The Russians at Fort Ross

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

One of the most unusual places in California perches atop a bluff overlooking the wild and scenic Sonoma coast beside a small sheltered cove. Fort Ross State Historic Park takes you back to March 1812 when 25 Russians and 80 native Alaskans dropped anchor in the cove and established what they hoped would be a permanent colony for czarist Russia. The Russians also hoped to compete with the Spaniards for the territory, establish trade with the Spaniards, and produce enough food in northern California to supply their struggling Alaska colonies.

The Russians had been visiting the region for 40 years to hunt sea otter pelts, the softest, densest and most valuable furs on the market. They paid the local residents, the Kashaya Pomo, trade goods for the right to build the fort at the Pomo village of May-tee-nee, then built their sturdy fort at a great defensive location and guarded it with 41 cannons before the Spaniards at the Presidio in San Francisco were aware of the Russian settlement. The Russians hurried to solidify their California position, starting farms at Bodega, Freestone and Willow Creek. Fort Rossiya grew to a population of 300 to 400 with 50 or 60 buildings. Europeans even used the fort as a meeting place when exploring the wild California landscape. The efficient native Alaskan hunters gathered about 200,000 otter pelts, ranging as far as Baja California, but after just twenty years, the economic viability of the fort had declined with the otter population the sea otter was nearing extinction and the failure of food crops due to harsh coastal weather and persistent gophers, insects and deer.

The Russians put the fort up for sale in 1839. After the Spaniards declined to buy it, John Sutter (who later figured prominently in the California gold rush) bought the fort for 30,000 pesos. By 1842 the Russians were gone from California. Sutter moved equipment and livestock to his Sacramento Valley ranch, leaving the fort to the Pomos, who reclaimed the land and occupied it for another 30 years.

In 1873 the Call family bought the fort and 15,000 acres, ranching and logging the area well into the 20th century. The Call House sits next to the fort today. The state bought the remains of the fort in 1906, and over the years has carefully reproduced the fort and buildings. To vividly experience this unique slice of California history, don’t miss visiting the restored fort and its excellent museum and bookstore.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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