Harlan Hague


Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the beginnings of democratization in the fragments, Russians and Americans have talked with considerable openness, indeed warmth. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has appealed to the United States for assistance and once announced that he wanted to replace the Russian legislature with a body similar to the American Congress. This coming together should come as no surprise, a Russian diplomat said, since the first Americans, after all, were Russian immigrants.

Well. That is stretching the historical record a bit, though the ancestors of today's Native Americans probably did cross the Bering Sea from Siberia to Alaska on ice or a land bridge. Course, there was no Russia then, or United States, or England, or any other nation state, but it makes a good post-cold war conversation opener.

California's modern Russian connection is not so tenuous. Tsar Paul I in 1799 granted a monopolistic charter for the Alaskan fur trade to the Russian-American Fur Company. Russians had been taking furs in Alaska since the mid-eighteenth century and established a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island in 1784.

The Russians had nothing but problems. Excessive hunting led to the virtual disappearance of the sea otter and other fur- bearing animals. The Aleut Indians, whom the Russians had brought from the Aleutian Islands for their hunting skills, were willing confederates, but other Native Americans, notably the Tlingits, were hostile. The most pressing problem for the Russians, however, was that they could not grow enough food to feed themselves.

Farms and herds were established farther south at today's Sitka in 1804, but they were no more successful there. The soil was poor, the climate cold and the growing season too short. Trade with American ships--furs for food--helped, but it was not the answer. A company official therefore was dispatched in 1806 to Spain's northern province of California. His immediate mission was to try to buy supplies, but he was also to investigate prospects for the fur trade.

Spanish authorities were not happy to receive Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov. Spain's hold on its frontier province was fragile, and it did not wish to assist another power that might threaten its claim.  Besides, trade with the Russians was illegal.

Rezanov knew that he must succeed, or the colony at Sitka might starve. In the midst of the negotiations, which seemed doomed to failure, the count announced that he had fallen in love with Doa Concepcin Argello. It was no coincidence that she was the daughter of the commandant of the San Francisco presidio. The fifteen-year-old Doa Concepcin, swept off her feet by the gallant count, who was thirty-five years her senior, pled his cause. The authorities of church and state, including her father, were won over, and Rezanov was furnished the goods he needed.

But the marriage had to wait. Doa Concepcin, a Roman Catholic, must secure permission from Rome, and, for Rezanov's part, the tsar and the Eastern Orthodox authorities at St. Petersburg must consent to the marriage. Rezanov sailed for Sitka with his cargo of supplies, vowing to return to his betrothed as soon as possible.

Alas, he was never seen again in California. Rezanov died tragically en route to Russia. Doa Concepcin learned of his death only after years of waiting. She never married.

Writers have made much of the star-crossed romance. In many accounts, Doa Concepcin grieves her lost love; her life thereafter is desperate and empty. The evidence suggests a more commonplace affair. Rezanov might have intended to honor his vows, but his proposal probably was more a matter of expedience than love. Far from wasting away in later life, Doa Concepcin, according to one historian, "became a stout and rather jolly woman who found much pleasure in acts of kindness and charity."

Giving up any hope of feeding themselves from their Alaskan farms, a force of twenty-five Russians and eighty Aleuts under the command of Ivan Kuskov in 1812 established a fortified settlement on the California coast north of Bodega Bay. Fort Ross would grow food for the Alaska settlements and conduct sea otter hunts along the California coast. It would also serve as a base for trade with the Californians. 

Spanish officials protested this intrusion, but the Russians knew that the Spaniards did not have the military capability to dislodge them. They knew also that the Californians were starved for trade since Mexico and Spain were being ravaged in the early years of the nineteenth century by war and revolutionary upheavals. Californians might protest the Russian presence and condemn the illicit trade, but they would blink and trade nevertheless.

Fort Ross seemed promising. Scores of Aleut hunters in their kayaks took furs on the coast and in San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of local Indians were employed to lay out and work extensive farms and to tend herds of cattle and sheep. An incredible variety of goods, from household utensils and farm implements to furniture and clothing, were manufactured in the fort's shops and traded with Californians. The fort was visited by a number of notable scientists and explorers who studied the region and reported their findings

The promise soon faded. The northern California coast is known today for its fog during the growing season. The fort's wheat succumbed to rust, and its vegetables did not thrive in the moist air. The fort was built on a gently sloping bench that ended in a high bluff overlooking the sea; its port at Bodega Bay was eighteen miles away. The California authorities, still worried about the Russians, prevented their expansion by building missions at San Rafael and Sonoma and granting huge tracts of land east of the fort to Mexican citizens.

By the late 1830s, Russian-American Fur Company officials considered the future. Fort Ross had not proved the agricultural bonanza that its founders had predicted. The company indeed was forced to contract with the British Hudson's Bay Company to supply its Alaskan settlements. The sea otter had virtually disappeared from California coasts by the mid-1830s due to excessive hunting. Furthermore, company officials by the early 1840s were convinced that the westward-moving Americans eventually would overrun California.

Putting all this together, the company in 1841 sold the fort and its contents to John A. Sutter, the enterprising Swiss-Mexican who had built his own agricultural empire around New Helvetia, today's Sacramento. The Russians withdrew to Alaska and never returned.

The fort remained and can be visited today.  Built of local redwood, the fort has been faithfully preserved and restored. The twin-domed chapel, built in the mid-1820s, was the first Russian Orthodox church in North America outside Alaska. Russian- Americans still meet in ceremony annually at the church. Other company buildings line the perimeter of the compound, all surrounded by a stockade with two blockhouses that were supplied with cannon and muskets.

St. Orres on the Mendocino coastThe region still echoes with reminders of the Russian presence. About six miles south of Fort Ross, the three branches of Russian Gulch join near the coast. Six miles farther, the Russian River reaches the sea. Moscow Road borders the river. The town of Sebastopol is about fifteen miles inland from Bodega Bay. The "Stewards of Slavianka," a volunteer organization, provides services to visitors in the state parks of the Russian River area.

The most striking "Russian" structure in the region was built in 1972. On the coast north of Fort Ross, the architecture of St. Orres, a bed and breakfast inn, was inspired by Russian nineteenth-century country style. Two turrets, topped by onion-shaped, copper-plated domes, frame the building. The smaller of the two houses a spiral staircase while the larger serves as a pretty dining room with a soaring ceiling of glass and magnificent old redwood beams. Breakfast there is a delight to all the senses. In fact, hundred-year-old timbers that were salvaged from an old mill were used throughout the structure by Hugo Black, the builder. The unpainted wood on the front of the inn gleams like burnished gold in the late evening sun. The sight would warm the heart of even a discouraged Fort Ross official.

To reach California's "Russian Region," drive north from the San Francisco Bay area on HighwaSt. Orres cupolay 101. Nine miles north of Petaluma, turn west on Highway 116, and drive through Sebastopol and alongside the Russian River. At the coast, turn north about twelve miles to reach Fort Ross, now a unit in the California State Park System.

The coast is popular with visitors, and accommodation is not hard to find. St. Orres is just beyond Gualala, which is twenty-eight miles north of Fort Ross on Highway 1. Prices range from $60 for a delightful bed-and-breakfast room for two in the inn to $180 for a luxurious cottage. Call (707) 884-3303. For dinner reservations--required--call (707) 884-3335. Historic Gualala Hotel, built in 1903 when the town was a lumbering center, has rooms at $44-55 and serves hearty family-style meals in its dining room. Dinner reservations are recommended. Telephone (707) 884-3441. Rooms at the rustic Sea Ranch Lodge, eight miles south of Gualala, are $125-180, with additional mid-week package rates, some that include use of the lodge's excellent golf course. Restaurant reservations are highly recommended. (800) 842-3270.

For information about the immediate area, contact Gateway to the North, P.O. Box 999, Gualala, California 95445, telephone (707) 884-3377, and Russian River Region, Inc., P.O. Box 225-B, Guerneville, California 95446, telephone (707) 869-9212.

Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that I published some time ago. Some data, especially prices, links and contact information, may not be current.


Writing | Travel | Search