July 01, 1997

Little Russia by the Sea

Some 185 years ago, the Russian-American Company founded Fort Ross, its southern-most settlement in North America. The fort’s site, which is located near the Russian River (then the Slavyanka), about one hundred miles north of San Francisco, was acquired from local Kashaya Pomo Indians for “three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads.” It was formally dedicated on August 13, 1812. Just a month later, on the other side of the world, Russian forces would face Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino.

The fort was founded to support trade in sea otter pelts, which were extraordinarily valuable in trade with China. Most of the hunting (ranging the entire coast of present-day California and Oregon) was done by native Alaskans from Kodiak island, who were in the service of the Russian-American Company (and lived in a village just outside the fort’s walls). Within eight years, however, the sea otter population was so depleted that the main economic activities at the fort became agriculture and animal husbandry. Unfortunately, climate, location and the flagging desire of hunters-turned-farmers led to failure.

By the late 1830s, the Russian-American Company was starting to pull back from the Pacific Northwest. In December 1841, the fort was sold to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort. There was a succession of owners and, in 1906, the site was turned over to the State of California for preservation and renovation as an historic monument.

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