California Used To Be A Russian Colony

Grace Higgins | October 21st, 2019

Located about a hundred miles north of San Francisco, Fort Ross was a Russian colony that was meant to become permanent. Just perched along California’s lushly scenic route of Highway 1 just under 60 miles north of the massive city of San Francisco there is a dark wooden structure that might have been taken straight out of a Russian fairy tale.

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This is the rustic village of a domed church that was part of the Russian Orthodox Churches, Fort Ross. Now it is just a small chapel that has become a national historic landmark because between 1812 and 1841 there was a whole colony of Russians. They hoped they would claim the land that they thought was fertile and rich with animal life.

In 1799 Tsar Paul I was able to set up a joint initiative to encourage trade between the two nations and also expand Russia’s colonization efforts. Before sailing to California, Russia had settled in Alaska where they had hunted otters and sold their pelts. However, as we know, the Alaskan climate is harsh and not very forgiving. The settlements struggled to keep their people fed, with their population dwindling, they decided to look south for better conditions.

In 1803, 40 Russians and over 150 Alaskan natives sailed far south with an American captain Joseph O’Cain at the helm. The leader of the expedition, Ivan Kuskov, found an area in California that was rich with pelts and skins and also where the soil was fertile. He planted a plaque to claim the land for Russia. And then in 1812, they returned to establish an outpost.

However, when they arrived and built their Fortress Ross, they found that the land was already occupied by the Native Kashaya Pomo people. The Russians had to buy the land which apparently they did for just 3 blankets, 3 breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads. Still, the natives outnumbered the Russians by estimates at least five to one, luckily, relationships were good and there was even an amount of intermarriage between natives and Russians.

Unfortunately, the climate had been misread and growing crops in this damp part of California, proved near impossible. Furthermore, they could not expand as Mexican and Spanish colonies were in the South and much more hostile than the natives. After about a decade which sent the otter population in the region too near extinction, and an outbreak of smallpox which devastated the native population – the Russians called it quits and decided to leave. They sold their holdings back to the U.S. office in 1867.

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