Forge and Falseworks

The following is the excerpted abstract from James McGhie Allan III’s UC Berkeley dissertation (2001), An Archaeological Investigation of the Russian American Company’s Industrial Complex at Colony Ross. The complete 485-page tome is available for research in the Fort Ross Library and can be accessed online at our Digital Library.

In 1812, the Russian American Company established their southernmost outpost on a windswept marine terrace, some 60 miles north of the Spanish settlement in Alta California. Intended as a base of operations for the Company’s fur hunting trade, and as a source agricultural and pastoral produce, the colony of Ross soon turned to industrial pursuits to support itself when the fur bearing sea mammals were hunted to extirpation, and the colony’s agricultural efforts returned only limited success. Until the colony was abandoned in 1842, its craftsmen manufactured bricks in the small cove below the colony’s stockade. There they also tanned leather, made barrels, produced iron tools and implements, and built the first ships to be launched from the west coast of what would later become the continental United States. Today, the erosional effects of Fort Ross Creek, which flows through the site, and the tidal action of the nearby ocean, have combined to eradicate all but a vestige of the original landmass on which the complex once stood. In 1996, archaeological investigations began in the small strip of land that today is all that remains of the colony’s industrial enterprise. 2 The archaeological research was an attempt to determine from those fragmentary remains how the industrial complex was organized, both spatially and culturally, and how the artisans of the colony conducted their industrial pursuits in the rigorous, spare environment of the colonial frontier. Although most of the evidence necessary for such an investigation has washed away, enough remained to provide some insight into how at least a portion of the complex was organized. Two features in particular illustrate how the craftsmen of the colony adapted to both the environmental constraints of their location, and the economic deprivations associated with life on the edge of the frontier. These, and the bits and pieces of cultural material recovered throughout the project’s excavations, have provided unambiguous testimony to the skill and creativity of the entrepreneurs who plied their skills in the small cove nestled at the foot of the colony’s stockade.