Fort Ross, California

Driving along the California coast is a feast of the eyes. The water, mountains, farms and the entire scenery will just take your breath away. It is calm and relaxing and now and then one might find something interesting. And nothing will struck me than the unique architecture of Fort Ross, which resembles Russian architecture in every way. So when my friends Long and Laura were available for the ride we head north to Highway 1 and our journey begins.

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Welcome sign

Driving on the open road, passing through hills, captivating lush greenery and the famous Russian River we finally reached our destination by noon after a 2 hour drive from Dublin, CA. We were welcome by the California Historical Marker near the visitor center. We paid our fees and look around the museum for a brief background of the fort. Then we headed outside thru the back. We follow a trail which eventually led us to the fort itself.

It was more captivating than the pictures, it felt like I was in Russia. The architectural look and the quiet scenery was overwhelming. We walked right back to history, but why did the Russians ended up in California? Here is where it all came from.

The first steps toward Russian colonization of California were taken in 1578, when an outlaw band of Cossacks crossed the Ural Mountains and conquered the Tartars of central Russia. After that the lure of furs, riches, and glory continued to propel these early fur hunters and free spirits rapidly eastward. By 1706, they had swept across the whole of Siberia, and occupied the Kamchatka Peninsula, northeast of Japan. The stage was set for further expansion to the east, across the Bering Strait. 

Starting in 1742, Russian fur hunters, or “promysloviki,” as they were called, began to leave the mainland to seek furs on and near the many islands to the east. Emel’ian Basov holds the distinction of being the first to leave the Asian mainland to gather furs. He and his crew spent the winter of 1742-43 on Bering Island. Another Russian, Mikhail Nevodchikov, reached Attu (the westernmost Aleutian island) on September 25, 1745, becoming the first of the flood of fur hunters to reach territory that was later to become part of the United States.


The first permanent settlement on Kodiak Island in what is now Alaska was built by Gregor Shelikov in 1784. The organization he put together and led became the Russian-American Company in 1799. That same year, Tsar Paul granted the company a charter that gave it a complete monopoly over all Russian enterprises in North America. In 1806, the company was even granted its own flag, a replica of which is on display in the visitor center at Fort Ross. Following elimination of competition from other fur traders, events moved rapidly in Russian America. Sitka, which the Russians called New Archangel, was founded in 1799 and became the capital of the region in 1804. Large profits began to flow to company shareholders, who included members of the royal family. The operation expanded still further in 1804, when American ship captains began to contract with the Russians for joint ventures, seeking sea otter pelts along the coast of Alta and Baja California.

The man behind this surge of activity in Russian America was Alexander Baranov, an employee of the Russian-American Company since its founding, and a resident of North America since 1791. It was he who developed the system in which native Alaskan hunters traveled south aboard American ships to hunt sea otters along the coast of California. Under Baranov’s leadership, schools were established in the Sitka territory, more equitable treatment was given to the natives, and creature comforts began to replace the harsh realities of frontier life in Russian America.”

As we head to the main fort we notice a fence area made of wooden sticks. The marker with information of the former village which used to be inside these fences.

Sloboda – Former Russian Village

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The old village on the right

Most of the inhabitants of Settlement Ross resided outside the fort; only Russian-American Company officials and visitors lived inside. Everyone in the vicinity of Fort Ross worked for the company. Lower-ranking Russian and Creole employees established a village complex of houses and gardens that gradually developed in this area outside the northwest stockade walls. The term ‘Creole: designated a social class comprised manly of people descended from Russians married to Native Alaskan and Californian. This group formed a large part of the colony’s inhabitants. Population of the settlement varied over the years. In 1836 Father Ioann Veniaminov recorded: “Fort Ross contains 260 people: 154 male and 107 female. There are 120 Russians, 51 Creoles, 50 Kodiak Aleuts and 39 baptized Indians“.

We entered the fort to find it buzzing with people, it seem there is an excursion of a couple of kids with their parents with a picnic of a reenactment of the life in the fort. We enter and the house on the right greeted us. which is known as the Rotchev Home.

Rotchev Home

The Rotchev House was built circa 1836. This National Landmark building is the only original structure remaining from Russia’s thriving settlement in California. It was the family home and office of the last administrator of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev. He was well-traveled and a poet. His wife, Yelena Gagarina, was a descendant of titled nobility. Both were conversant in several languages. Accounts indicate that the Rotchev home was a refined and properly furnished residence. The library, French wines, and piano forte, as well as the hospitality of the Rotchevs, were highly regarded. The Rotchev household was busy with three young children as well.”

We walk inside and found some furnitures from the kitchen to the bedrooms which are not originally from there. Then we went to the Storage and Housing or the Officials Barracks. Inside is more beds and a collection of guns and items widely use during that era. As we explore here is the history of the first encounter of the Russians with the Spanish.

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The first significant contact between the Russians and the Spanish came in April 1806. Nikolai Resanov had arrived in Sitka the previous year as an “imperial inspector and plenipotentiary of the Russian-American Company.” He found the colony on the verge of starvation, and decided to sail southward to Spanish California in hopes of obtaining relief supplies for the beleaguered Alaskan colony. On April 5, he and his scurvy stricken crew passed through the Golden Gate.

Rezanov knew that foreign ships were not allowed to trade in California, but he sailed his ship, the Juno, boldly past the Spanish guns at the harbor mouth. For the next six weeks, the Juno lay at anchor in San Francisco Bay while a battle of wits went on between the Russians and the Spanish. The impasse was broken when Rezanov proposed to marry Concepcion Arguello, the teen-age daughter of the Spanish commander at San Francisco. The Juno was soon being loaded with grain for the starving settlement to the north, and on May 21 passed again through the Golden Gate.”

Our next destination is to check one of the blockhouses. Here’s an information about it.

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The key to the defense of early frontier forts was the blockhouse. It was from the blockhouse that an attacker could be put under a deadly barrage. In the event that the stockade wall was breached, the defenders could retire to the blockhouse for a last ditch fight. This blockhouse is eight sided, the opposite one is seven sided. For the defense of the fort the Russians brought in 41 cannons of various sizes and origins. They established themselves in such strength that the meager Spanish forces to the south realized they were unable to evict the Russians.” We enter and saw a single stair upstairs where there are several cannons facing to the sea. We took some pictures and appreciate the scenery and then we went out and look around imagining how the fort was founded.

Rezanov brought back two ideas from his venture into Spanish California – the desire to establish permanent trade relations, and the wish to found a trading base on what the Russians referred to as the “New Albion” coast north of Spanish territory. Rezanov convinced Baranov of the value of his ideas, and Baranov sent Ivan Kuskov, a company employee of long standing, on a voyage to locate a site suitable for the planned settlement. Moving southward on the ship Kodiak, Kuskov arrived at Bodega Bay on January 8, 1804, remaining there until late August. He and his party of 40 Russians and 150 Alaskan natives explored the entire region, and brought back more than 2,000 sea otter pelts. 

Fort Ross 1830s

By November 1811, Kuskov was ready to head south again this time to build a colony on the New Albion shore. After arriving at Bodega Bay in early 1812 aboard the Chirikov, he decided that the most suitable location for the colony was the site of a Kashaya Indian village, 18 miles to the north. 
The spot was called Meteni by the local Indians. According to one account, the entire area was acquired from the natives for “three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads.” 

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Officer’s Barracks

The land offered a harbor of sorts, plentiful water, good forage, and a nearby supply of wood for the necessary construction. It was also relatively distant from the Spanish, who were to be unwilling neighbors for the next 29 years. The fort was completed in a few weeks, and was formally dedicated on August 13,1812. The name “Ross” is generally considered to be a shortened version of “Rossiya,” the Russia of Tsarist days.

After walking around we went to the most photographed building in the Fort. The Chapel. We left Long at the blockhouse because he is too mesmerized about the building. Me and Laura took some pics in front of the chapel and its bell. The chapel’s  architectural features is uniquely Russian and that is why every time I see the picture of Fort Ross and see the chapel I always thought its located somewhere in Russia.

The Chapel

The Chapel was originally built in the mid-1820s. It was the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America outside of Alaska, although Ross had no resident priest. In 1836 Father Ioann Veniaminov visited the settlement and conducted sacraments of marriage, baptisms, and other religious services. Father Veniaminov later became Bishop of Alaska, then Senior Bishop of the Russian Empire. In 1977 he was glorified Saint Innocent by the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Veniaminov had been an active missionary among the Native Alaskan people. Unlike the Spanish, the Russian priests in North America baptized only those natives who demonstrated a knowledge and sincere acceptance of Christian belief.

“The chapel is constructed from wooden boards… It has a small belfry and is rather plain; its entire interior decoration consists of two icons in silver rizas. The chapel at Fort Ross receives almost no income from its members or from those Russians who are occasional visitors.” Journal of Father Ioann Veniaminov, 1836.

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The bell by the entrance

The chapel was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The foundation crumbled and the walls were ruined; only the roof and two towers remained intact. Between 1916 and 1918, the Chapel was rebuilt using timbers from both the Officials’ Quarters and the Warehouse. On October 5, 1970 the restored Russian chapel was entirely destroyed in an accidental fire. It was reconstructed in 1973. Following Russian Orthodox tradition, some lumber from the burned building was used. The chapel bell melted in the fire, and was recast in Belgium using a rubbing and metal from the original Russian bell. On the bell is a small inscription in Church Slavonic which reads “Heavenly King, receive all, who glorify Him.” Along the lower edge another inscription reads, “Cast at the foundry of Michael Makar Stukolkin, master founder and merchant at the city of St. Petersburg.”

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Interior of the chapel

According to Russian Orthodox tradition, the cross on the chapel cupola has a short bar on the top representing a sign nailed to the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth-King of the Jews”; the middle bar represents Christ’s crucifixion; the slanted bottom bar, to which Christ’s feet were nailed, points toward heaven (signifying the thief on the right who repented) and downward (signifying the disposition of the mocking thief).

In 1925, the Chapel began to be used for Orthodox religious services, and it continues to be used for such services every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and during our Fort Ross Festival on the last Saturday of every July.

After exploring the chapel me and Laura went out to see the Kuskov House.

Kuskov House

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Kuskov House

The Kuskov House was the residence of Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov, who founded Ross and was the first administrator. It served as the colonial administrator’s house from before 1817 until 1838. In the upstairs were living quarters, downstairs an armory. Four of the five Fort Ross managers lived here. First hand accounts describe its historic use: “The first room we entered was the armory, containing many muskets, ranged in neat order; hence we passed into the chief room of the house, which is used as a dining room & in which all business is transacted. It was comfortably, though not elegantly furnished, and the walls were adorned with engravings of Nicholas I, Duke Constantine, &…” An anonymous Bostonian’s description, 1832.

“The old house for the commandant, two stories, built of beams, 8 toises [sazhens] long by 6 wide, covered with double planking. There are 6 rooms and a kitchen.” Inventory for Mr. Sutter, 1841. The Kuskov House reconstruction was completed in 1983, based in part on the plan of 1817.

The Voznesenskii Room is in the upstairs of the Kuskov House on the east corner. Among the later visitors to Ross was the naturalist and artist, Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii. A trained scientist and competent graphic artist, Voznesenskii was sent by the Imperial Academy of Sciences to explore and investigate Russian America. Many important sketches of the Ross Settlement and the surrounding area come from Voznesenskii’s hand, the result of a year-long visit to Northern California. His avid interest in California’s flora and fauna, as well as Native American life, took him far afield by foot, boat and horseback. On these and other expeditions, Voznesenskii was able to gather an ethnographically invaluable collection of California Indian artifacts.”

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After walking around the building we walked out and head to the next building which look more of a house than the others. But to my dismay it was an old warehouse.

Old Magasin

“This two-story Russian-American Company warehouse, or magasin, functioned both as company store and as a warehouse where supplies for agricultural operations and hunting were documented, assessed and stored for distribution. Reconstruction of the fur warehouse (“magasin”) and interpretive display was completed by California State Parks in 2012. 

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Magasin under renovation

Goods stored in the warehouse reflected extensive Russian trade with Spanish and later Mexican California, as well as Britain, the United States, Europe and China. The Pacific Coast as far north as the northern boundary of the current state of Washington was claimed by England and Spain. In 1812 the Spanish had no settlement north of the Presidio of San Francisco.

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Fort Ross

The Governor of Spanish Alta California, José Joaquin de Arrillaga, was friendly with the Russians, and profited by trade. After his death, the Spanish took a harder line, demanding the removal of the Russian colony. While trade with the Russians was strictly forbidden by Madrid, the Spanish colonists found ways to get around the rules, and trade between Settlement Ross and the Spanish colonies flourished. Eager to buy goods made by the Russians, the Spanish traded food grown in the Missions, which was sent to the Alaskan settlements. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, trade with Ross assumed even greater importance as the Russians provided military goods to the former Spanish colony, which no longer had a mother country to supply it.

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After looking around those three buildings we went to the Well in the middle of the Fort. “Archaeological excavations indicate that the original well cribbing was 34 feet deep. Though there was a nearby creek, the well inside the fort compound offered security in case of attack.

This site was selected for Fortress Ross because of its access to fresh water, nearby timber for construction, the flat coastal terrace surrounding it on which to grow crops, and because it was a defensible site with inaccessible ridges protecting the rear, plus a small harbor below.

The original Russian flagstaff marked on the 1817 map was in the vicinity of the well.” We met with Long and the three of us exited the Fort through the West Gate also known as the Main gate. We were greeted by the Sandy Cove Beach and here is the information about it.

Sandy Cove Beach

“Sandy Beach Cove lies below the fort. The principal port of the settlement remained 19 miles to the south at Port Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay). There was frequent travel and transport of goods between Sandy Beach Cove and Port Rumiantsev in Russian launches and Native Alaskan baidarkas (kayaks) and baidaras (large, open skin boats used to carry cargo and up to 15 passengers).

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By the beach

In the cove area below the settlement were a number of buildings including a shed for the baidarkas, a forge and blacksmith shop, tannery, cooperage (for making barrels) and a public bath (“banya”).

There was a boat shop and shipways for building ships. Farm implements and boats were sold and traded to the Spanish, and four Russian-American Company ships—three brigs and a schooner—were the first built on the California coast. The shipyard was abandoned by 1825, but smaller boats continued to be built.”

Not far from the Sandy Cove marker is a marker dedicated to the Alaskan Village.

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Site of the Alaskan Village

Outside the main gate of the fort stood the dwellings of the Native Alaskans who were brought to the settlement by the Russian-American Company to hunt sea mammals and provide a work force for the colony. The Native Alaskan Village Site was the primary residential area for single Native Alaskan men, Native Alaskan families, and interethnic households composed of Native Alaskan men and Kashaya and Coast Miwok Native Californian women. The village was situated on the marine terrace in front of the stockade walls. The extensive archaeological deposit is on approximately one-half acre, and was investigated by archaeologists from State Parks and University of California, Berkeley, in the summers of 1989, 1991, and 1992.

Then we went to the side of the Fort looking for the cemetery and it took a while before we found it.

Old Russian Cemetery

“Across the gulch to the east, one-quarter mile above the cove, a large Russian Orthodox cross marks the site of the settlement’s cemetery. One hundred thirty-one people were buried in the cemetery during the Russian-American Company’s thirty-year settlement.

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Russian Cemetery by the Dried Tree

To the northeast about the distance of a cannon shot, they have their cemetery, still without a fence. Among the burials there are notable distinctions. For the three distinguished Founders facing each other they placed their mausoleum on a sepulcher of three squared levels from larger to smaller, and on these a pyramid of two varas (5 ½ feet), over this a sphere as a top and on [it] a cross, all painted in white and black in such a way that when one descends from the mountains it was what most attracts attention. Over another European they put only a sort of large box, and over the Kodiaks, a cross…

All of the crosses we saw are patriarchal; a small cross above and a larger cross nearby like arms, and below, a diagonally placed stick… ” Fr. Mariano Payeras, 1822.”

We were kind of disappointed that the we won’t be able to visit the cemetery because its too far of a walk from the fort. Instead we took a loop going around the State Park. We came across a charming cottage, a reminder of the American Ranch era of Fort Ross.

Call House

The Calls built this residence in 1878, as a headquarters for the ranch and shipping operations, and a home for their family, which eventually included nine children. They built the one and a half story front section (the living and bed rooms) and incorporated an earlier, one story structure built by a previous owner, William Benitz (dining rooms and kitchen) on the back. The Call family lived in this house for almost a century until son Carlos, the last occupant, died in 1972. The Call House, which is open to the public for guided tours only, is an excellent representation of the coastal Ranch era. Its artifacts and renovation were done “in house” by park staff and volunteers, with grants from the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission and the Mercedes Pearce and John Stafford Trust.

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Call House

The cooperation and encouragement of the Call family descendants helped to recreate the life of George Washington Call (1829-1907) and his young Chilean wife, Mercedes Leiva (1850-1933), who bought 2500 acres of the Fort Ross (as part of Muniz Rancho) in 1873.

This house was first open to visitors in May, 2003. Volunteers maintain the historic garden and give guided tours on the first weekend of each month from 1 to 4 PM. Many of the furnishings belonged to the Call family.”

As we come to the end here is the final information about the Russian’s last years at the Fort.

In 1839, the Russian-American Company signed an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply Sitka with provisions from its settlements in present-day Washington and Oregon. Soon afterward, the Russian-American Company decided to abandon the Ross Colony. First, they tried to sell it to the Mexican government. When that failed, they approached Mariano Vallejo and others. In December 1841, they reached an agreement with John Sutter of Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Within a few months, the Russians were gone. Sutter sent his trusted assistant, John Bidwell, to Fort Ross to gather up the arms, ammunition, hardware, and other valuables, including herds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, and transport them to Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Thereafter, the buildings at Fort Ross that were not dismantled and removed by Sutter were used for a variety of purposes by successive owners. In 1873, the area was acquired by George W. Call, who established the 15,000 acre Call Ranch.

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The Call family continued to hold the property until 1903, when the fort and about three acres of land were purchased by the California Historical Landmarks Committee. In March 1906, the site was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic monument. Since then, more acreage has been acquired (a total of 3,277 acres as of 1992) to preserve the site of the old Russian establishment and some of its surrounding environment. Extensive restoration and reconstruction work has been carried out by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, so that today one can again see Fort Ross somewhat as it looked when the Russians were here. “

Finally at the end of the tour is a replica of a Wooden Windmill, the most interesting site for me in the fort.

Fort Ross Windmill

Fort Ross had two windmills, both of which were the first windmill west of Mississippi. The first mill was constructed in 1814, not long after the Russians settled Fort Ross. The second mill was built in 1841. The windmills served two purposes: to grind grain into flour for baking bread for both Settlement Ross and the Russians’ Alaskan settlements, and to power the stamping of local tan bark, used in the hide tanning industry. These were very likely the first windmills west of the Mississippi River.

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Wooden Windmill

The windmill now standing at Fort Ross is a gift from Link of Times, a Russian-based cultural and historical foundation chaired by Viktor Vekselberg. It was constructed in the Vologda Oblast in Russia, where Ivan Kuskov and other RAC employees were from, and then disassembled, put into two containers, and shipped to California, where it cleared customs and was trucked to Fort Ross in September, 2012, as part of the Fort Ross Bicentennial.”

It was a educating tour of the area learning a lot about the history of the Fort and Russians who built it to the tenure to Sutter and becoming a the ranch of the Call family and ending as a state park. Knowing that Russians stepped in California during its early days is a nice mix to the people who made California to what it is. We head back to the Museum and Gift store where we bought some souvenirs. Then we left and explore more of the coast.

Here are the sites for more information:

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Say Cheez!

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