Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming*

Actually, they already came and then went back home, as any California fourth grader will tell you, after a 40-year stay. Some of these same fourth graders may even have been lucky enough to participate in living history overnights at Fort Ross, Imperial Russia’s farthest outpost.

A large village of the Kashia Pomo people once stood on the site. After the Russian-American Fur Company (Czar Alexander I and President James Madison were both company officers) established its fur-trapping settlements at Bodega Bay, the firm turned its attention northward to what, in the spring of 1812, became Fort Ross. Here the Russians grew grains and vegetables to supply Alaskan colonists as well as Californios, or California descendants of Spanish and Mexican land grant families. They also manufactured a wide variety of products, and trapped sea otters to satisfy the voracious demand for fine furs. With pelts priced at $700 each (in 17th century dollars), no trapping technique went untried. One of the most effective: grabbing a sea otter pup and using its distress calls to lure otherwise wary adults into range.

Sea otter and pup, by Chuck Rogers

Fur trading all but wiped out California’s sea otters, which no longer live near Fort Ross. Photo of sea otter and pup, by Chuck Rogers, used courtesy Creative Commons

Trapping success here and elsewhere in California led to the virtual extinction of the sea otter, though everyone was involved, including Americans. The Russians were among the first to try to slow the devastation, but to no avail. Combined with major agricultural losses (due to greedy gophers) the decline of trapping brought serious economic problems. Commercial shipbuilding was attempted but also failed. The Russians got out from under this morass only by leaving, after selling Fort Ross and all its contents to John Sutter. The hapless Sutter—who agreed to the $30,000 price but never made a payment—carried off most of the equipment, furnishings, tools, and whatever else he could use to improve his own fort. Sutter’s own empire building eventually required James Marshall to head up the American River to build a sawmill. Marshall’s discovery of gold led to Sutter’s instant ruin but also to the almost overnight Americanization of California.

Fort Ross Historical Musket and Canon Demonstration photo by Frank Folini, courtesy of Creative Commons

Fort Ross Historical Musket and Canon Demonstration Photo by Frank Folini, courtesy of Creative Commons

The weathered redwood fortress perched on these lonely headlands, surrounded by gloomy cypress groves, was home to Russian traders and trappers for 40 years. The original 14-foot-high stockade featured corner lookouts and 40 cannons. Inside the compound were barracks, a jail, the commandant’s house, warehouses, and workshops. At the fort and just outside its walls, the industrious Russians and their work crews produced household goods plus saddles, bridles, even 200-ton ships and prefabricated houses.

Perhaps due to the Russian Orthodox belief that only God is perfect, the fort was constructed with no right angles. Its Greek Orthodox chapel was the only building here destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was rebuilt, then lost again to arson in 1970, though it’s since been reconstructed from the original blueprints (fetched from Moscow). Outside the stockade was a bustling town of Aleut hunters’ redwood huts, with a windmill and various outbuildings and shops. When the Russians at Fort Ross finally prepared to leave their failed American empire, the Pomo held a mourning ceremony to mark their departure—a testament to the visitors’ amicable long-term relations with the native peoples.

The Reconstructed Fort

Start exploring Fort Ross State Historic Park at its marvelous visitor center and museum, if you’re here when it’s open (along with the fort compound), to appreciate the Pomo artifacts and stunning basketry, Russian and Alaskan cultural displays, and period furnishings. In July and August the park is open daily; from now through next June the entire park is open 10 am-4:30 pm Friday through Monday and on most holidays (closed Thanksgiving & Christmas Day).

The fort’s only remaining original building (now restored) is the commandant’s quarters. Other reconstructed buildings include the barracks—furnished as if Russians would sail up and bed down any minute—an artisans’ center, and the armory. Don’t miss the windmill, contributed by a Russian benefactor. Stroll to the simple cemetery, and the 200-year-old orchard. Picnicking, tidepools, and hiking trails make this a good place for an extended stop. Day use is $8 per car. Well worth it are guided tours offered by Fort Ross Conservancy volunteers, offered both in English and Russian. For information call the Conservancy office at 707-847-3437, staffed seven days a week. The Call House Museum, an early California ranch era house, is open for guided tours only on the first weekend of each month, 1-4pm.

Always worth it in summer is the annual Fort Ross Festival, when area history comes alive. But even now it’s not too late to party. Coming right up is the park’s Harvest Festival, scheduled this year on Saturday, October 18, 10 am-5 pm. Starting with apple-picking in the orchard the day includes the Eastern European harmonies of Kitka’s women’s ensembles (you’ve heard them on A Prairie Home Companion) and Russia House Kedry. Ever popular is the Fort Ross-Seaview Winegrowers Association’s Grand Luncheon and wine tasting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, $125 per person.

*If you’re too young to have been exposed to Alan Arkin’s debut film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming, even at a retro-retro film festival, you’ll need to track it down for some tangential entertainment. TRAC TRAC is no Dr. Strangelove, true, but it does offer funny Cold War hijinks nonetheless, albeit on The Right Coast.

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