agricultural base was limited because of its location next to the sea. Fog, poor crop selection and pesky gophers destroyed much of the crops, so, in 1833, the Russians established three ranches farther inland, which proved more successful.

Fort Ross was somewhat viable, however, in other areas of commerce such as livestock, logging, seal fur hunting and manufacturing related products (tallow candles, wool blankets, leather goods, lumber).

Despite its modest success, the Russian-American Company decided in 1839 to abandon the colony. The primary reasons seemed to be that the seal population had been mostly exhausted and trade in manufactured goods and agriculture were below expectations.

Additionally, expansion into the area by American and Mexican settlers meant that Russia would have to protect its holdings-something it was unequipped to do because of the great distance between the colony and motherland.

In 1841, Captain John Sutter, founder of Sacramento and de facto landlord of central California, agreed to purchase the buildings and equipment of the Russian-American Company but, apparently, not the land, which was claimed by the Mexican government (which also chose not to recognize the sale to Sutter).

Over the next several decades, the settlement was sold many times and used as a ranch, hotel, saloon and dance hall. In 1906, the crumbling remains of the old fort were deeded to the State of California.

Since then, the fort has become part of the California State Park system and most of the buildings have been rebuilt and restored.

Visitors today will find a fascinating look at one of the more interesting episodes in California's history. Wandering through the fort, you can't help but feel it is some kind of alien presence on California soil because of its distinctive Russian architecture, particularly the chapel with two cupolas.

A modern visitors center, located above the fort, offers informative displays and a slide show detailing the region's Pomo population as well as Russian exploration and settlement in the American west. A self-guided walking tour, supported by an informational brochure, prompts you through the compound. Informative signs in each building provide detail of what you're viewing.

Historical presentations are offered daily during the summer months and interpretive specialists, dressed in period clothing, can frequently be found wandering through the fort. The park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is a $6 per car admission charge.

For information, contact Fort Ross State Historic Park, 19005 Hwy 1, Jenner, CA 95450, (707) 847-3286.

Richard Moreno is the author of "The Backyard Traveler," "The Backyard Traveler Returns," and "The Roadside History of Nevada" which are available at local bookstores.

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