Time Before Now, March 1812 – James Madison, the fourth of the Founding Fathers to serve as president, was facing momentous problems overseas in the run-up to the War of 1812 while Napoleon was swashbuckling his way across Europe. British peer and bad-boy romantic poet, Lord Byron, made his debut speech before the House of Lords, becoming the darling of London’s Regency drawing rooms. Author Jane Austin’s first novel, “Sense and Sensibility” hit the bookstores and female fashions featured monster muffs, minuscule jackets and elevated hemlines for “walking dresses.” (Right)
March 15, 1812
On this day the Russians founded Fort Ross and sold it off as a white elephant before it became a gold mine.
The most southern Russian settlement on the North American continent, it was a hub for Russia’s fur trade. A vanguard of Russian personnel and a flotilla of American sea captions arrived nearly a decade earlier, eager to outstrip the English competition. Andreoyevich Baranov, (right) founder of present-day Sitka, was sent to set up shop along the California cost by the Russian-American Company in 1812. In addition as a source of fur, Russia’s northern settlements envisioned the California colony would be source for grain, produce and livestock.
Early 18oo image of Fort Ross
It never met expectations. By 1820, the seal and otter population had been virtually wiped out, but Sitka was still counting on Fort Ross for supplies. The damp maritime climate caused stem rust, making attempts to grow adequate grain unsuccessful.
In 1839, Sitka gave up, signed a contract with Britain’s Hudson Bay Company for supplies and decided to abandon Fort Ross altogether. Looking to unload what the trading company considered a financial liability, they first tried to sell the site to Mexico. In 1841, however, they found an American buyer; Sacramento Valley rancher John Sutter. (Above)
The fort’s fifth and final administrator, Alexander Rotchev, (right) a linguist, writer and intellectual, personally opposed selling off Fort Ross. Cultured and well educated, he and his wife, Helana, a member of the nobility, had introduced a number of agricultural and technical advances, believing the colony could still be a success.
Interior image, Rotchev House at Fort Ross
The couple and their four children returned to Russia, where Alexander worked as an editor and translator. Helena served as the administrator of Medvednikev Home for Orphans for a time and wrote booklets for children including “The Little Naturalist.”
Rotchev wrote extensively and lectured often on his days in California, “a virtual paradise” he said, calling it the happiest time of his life. He died at the age of 77 in Saratov, on the Volga River.
By the time the Rotchevs were packed off, the fort’s founder, Alexander Baranov, was already dead. He’d become entangled with another unsuccessful outpost, Fort Elizabeth in Hawaii. Baranov had assigned physician, Dr. Georg Schäffer, to establish an outpost there. Instead of sticking to business, Schäffer got embroiled in island politics, greatly displeasing King Kamahameha.
Early image of Fort Elizabeth
Schaffer returned to Russia in disgrace but the costly episode seriously damaged the 70-year-old Baranov’s standing, as well. It may have been a factor for his coming under scrutiny for possible malfeasance at Fort Ross. He was replaced, his he books audited, and found to “balance down to the last ruble,” however. In fact, Baranov had nearly bankrupt himself paying the debts of others.
Leaving the New World bound for Mother Russia in 1818, he never made it home. He became ill during an extended stay in Java and died April 16, 1819. He was buried at sea.
With all its Russian custodians gone, Fort Ross was virtually forgotten. Many of the original buildings were moved, re purposed or dismantled. Seven years later, however, carpenter James Wilson Marshall, (left) set about building a water powered sawmill (below) for John Sutter’s land and found gold.
By 1873 the gold was gone but Ohioan George W. Call arrived with a South American fortune and a beautiful Chilean wife, Mercedes Leiva. The Calls and their nine children established a 15,000 acre ranch over the years and developed a thriving port and tourist mecca.
After occupying the land for nearly a century, the couple’s descendents sold the remaining Russian buildings and three acres of the former fort to the California Historical Landmarks Commission. It was finally turned over to the State of California for restoration.
Six of the seven structures inside the stockade have now been meticulously reconstructed from historic plans. The original chapel, which fell victim to the 1906 earthquake, is used today for Russian Orthodox services several times a year. The Rotchev House, is the only original Russian structure still in existence in America.
Rotchev House, oldest existing Russian structure in U.S.
And while the Fort Ross Colony may have been deemed a failure by Moscow, a number of European innovations arrived in California. Not the least of which, was the windmill. Three windmills and a possible water mill were located at the settlement. (Right)
In addition, the colonists brought wood stoves and glass window panes and were the first to use vaccines among the indigenous people during a small pox outbreak in 1821.
The fort itself was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and the surrounding area is part of the Fort Ross State Historic Park.
Fort Ross State Historic Park, 45 miles northwest of Santa Rosa, California, includes reconstructions of the Fort Ross compound, a visitor center and park grounds for camping, picnicking and other outdoor activities.
The stockade and buildings from the period include the Russian Orthodoxy chapel, official’s barracks, fur warehouse and block houses. A replica Russian windmill was added to the grounds in 2012.
A number of public and private campgrounds are available and hiking trails take visitors the Fort Ross cemetery, the colony’s historic orchard and the park’s coastal beaches. Pet friendly, dogs are allowed leashed in most areas except for trails, beaches and beyond the limits of roads, parking and picnic areas, and campgrounds. The park grounds are open from sunrise to sunset.
The compound and Visitor Center are open 10 to 4:30 daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also open on California state holidays but hours may vary with the season. Admission is $8 per passenger vehicle, $7 for seniors and buses $50 to $100 depending on capacity. For more information go to fortross.org, call the Fort Ross Conservancy office, (70) 847-3437 of Ranger Offices, (707) 847-3286.
Calling this year’s calendar “complicated,” California’s park personnel request that visitors check the latest information for details on what is open before planning a trip.
© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.