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Home National & State Parks California Fort Ross State Park: Northern California's Tsarist Russian Outpost

Fort Ross State Park: Northern California's Tsarist Russian Outpost

North of San Francisco, Visitors Find a Russian Fort, Trading Post Dating from 1812 Where Explorers Hunted, Started a Colony

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Many visitors to Fort Ross State Historic Park, 12 miles north of the town of Jenner on state Highway One, are surprised to discover that Russians, along with native Alaskans, established a place for themselves in early California history.

Roughly 75 miles north of San Francisco-about a two-hour drive-Fort Ross State Historic Park is one of the first five state parks developed in the California State Park system.
 
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A thriving Russian-American Company settlement from 1812 to 1841, it was known as Settlement Ross when it was established by the Russian American Company, a commercial hunting and trading venture chartered by the tsarist government.

This commercial company controlled all Russian exploration, trade and settlement in the North Pacific, and established permanent settlements in Alaska and California. Fort Ross was the southernmost settlement in the Russian colonization of the North American continent. Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov established this colony in California as a food source for Alaska and to hunt profitable sea otters.

It was the site of California's first windmills and shipbuilding, and Russian scientists were among the first to record California's cultural and natural history. Fort Ross was a successfully functioning multi-cultural settlement.

Kuskov arrived at Ross in March of 1812 with a party of 25 Russians, many of them craftsmen, and 80 native Alaskans from Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. For 30 years the company hunted sea otter, set up working farms, established relations with local native Californians, traded with Spanish Californians and later the Mexican government as well as merchants who traveled to the north Pacific for the fur trade.

The Russian American Company remained at Fort Ross until the sea otter trade was no longer profitable. The holdings were sold in 1841 to John Sutter, who later became famous when gold was discovered at his saw mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Along with the chapel, the structure of most historical interest at Fort Ross is the Rotchev house, an existing building renovated about 1836 for Alexander Rotchev, the last manager of Ross. It is the only surviving structure.

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Several other buildings have been reconstructed: the first Russian Orthodox chapel south of Alaska, the stockade, and four other buildings called the Kuskov House, The Officials Barracks, and two corner blockhouses.

A Number of ‘Firsts'

The Russian settlement and Russian American Company was responsible for a number of "firsts." They include:

  • The Russian American company at Settlement Ross in California was first to establish a widely used commercial trade port in California.
  • The Russians were first to build ships on the West Coast of North America. Four ships were constructed at the Ross colony in Fort Ross Cove.
  • Settlement Ross was the first to have a full-time blacksmith (and, at times, two) in California.
  • The Russians had a vineyard established at one of their local ranches with over 2,000 vines. This was the first vineyard north of San Francisco.
  • The state wildflower, the California poppy, is tied to Fort Ross. In 1816, two well-known naturalists, Johan Friedrich Eschscholtz and Ludovick de Chamissio, traveling on the ship Riurik, paid a visit to Colony Ross. Chamissio decided to name the plant after his good friend and colleague calling it Eschholtzia Californica.
  • Some of the first weather statistics in Northern California come from Fort Ross.
  • The oldest surviving building north of San Francisco is at Fort Ross. The Rotchev House, about 170 years old, is in the original location with most of the original timbers. It is thought to be the oldest building between San Francisco and Alaska in its original location. This building is a National Historic Landmark.

Several buildings in the park have been reconstructed, including the first Russian Orthodox chapel south of Alaska, the stockade, and four other buildings.

What Visitors will Find

The Fort Ross Compound has one original structure and five restored buildings. The structures were built of redwood using joinery techniques that were typical of maritime carpentry in those days. A wooden palisade surrounded the site, in much the same configuration seen today, including two blockhouses
complete with cannons.

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The interior of the stockade contained the two-story house of the manager, the officials' quarters, barracks for the Russian employees and various storehouses. The chapel was added in 1824. Outside the walls were homes of company laborers, a native Alaskan village and the dwellings of the local native Americans

The Fort Ross Visitor Center and Museum is one of the most complete Russian, Alaskan, and Kashaya cultural museums north of San Francisco. The museum gives a good overview of the history of the site and its inhabitants.

The bookstore has the largest collection of Russian History in Northern California. Many items of interest for history enthusiasts, teachers and students are to be found in the bookstore
.

The Fort Ross Library is the largest selection of research and reading material for Russian American Company History and local history north of San Francisco.

The Fort Ross Cemetary is a good hike from the compound. More than 150 persons from the Russian period are buried there. Please ask park rangers how to get there when you arrive if you plan on visiting it. Visitors must cross a creek to get there, and at times the creek can be too high for this hike.

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The Fort Ross Historic Orchard
is across the highway on Fort Ross Road about a quarter of a mile from Highway One. Several fruit trees are of the Russian period. Many ‘daughter' trees have now been established.

The types of trees you will find are gravenstein apple, plums, pear, and red Baldwin apple. Other types of trees the Russians grew were quince, prune, olive, peach, and bitter cherries. Osprey and other raptors are often seen in the orchard, as well as other wildlife. If you wish to visit the orchard you must do so with park assistance.

Fort Ross staff interpreters run quality educational programs hosting over 5,000 children each year. An active volunteer program is host to many living history events.

Visitors from Russia are a daily occurrence along with many travelers from around the world. They enjoy not only the history of the Russian American Company, but also the natural resources like hiking, diving, and camping at the nearby Reef campground.

For more information visit the Fort Ross award winning web page at
www.fortrossstatepark.org or www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=449

For information about other California State Parks, visit
www.parks.ca.gov

Story and photos courtresy California State Parks.
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Fort Ross State Historic Park

Location
19005 Coast Highway One
Jenner, CA 95450

Telephone
707-847-3286

 
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