Bill Walton, long time ranger at Fort Ross, hand made a beautiful reburial box of Apple wood, Cherry wood and Redwood from the old historic orchard in order to honor this man of long ago…

Stranger in a Strange Land By Dr. Sandra E. Hollimon and Daniel F. Murley –

In February, 1999, a visitor at Fort Ross State Historic Park noticed a skeletal remains eroding from the bank of Fort Ross Creek. After consultation with a representative of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, it was determined that this burial was an archaeological feature rather than a crime scene. The burial was then excavated and submitted for osteological analysis.

The presence of most skeletal elements, and their generally good preservation, suggest that this individual was buried fewer than two hundred years ago. In comparison with the skeletons excavated from the Russian Orthodox cemetery at Ross, this individual was preserved remarkably well. The difference in preservation may be due, in part, to the presence of redwood coffins in cemetery burials, which greatly increased an already acidic depositional environment. One author (Hollimon) examined those burials as part of the Smithsonian Institution research team, and can attest to the fact that preservation of organic elements was virtually non-existent. In contrast, the majority of this individual’s skeleton was preserved, and in relatively good condition. Nevertheless, some elements were missing, mostly from the left side of the skeleton, because they had eroded prior to excavation and washed away in Fort Ross Creek. Although the skeleton was sliding downhill, the position of skeletal elements was roughly that of standard anatomical position, with the skull uphill of the lower limbs, and in a face-up position.

Initial findings of this analysis indicate that the individual was male, and older than 50 years at the time of death. The presence of moderate degenerative joint disease throughout the postcranial skeleton, and the degree of cranial suture closure support this age identification. The majority of the skeleton is present, and reasonably well-preserved. The skeletal elements are extremely robust, and suggest that the individual was not a typical Native Californian. The standard mortuary treatment of precontact local Native Pomo peoples was to cremate the dead, therefore there are relatively few comparative skeletal samples of local native populations. However, comparisons with other native northern California skeletal populations suggests that this individual was too tall and robust to have been a typical male in these populations. In addition, this individual’s size is not characteristic of native Arctic populations (see Appendix 2, Osteometrics), suggesting a mixed ancestry.

The tooth wear on the burial is indicative of a typical Native California diet. Extreme  wear is present on all teeth, resembling that found in skeletal populations throughout California. The tooth wear is certainly an indicator of diet, rather than pathological complications or poor preservation. The wear is uniform on all teeth, and is limited to the occlusal, or biting surface of the teeth. The preservation of the rest of the skeleton is fairly good, and bone density is moderate, indicating that the teeth were worn down by eating a grit-laden diet. Had the wear been related to poor preservation, this would be seen throughout the skeleton, and many elements would be missing.


Mitochondrial DNA Analysis

A molar was submitted to Dr. Terry Melton, a specialist in mtDNA analysis, in order to ascertain the likely populations affiliation of the Fort Ross burial isolate. This analysis indicates that the greatest probability is that he had Native Alaskan ancestry on the maternal side. Mitochondria are organelles of cells and contain their own DNA. Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is only inherited through the female line, so an individual inherits his or her mtDNA from the mother only.

By searching the FBI database and other published reference samples, the mtDNA from this burial compares most closely with Haplogroup D of Native Americans. In some Eskimo-Aleut populations, this haplogroup is found at a frequency of 67%. This was the highest percentage reported by Dr. Melton. In decreasing probabilities, the burial could belong to Native South American populations, to Native North American populations  other than the Na-Dene (i.e., Athapaskan [see Davis 1981:46; Dumond 1987:21-22; Krauss and Golla 1981:67]) linguistic group, or to Central American native groups. This haplogroup has also been noted among the Siberian Eskimos and other Asian populations.



While the greatest statistical probability is that this person had native Alaskan ancestry on his mother’s side, paternal ancestry is an open question. However, historical documentation, as well as osteological indicators, suggest certain possibilities. Records from the Russian occupation of the Fort Ross area indicate that many Native Alaskans married or otherwise cohabited with Native California people, especially the local Kashaya. However, in all documented cases, Native Alaskan men had local native wives. While the possibility exists that there was a Native Alaskan woman married to a California Native man, such an instance has not been discovered in the existing documentary record. These records suggest that a “mixed marriage” would have been between a Native Alaskan man and a local native woman.

The dental wear suggests a diet consistent with that of precontact California natives. Large

amounts of grit, introduced during food processing in groundstone implements, is found among skeletal populations throughout California. A local native man would certainly display such wear on his teeth. However, a man who ate foods prepared by a local native woman would also show such wear on his teeth. The skeletal robusticity of this male is not typical of northern California native populations, suggesting that he was not from the area, but ate a diet typical of the local native group.

The fact that this individual was found buried outside the cemetery at Fort Ross and did not wear an Orthodox pectoral cross,suggests that he was not baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith, or that his practice of it had lapsed, or that he died after the Russians had left the area and there was no one left to carry out the Orthodox burial program. Records indicate that Russian men would be buried in the cemetery, and that Creoles (Russian/Native Alaskan descendants) would have been baptized in Alaska, and also buried in the cemetery (Osborn 1997:261-264). Records show that six adult Creole men died at Ross during the Russian occupation (Osborn 1997:261-262). If this were a baptized Native Alaskan or Creole, he may have abandoned his observations of the religion upon taking a local native wife, and therefore may not have been buried according to the Orthodox program. It is possible that this man was either never a member of the Russian Orthodox faith, or that he “went (local) native” and abandoned its practice once in California (see Mousalimas 1994 for examples of long-standing syncretism of indigenous and Orthodox beliefs in Alaska). Khlebnikov (1990) describes instances when Native Alaskan laborers ran off with their local native wives, suggesting that this was a fairly common occurrence in the Ross neighborhood.

The possibility that this was a local native man who lived and died before the time of European contact is contradicted by the presence of metal staining on several skeletal elements. Local native groups would not have had access to metal tools until after the time of European contact. The location of the stains indicate that they were deposited in situ and were not a result of accidental, post-depositional contact. The left hip and right heel bones display green stains derived from a metal object, suggesting that the legs were bent in situ and that the tucked up position would have allowed a foot bone to be in contact with the pelvic girdle. The piece has been tentatively identified as a blade, perhaps from a knife or sword (Glenn Farris, personal communication 2001), but does not show any evidence of having caused any wound that impacted the bone. However, it cannot be entirely ruled out that this person was buried before the time of European contact, and the skeleton came in contact with the metal sometime after burial. The traditional treatment of the dead among local Kashaya people before contact argues against this conclusion.

The possibility that this individual has other Native North American ancestry cannot be entirely ruled out. The individual may be of local native descent on his father’s side, or may even have ancestry in Siberian or other Asian populations. Ultimately, this is the source of all native peoples in the Americas, but the time depth of this ancestry cannot be determined in the present analysis. However, osteological and mtDNA analysis, along with historical documentation, suggests that the most parsimonious explanation is the following: the male burial from Fort Ross was descended from a Native Alaskan woman, was brought to California by the Russian America Company, and resided with a local native woman in the vicinity of Fort Ross, where he died and was buried outside the cemetery.



Comparisons of the Fort Ross burial with osteological samples of males from Northern California and Alaska demonstrate the physical affinity of the isolate. While hardly exhaustive, representative samples from CA-SAC-43 (Hollimon 1995:180), various northern California sites (Hrdlicka 1927:106 [crania only]), and Kodiak Island (Hrdlicka 1944:414, 416, 421, 424) were compared metrically to the Fort Ross burial. The cranial measurements differ from the comparative samples, but not in a consistent direction. Some measurements are larger, others smaller, suggesting that the overall shape or dimension of the cranium is different. 

In each postcranial measurement, the Fort Ross burial was significantly larger than either the California or Alaska samples, although the robusticity of the mandible is typical of Aleut populations (Laughlin 1980:8-9). In addition, the stature estimate of males at SAC-43 was 171cm,  while the stature estimate for the Fort Ross male is 177cm (see Trotter 1970; Ubelaker 1989). This estimate can be compared to anthropometric measures of living males from several arctic areas, including Eskimos [sic], Subarctic Indians, and Northeastern Siberians (Szathmary 1984:Table 1). Height ranged from 160.5cm among the West Greenland Eskimo [sic] to 175.6cm among the Weagamow Lake Ojibwa. Given the estimated height of the Fort Ross male, it is unlikely that he was strictly Native Alaskan in his ancestry. However, the mtDNA evidence argues against maternal ancestry of Subarctic Athapaskan Indian (e.g. Ojibwa). This may indicate that the Fort Ross male had European ancestry on the paternal side, as his size and cranial dimensions were uncharacteristic of either precontact Californian or Alaskan populations.


References Cited

Davis, Nancy Yaw

1981 History of  Research in Subarctic Alaska. In Handbook of North American

Indians, vol. 6, Subarctic, June Helm, ed., pp. 43-48. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Dumond, Don E.

1987      The Eskimos and Aleuts. Thames and Hudson, London.

Hollimon, Sandra E.

1995   Human Osteology. In Final Report on the Archaeological Analysis of

CA-SAC-43, Cultural Resources Mitigation for the Sacramento Urban

Area Levee Reconstruction Project, Sacramento County, California, PaulBouey, ed., pp. 301-326.


1944   The Anthropology of Kodiak Island. Wistar Institute, Philadelphia.

Khlebnikov, Kyrill

1990  The Khlebnikov Archive. Unpublished Journal (1800-1837) and Travel Notes (1820, 1822, and 1824). Edited by Leonid Shur. Translated by John Bisk. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks.

Krauss, Michael E. and Victor K. Golla

1981 Northern Athapaskan Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6, Subarctic, June Helm, ed., pp. 67-85. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Laughlin, William S.

1980  Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Mousalimas, S.A.

1994  The Transition from Shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. Bergahn Books, Providence R.I.

Osborn, Sannie K.

1997 Death in the Daily Life of the Ross Colony: Mortuary Behavior in Frontier Russian America. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Szathmary, Emoke J.E.

1984  Human Biology of the Arctic. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, Arctic, David Damas, ed., pp. 64-71. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Woodbury, Anthony C.

1984  Eskimo and Aleut Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, Arctic, David Damas, ed., pp. 49-63. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.