A Sociohistorical Analysis of F0rt Ross, California

By Brendan S.

A reconstructed Fort Ross stands modestly on the California coast just north of Bodega Bay, May 2021. (All photos: Brendan S.)

It is not often that the Californian knows the early sources of colonialism on the California coast. One learns of Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spaniards, Francis Drake and the English, Jedidiah Strong Smith and the American settlers, all fetishized throughout K-12 education. However, there is scarcely ever a word of the Russians, as if Slav imperialists are not quite white enough to be included in the colonial wet dream that is history class curriculum in the US.


Or perhaps just as likely, another Red Scare residue left untouched. Russians are not to be praised as foundational imperialists, because they are commies of course! Our schools must censor and erase Russia’s glorious genocides, as the whiter ones are more glorious anyway! In McCarthy we trust!


Russian Orthodox cemetery just east of the fort.

As one ventures up the California coastline toward Mendocino, a cemetery dotted with Russian Orthodox crosses sits solemnly at the side of the road. The names of Russian and Northern European colonists, Alaska indigenous, and California indigenous rest on a panel as the sole surviving memory of those who fell in and around the colonial outpost.

“Unitma-Bodega Miwok/Female-1821”

“Mikhailo Rastorguev-Russian/Male-1829”

“Varvara Pininchina-Kodiak/Female-June 14, 1821”

“Karl Flink-Finn or Swede/Male-1839”

“Paraskov’ia Kulikalova-Creole/Female-1827”


The list continues to the tune of 36 people, some of whom indigenous forced into adopting Russian names, and others the children of Russian colonists that had intermarried with indigenous women to produce assimilated Creole children. Of at least 135 people buried in the vicinity, half of whom children, only 36 were identified in the graveyard. Those who held enough colonial value were fortunate enough to have their names protected in census memory by the Russian Empire.

The southwestern tower, Russian cannon, and the Eastern Pacific.
Holy Trinity St. Nicholas Chapel.

When one peers above the graves, a large structure of timber subtly emerges beyond the foliage. A barricade appears, interrupted by the looming presence of two fortified towers, each with cannon bays, and two chapel steeples, each pointed with more Russian Orthodox crosses. The designated Pantocrator, Christ or tsar?


It is here one finds that the first ships and windmills built on the California coast were not French, Spanish, nor English, but Russian. It is here one finds that the Russian Empire was the primary driver of what would plunge California into a colonial spiral of genocide: the California Fur Rush. At the core of the first slaughters, a colonial outpost built in 1812 known as Fort Ross (Russian: Krepost’ Ross, Крѣпость Россъ, an abbreviation of ‘Rossiya’).


From this fort, Russian colonists brought forth the first major effort in hunting the California Sea Otter to the brink of extinction, depriving coastal indigenous populations of a critical source of fur and meat. Thus, the second phase of the California Genocide following the Spanish missions really began here, at Fort Ross, by the Russian Empire.

1991 Soviet stamp showing Fort Ross and an image of Ivan A. Kuskov, its first administrator.
2012 Russian Federation stamp of Fort Ross.

In the nascent stage of the Industrial Revolution, Tsar Paul I (1798-1801) sought to make up for the Russian Empire’s slow transition to industrial capitalism by swiftly dilating its fur extraction in North America. The result of this was the creation of the Russian-American Company in 1799, designed to emulate the proto-capitalist dynamic of the British and Dutch East India companies. With early state capitalism fused with classic mercantilist imperialism, the Russian Empire now held its most prolific corporate colonizer, primed for genocide and ecological destruction in the name of the tsar.


The Russian Empire’s intention toward the indigenous populations of Turtle Island first became evident in the Awa’uq Massacre (1784), where up to 3,000 Koniag Sugpiat (Kodiak Aleuts) were slaughtered in a single day and most survivors enslaved. The Russian-American Company and its predecessors subsequently used Sugpiat as proxies, slaves, and meat shields in its genocidal operations along the coast of the Eastern Pacific.

1817 illustration of a Sugpiaq (Aleut) paddling in a baidarka as Russian brig “Rurik” anchors in the background beside Saint Paul Island. By Louis Choris.

As Russian power distended south of Alaska in the early 19th century, Russian colonists hammered the first colonial nail into the homeland of the Kashaya Pomo people by constructing Fort Ross. Within the settlement, a vivid ecosystem of social stratification, closely following the colonial social template of the era. Russian men of the company held the top caste, the only ones allowed to reside within the fort. Creoles next, followed by ‘baptized Indians,’ then ‘unbaptized Indians’ at the very bottom, all slaves and indentured servants living in the exterior village exposed to raids and the elements. Women of all castes objects for sex, marriage, and meal preparation.

The Fort Ross armory, a critical source from which the Russian use of force over indigenous slaves could be monopolized.

Hundreds of enslaved indigenous men would work and die at Fort Ross, and hundreds of indigenous women would be coerced into sex slavery or forced marriage. A near complete absence of Russian women was by design, intended to assimilate as many indigenous as possible via intermarriage and breeding of Creole children. Of 112 California indigenous residing at Fort Ross in 1820, 96 were women.


As Russian operations were unfolding in California, the Russian-American Company erected three forts across the Hawaiian island of Kauai in a brief attempt to establish a protectorate via dividing and conquering the Hawaiian indigenous population (1815-17). This attempt would end disastrously for the Russians on May 8, 1817, when Kauai indigenous launched a surprise assault on the Russian forts and expelled the Russian-American Company from the island.


Tsar Alexander I refused to send further support, fearing it would divert resources away from the Russo-Circassian War. Instead he encouraged further expansion in Alaska and California, where the colonies were already entrenched. The Russian-American Company complied by building settlements as far south as Tomales Bay, even utilizing the Farallon Islands as a space to maroon imprisoned slaves.


Closely observing the success of Russia’s otter poaching upon its encroachment into California, Britain, Spain, France, Mexico, and most destructively America, were pressed to expand their operations as well. By 1836, the Russian-American Company’s presence in California was so potent that Mexican General Mariano Vallejo established El Presidio de Sonoma (Sonoma Barracks) to garrison the Mexican Army 35 miles north of San Francisco, anticipating further Russian incursion into Mexican-claimed California.

Fourteen years after the establishment of Fort Ross, poacher Jedidiah Strong Smith arrived to impale America’s first molten rod into the belly of California nature, bringing the Ashley-Henry Fur Company and soon thousands of American settlers with him. Having spawned the first massive migration of American settlers into California, Jedidiah’s name triumphantly resounds in many chapters of American textbooks.

Lithograph of a Chinese fur trader in Guangzhou, 1799.

Aiding the rising flow of poachers into California, the Qing Empire provided itself as an everlasting customer for any fur that was not sold domestically by colonizing powers. In a sense, this acted as an early trade foundation for China’s dual hegemony over the world economy alongside the US today. A steady growth of power and revenue for steady imperialists. The global fur trade still relies heavily on China to this day, with China both the largest importer of fur pelts and largest exporter of fur products worldwide.


Fueled by Chinese money and enjoying superior manpower, the British Hudson’s Bay Company and American Fur Company eventually outpaced the Russian-American Company in what was supposed to be the otter’s endgame in California. Faced with an onslaught of colonial poachers from across the world, the California Sea Otter gradually prevailed against extermination by retreating into coves and caves, staying hidden from sight. Forced to become a metazoan guerrilla at the confluence of the world’s most powerful imperial actors, the otter narrowly won its survival.


As Russian fur profits waned, the tsar’s legitimacy in California started to dwindle amid a colonial storm of British, American, and Mexican competition. In the wake of an opening power vacuum, a concurrent power struggle between white settlers and Mexican landowners was ravaging California politics.


In the problematic year of 1836, Virginian poacher Isaac Graham and a militia of roughly 100 white settlers launched a coup against Mexican Governor Nicolás Gutiérrez only to be imprisoned by the Mexican government four years later in an event that would become known as the Graham Affair. The development sparked a significant flashpoint between Mexico, America, and the British Empire, all three claiming legitimacy over Californian land. Fearing entanglement in the unrest, Tsar Nicholas I and the Russian-American Company decided the risk was no longer worth further occupation, and packed up soon afterward.


Fort Ross was sold to American settler John Sutter in 1841, marking the end of the Russian phase of the California Genocide and the beginning of the American phase. One may ponder cogently that, without the classic post-Russian power vacuum, American settlers would have perhaps been less inclined to flood California.

The first and most dastardly Bear Flag of California.

Five years later in the midst of the Mexican-American War, the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 would occur, placing white American settlers in complete control of the region. Following the revolt, American settler-colonialism would rapidly metastasize into the Gold Rush. Land commodification was now the centerpiece of colonization, indigenous tribes replacing empires as the primary adversaries of the American poacher. Union and Confederate veterans alike would become partners in their mutual pursuit to send indigenous tribes into extinction.


What the Russian Bear initiated at Fort Ross, now a cataclysm of rapidly industrializing genocide in the bloody hands of Uncle Sam. Designated Pantocrator no longer Christ nor tsar, but the state.

Let it be known.

Sources:

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/59502/forgotten-history-russias-california-colony

https://www.fortross.org/lib/242/context-of-the-cemetery-of-fort-ross-multiple-lines-of-evidence-multiple-research-questions.pdf

https://www.fortross.org/lib/174/the-indians-at-the-ross-settlement-according-to-the-censuses-by-kuskov-18201821.pdf

https://www.colonialvoyage.com/russian-presence-hawaii-russian-forts-settlements-hawaii/#

https://www.actasia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/China-Fur-Report-7.4-DIGITAL-2.pdf