When Russia Colonized California: Celebrating 200 Years of Fort Ross

A piece of history on the Pacific Coast was almost lost to budget cuts, until a Russian billionaire stepped in to save the endangered state park

About 90 miles north of San Francisco lies Fort Ross, a site chosen to be the Russian empire's only colony in what would later become the contiguous United States. Pictured is a Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross. (George Rose / Getty Images)

By afternoon, the fog has burned off the hillsides at California’s Fort Ross State Park. The wood-burning oven is loaded with hearty loaves of bread, little boys are climbing on the cannons and dancers hold hands as they circle in the grass, singing a lilting Russian folk song.

The women and girls wear long, brightly patterned dresses, with strands of amber beads around their necks and their hair swept up under colorful scarves-- festive attire for a weekend gathering. The men and boys are dressed in simple white tunics, belted at the waist. Except for the intermittent murmur of traffic winding along the Pacific Coast Highway nearby, this remote stretch of coastline about 90 miles north of San Francisco looks and sounds much as it must have two centuries ago, when the Russian-American Company, a mercantile firm chartered by the Tsar, chose the site for the empire’s only colony in what would become the contiguous United States.

This year,which marks Fort Ross’ bicentennial, has been packed with lectures, performances and visits from Russian tall ships. But the main event comes on July 28 and 29, when the park will celebrate 200 years of Russians in America with a heritage festival expected to draw up to 3,000 people.

It’s a celebration that almost didn’t happen. In 2009, California, seeking to cut costs in the midst of a financial crisis, marked more than 200 state parks for closure. Among them was Fort Ross.

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The American history of the site began in 1841, when the Russian colonists gave up their enterprise and sold the colony to pioneer John Sutter, who transported its equipment and supplies to his own fort in Sacramento. The area served as ranch land for more than 60 years, until California designated it as a state historic park in 1906. By that time, the colony’s remaining structures had fallen into disrepair, and most of the buildings visitors see today are 20th-century reconstructions.

Within a weathered stockade built from redwood timber are barracks, officers’ quarters, and a small, unadorned Russian Orthodox chapel with a simple belfry. The only original building from the Russian era is the home of the colony’s last manager, Alexander Rotchev, a one-story family dwelling stocked with reconstructions of period furniture and housewares. It has survived a patchwork of additions, a second life as a hotel and a 1971 arson fire. Today, it is suffering leaks, among other ailments.

Although Fort Ross had the appearance of a military installation, it was never involved in warfare. For three decades, Russian colonists lived and intermarried with Native Americans, traded with Spain and the United States, and made a living through agriculture, otter-hunting and shipbuilding.

“This is a place where a colonial power came in and squatted for 30 years and it was peaceful,” says Tom Wright, a retired schoolteacher who sits on the board of the Fort Ross Conservancy, the non-profit group that organizes programs at the state park and raises money to support it. “Everything sort of came together out here. This was the farthest outpost for the Russians and the farthest outpost for the Spanish.”

Although it is thousands of miles from the motherland, for many of California’s Russian-Americans it feels like a link to their native soil. It was these devotees who struck up a call to preserve Fort Ross—a call that was answered by an unlikely benefactor.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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