Brief History & Walking Tour

Brief History & Walking Tour

Read this to your student employees in the classroom and bring this information with you to Fort Ross. 

Introduction – The settlement of Ross, the name derived from the word for Russia (Rossiia) was established by the Russian-American Company, a commercial hunting and trading company chartered by the tsarist government, with shares held by members of the Tsar’s family, court nobility and high officials.  The Company controlled all Russian exploration, trade, and settlement in North America and included permanent outposts in the Kurile Islands, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and a brief settlement in Hawaii.  From 1790 to 1818, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, the Company’s chief manager, supervised the entire North Pacific area.  Trade was vital to Russian outposts in Alaska, where long winters exhausted supplies and the settlements could not grow enough food to support themselves.  Baranov directed his chief deputy, Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, to establish a colony in California as a food source for Alaska and to hunt profitable sea otters.  After several reconnaissance missions, Kuskov arrived at Ross in March of 1812 with a party of 25 Russians, many of them craftsmen, and 80 native Alaskans from Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands.  After negotiating with the Kashia Pomo people who inhabited the area, Kuskov began construction of the fort.  The carpenters who accompanied Kuskov to Settlement Ross, along with their native Alaskan helpers, had worked on forts in Alaska, and the construction here followed models of the traditional stockade, blockhouses and log buildings found in Siberia and Alaska.  Outside the main gate stood the dwellings of the Native Alaskans, brought to the settlement as a labor force.

The history of Fort Ross is a unique blend of diverse cultural groups.  These groups include the Russians, the Kashia Pomo, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians, the Aleutian and Kodiak Islanders, and the Spanish and Mexican settlers.  Their settlement included many more Native Alaskan people than Russians. Creoles, the children of Russian men and Native North American women, comprised a large group during this era.

On the Trail from the Visitor Center to the Fort –

California’s First Windmill – The site of California’s first windmill appears on the 1817 map of Fort Ross. From this map the windmill is triangulated northwest of the fort on a rise midway between the Northwest Blockhouse, the Visitor Center and Highway One. The windmill is visible on the 1841 watercolor by Russian naturalist and artist, Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii. Two windmills were still there in 1841, with their grindstones, along with an animal powered mill. The original Russian millstones are now inside the fort compound beside the west gate.

The windmills highlight the important agricultural aspect of the Russian-American Company settlement at Fort Ross. One important reason for the establishment of the colony was to grow wheat and other crops for the Alaskan settlements. At Fort Ross the coastal fog, wind, rocky terrain, gophers and lack of trained agriculturalists combined to thwart this effort. Although the Company established three farms at inland sites between Fort Ross and Port Rumiantsev (Bodega Bay), and agriculture intensified after sea otter hunting diminished in the early 1820s, production was still insufficient. Trade with Spanish and Mexican California was conducted to increase the food supply to Alaskan settlements, and after 1839 a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company supplied Russian Alaska with grain and other needed supplies.

On the hill to the north just below the tree line, you can see the Russian orchard. The original Russian orchard encompassed two to three acres, and contained approximately 260 trees at its peak. Fruit trees were planted to provide for the Ross settlement in the early 1800s, and to supplement other agricultural products such as wheat and barley grown in California and shipped to the Russian colonies in Alaska. It has not yet been determined whether the oldest surviving trees date back to the Russian settlement.

Kashia Pomo (The First Inhabitants) – The Kashia Pomo, who lived in this area when the Russians arrived, were a spiritual, peace-loving people hunting game and gathering wild foods abundant in the area.  The Kashia lived on the lands from the Gualala River to Salmon Creek located just north of present day Bodega Bay. The name Kashia, which means “expert gamblers,” was given to them by a neighboring Pomo group. The Kashia, superbly matched to their environment, moved their homes from the ridges in the winter to the ocean shore in the summer, hunting and gathering food from the ocean and the land. Along the shore there were plentiful supplies of abalone, mussel, fish and sea plants. Sea salt was harvested for domestic use as well as for trading. Plants (acorns and seeds) and animals (deer, elk and a vast number of smaller animals) provided abundant food inland. The Kashia created a wide variety of tools, utensils, basketry, and objects of personal adornment which reflected a high degree of technical knowledge, design and artistic ingenuity. Their basketry, a ritual art, has achieved extraordinary respect. The Kashia’s first encounter with Europeans was with the Russians. They provided much of the labor for agricultural efforts at Ross. The high land beyond the highway supported the villages of the Kashia Pomo while they worked at Ross.

The Village Complex (Sloboda) – Most of the Russian-American Company population lived outside the fort. Only the higher ranking officials and visitors lived inside. Lower-ranking Company employees and people of mixed ancestry lived in the village complex of houses and gardens that gradually developed outside the northwest stockade walls. Intermarriage between Russians and Alaska Natives was commonplace. Their children, known as Creoles, formed a large part of the colony’s population. Population varied over the years. In 1836 Ioann Veniaminov reported:“Fort Ross contains 260 people: 154 male and 106 female. There are 120 Russians, 51 Creoles, 50 Kodiak Aleuts, and 39 baptized Indians.”

Vallejo in 1833 describes the village outside the fort: “The village of the establishment contains 59 large buildings… They are without order or symmetry and are arranged in a confusing and disorienting perspective. Inside the walls there are nine buildings, all of them large and attractive, including the warehouses and granaries.”  Later, the inventory for Mr. Sutter in 1841 lists: “twenty-four planked dwellings with glazed windows, a floor and a ceiling; each had a garden. There were eight sheds, eight bath houses and ten kitchens.”

Grinding Stones – These grinding stones up to three feet in diameter and one foot thick were made of indigenous stone.  They were once used for grinding flour in California’s first windmills.

The Fort Compound –

Rotchev House - Of the six buildings presently within the fort compound only one, the Rotchev House, is an original Russian-built structure. It is a National Historic Landmark. The Rotchev House is unique and nationally significant because it is one of only four surviving buildings built in the Russian-American colonial period, and the only surviving Russian-built structure outside of Alaska. The exterior of the Rotchev House was restored to its late-1830s appearance in a series of modifications between 1925 and 1974.  Numerous rare examples of original Russian building techniques are visible. The interior is now the focus of a five-year preservation and furnishing project. The Rotchev House was constructed circa 1836 to serve as the home of Alexander Rotchev, the Russian-American Company’s last manager at Fort Ross, his wife Elena, and their children. Alexander Rotchev was an intelligent well-traveled person and a poet. His wife, Princess Elena, a descendant of the titled nobility, was also accomplished in the arts and conversant in several languages. Accounts indicate that the Rotchev House was considered a relatively refined and properly furnished residence, given its location on the frontier. A French visitor remarked that the Rotchev’s possessed a “choice library, a piano, and a score of Mozart.” The hospitality of the Rotchev’s was highly regarded. They lived in their Fort Ross home until July of 1841.    

During the American ranching era following the Russian settlement, the Rotchev House was enlarged with a two story addition and a long front porch by the owner William Benitz. It is possible that the existing fireplace was added at that time. Later, when Fort Ross was part of the George W. Call Ranch, the enlarged structure became the Fort Ross Hotel.

Officials’ Quarters (or Officer’s Barracks) – This building was built before 1817 and was originally the site of company workshops. On the 1817 map it was referred to as “house of planks containing a foundry and workroom for medical aide“. It was refurbished in 1833 to provide Company officials and visitors with accommodations.  Reconstruction of the Officials’ Quarters, demolished during the 1916-18 Chapel reconstruction, was completed in 1981.

Southeast Blockhouse – The original blockhouses were built prior to 1817. The southeast blockhouse was reconstructed in a number of phases between 1930 and 1957.  Original floorboards from the Officials’ Quarters were used for flooring. This southeast blockhouse has eight sides and offers a clear field of fire, protecting the south and east stockade walls from possible attack.  The Spanish were a potential threat to the colony, and the armaments were always ready, but the defensive value of the fort was never tested.  The naval cannons in this blockhouse were used to signal and welcome visiting dignitaries. Historical accounts of the numbers and distribution of the Fort Ross cannons varied over the years. The 1822 the diary of Fr. Mariano Payeras mentions: “…two bastions, one in the northern corner with five guns on two floors, and another on the south with seven guns… Also within the presidio they have four mobile cannons with their gun carriages.”  Mariano G. Vallejo in 1833: “12 pieces of artillery on two towers … of 8 caliber, six in each one… All of these pieces are mounted on naval gun carriages except for two “violentos” of 3 caliber…” In 1836 Sir Edward Belcher states “These towers, armed with three guns each… In the center of the yard or square, in front of the governor’s staircase, a brass nine-pounder gun commands the gateway…” 1837 William A. Slacum “…mounts four 12 lb. carronades on each angle, and four 6 lb brass howitzers fronting the principal gate…” 1841 John A Sutter: “From the Russians I have got only one fine brass field piece (mounted with caisson)… This piece has been cast in St. Petersburg, 1804.”

The four cannons now in the center of the fort compound are contemporary reproductions; two are capable of firing. They are 5 ½ inch howitzers mounted on field carriages. In the southeast blockhouse there are 12 pound carronades on naval carriages, as well as a [two?] reproduction 4 pounder bronze Russian cannon[s].

Stockade Walls – The original stockade walls and sally ports deteriorated rapidly. They were reconstructed several times on a piecemeal basis between 1929 and 1989.  After Highway One was rerouted to bypass the Fort in 1972, the stockade was finally re-enclosed for the first time since the 1800s. The original walls of the fort were approximately 1204 feet long (172 Russian sazhens) and 14 feet high (2 sazhens). They were held together by a complex system of mortised joints locked by wooden pins. The top truss and the sills were locked into main posts spaced about 12 feet apart extending about 6 feet into the ground.

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.  The chapel was probably built by the settlement’s shipbuilders.  In 1836, Father Ioann Veniaminov, who later became Bishop of Alaska and then Senior Bishop of the Russian Empire, visited the settlement and conducted sacraments of marriage, baptisms, and other religious services.  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. The chapel was partially 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.”

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 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 and Fourth of July.

Kuskov House – The Kuskov House was the residence of Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, who founded Ross and was the first manager.  It served as the manager’s house from before 1817 until 1838.  In the upstairs were living quarters, downstairs an armory.  Four of the Fort’s five 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, &c… 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 northeast 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 its 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 Indian 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.

Northwest Blockhouse – The original was built in 1812.  In 1948 ruins of the blockhouse were removed, and it was reconstructed in 1950-1951. The Northwest Blockhouse has seven sides.  As a watchtower for sentries with muskets and cannons, it protected the north and west stockade walls from potential attack by land.  Each blockhouse carried a flagstaff, used to signal colonists in case of attack or provide a navigational aid for ships approaching Ross.  From this blockhouse could be seen the two windmills which were located beyond the fort compound. The three cannon in this blockhouse are of unknown provenance.

Warehouse or Russian Magazin – This two-story Russian-American Company warehouse, or magazin, 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 this warehouse is being conducted by California State Parks. 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 the Spanish, though in 1812 they had no settlement north of the Presidio of San Francisco.  The Governor of Spanish Alta California, Jose Joaquin de Grillage, 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 continued.  Eager to buy goods made by the Russians, the Spanish traded food, which was sent to the Alaskan settlements.  When Mexico separated from Spain in 1821, trade with Ross assumed greater importance as the Russians provided military goods to the former Spanish colony, which no longer had a mother country to supply it.

Well – 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. The site for the settlement of Fort Ross was partially selected because of the proximity of water. The site was also chosen because of 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, and a small defensible harbor below.

Outside the Fort – 

Alaska Native Village Site – 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 local Native Californian women. The village was situated on the marine terrace directly south of the stockade walls. The extensive archaeological deposit sits 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. The Alaska Natives brought their native baidarkas, swift maneuverable kayaks, used for hunting and transport. From these baidarkasthey hunted the valuable sea otter and other sea mammals along the California coast and from a base on the Farallon Islands. Hunted by the Spanish, English, Americans and Russians the number of sea otters was greatly diminished by the early 1820s. The Russian-American Company made the first efforts at marine conservation in the North Pacific when they established moratoriums on fur seal and sea otter hunting. In 1834 the Company stopped the harvest of sea otters for 12 years, and then imposed a strict yearly limit.

Sandy Beach Cove – 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).

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 and a public bath. 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.

The Russian Cemetery – Across the gulch to the east Russian Orthodox crosses mark the site of the settlement’s cemetery. Over 150 people were buried in the cemetery during the Russian-American Company’s thirty-year settlement here.

“To the northeast at a cannon shot’s distance they have their cemetery, although unfenced. In it there is a noteworthy distinction… [a] mausoleum atop a sepulcher of three square steps, from larger to smaller.  Above these was a pyramid two yards high, and over it a ball topped off by a cross, all painted white and black, which is what most attracts one’s attention when you descend from the mountain.  Over another burial… they placed only something like a 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…” Payeras, 1822.

In 1990 the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee assisted the California State Parks in a project intended to better understand the boundaries and composition of the historic Russian cemetery. Excavations to locate and identify the individual Orthodox burials were conducted. The names of individuals associated with specific burials are not known, although researchers have identified a lengthy list of people who died at Fort Ross and were most likely buried here. The Ross settlement was a mercantile village with many families, and there are a large number of women and children buried in the cemetery. Remains have been re-interred and given last rites by priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. Artifacts, such as beads, buttons, cloth fragments, crosses and religious medals found in the cemetery restoration project, will help researchers better understand the Russian settlement’s culture.

Excerpted from A Guided Walk at Fort Ross State Historic Park – published by Fort Ross Interpretive Association – 2004.