The Russian Colony at Fort Ross

Fort Ross

Fort Ross State Historic Park includes the site of the first settlement created by Russians in California. Located on the Northern California coast 2.5 hours north of today’s San Francisco, much of Fort Ross has been reconstructed to its original layout. Fort Ross celebrated its bicentennial in 2012.

In the native territory of the Kashaya Pomo people, Russian-American Company built the fort in 1812 to supply Russian colonists in Alaska with food and goods. The Russian Tsarist Crown formed and controlled the Russian-American Company, which ran all Russian settlement and trade in the Northern Pacific. Russia’s main interest in Alaska was fur trapping, but Alaska’s rugged terrain was not agriculturally productive. Colonists often went without food or supplies. Fort Ross was founded to grow crops as well as to provide sea otter pelts for the Alaskan fur trade, which was in decline due to overhunting.

The Russians brought Native Alaskans, and they enjoyed friendly relations with the local Kashaya Pomo; some of the Pomo worked as laborers and were paid wages by the Russians. They built a large, walled area protected by two blockhouses that housed cannons. Although the fort was in Spanish California, it never came under siege, so no cannons were fired in battle. Inside the fort, three warehouses, a barracks and three houses for officials stood. All the buildings were made of local, rot-resistant redwood.

Fort Ross
The Rotchev House

Eventually other facilities were added. A Russian Orthodox chapel, a shipbuilding yard and an orchard helped sustain life at the fort. The Russians hunted sea otters and sea lions along the coast until its marine mammal population was depleted. Livestock, sealskins, otter pelts and whatever crops grew were exported to Alaska or to Russia.

Russians, Native Alaskans and Native Californians all became settlers at Fort Ross, though the community never grew beyond several hundred occupants. The fort was not as productive as its first settlers had hoped it would be. Rocky soil, a harsh climate and depletion of marine life contributed to the fort’s sale to John Sutter in 1841. Sutter disassembled most of the structures and sold them for lumber or parts.

Fort Ross Chapel
The Chapel at Fort Ross

Fort Ross passed through different private hands after its sale. It was primarily used as a ranch, so its remaining historic buildings fell into disuse and disrepair. The California Historical Landmark Commission bought Fort Ross and donated it to California State Parks in 1906.

Since then, buildings inside the fort have been restored or reconstructed, including the chapel after fire destroyed it. Visitors today can see the chapel, the stockade, the Kuskov House, and the only original building still standing, the Rotchev House. Fort Ross, set against the dramatic background of the Pacific Ocean, brings visitors from all over the world to enjoy both the historic significance of Fort Ross and the craggy beauty of California’s coast.