If you’re missing Figure Skating Friday, never fear — it will return in June with off season fun and silly speculation about the upcoming Olympic season. But, for now, enjoy this special feature about Russia’s southern-most settlement in North America.
If you have never heard of Fort Ross, you might be asking yourself what Russians were doing in California and why you’ve never heard about this before. As it happens, Sonoma County, CA is a very unique place, being home to both the northern-most Spanish mission and the southern-most Russian settlement in North America.
The Russians wanted to trade with the Spanish and also to grow crops to support their growing endeavors in Alaska, where the climate was too harsh to grow food well and people died of malnutrition and scurvy. In 1812, Fortress Ross was established along the coast in Northern California, near the modern day town of Jenner in what is now Sonoma County. Russian settlers, Alaskan Natives, and local Natives lived and worked together at Fort Ross for the next thirty years.
While only one original building, the Rotchev House (home to the fort’s last commander), survives today, the state park still offers a glimpse into what life was like in Russian America in the 19th century. The fort brought such innovations as the first glass windows in the history of California and an early attempt at wildlife conservation that came about when the local sea otter population started to dip due to over-hunting and quotas were imposed.
Fort Ross was also unique because of the positive relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans. When the fort was established, the Russian American Company paid the local Natives for the land. Settlers and Natives intermarried over the years, resulting in the birth of creole children, who were given higher status than Natives. The Russians did not force religious conversions or a Russian way of life on the Native people, and so relations were cordial and Native Alaskans had a village of their own near the fort, constructed in their traditional manner.
All photos taken by my father and me, April 2017