History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 July 2009

The Russians are Coming -- to California!

The year is 1809. In England, the portly figure of the Prince of Wales cuts a wide swath through the drawing rooms of the titled and wealthy while his father George III struggles with the illness (porphyria, likely) that has left him with intermittent lucidity and will eventually claim his life.

Napoleon continues to expand to the east, cutting a rather wide swath himself through Europe and claiming everything his Grande Armée trods upon for his empire. And in Russia, Tsar Alexander too, feels the tug of the east -- to a wild and rugged continent where the waves of the Pacific Ocean lash the ragged rocks splashing the sunning seals -- not too many miles from a place where just forty years later, gold would be discovered in "them thar hills."
The Russians came -- to California! To a stretch that is known now as the state's "lost coast," for its remoteness and lack of development even in this age where nothing beats an ocean view.

They were looking to trade in furs. In 1809 the Russian-American company's principal Alexander Baranov sent his manager Ivan Kushkov to California to scout out the perfect location for a trading base. In January of 1809 Kushkov's ship, the Kodiak, arrived in Bodega Bay carrying 40 Russians and 150 Alaskans. Their initial sojourn lasted until that August, but Kushkov subsequently returned to California and established a trading base or outpost at Metini, protected by a fort that would remain in operation until 1841. The stockade was impressively fortified, in order to give the enemy Spanish, entrenched in Southern California, second thoughts about invading the Russian outpost.

Kushkov returned in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans; and on August 13 of that year the colony was named Fort Ross (Ross being a corruption of Rossiia, or Russia). They constructed structures from local redwoods. Their palisade was defended by two towers, each fortfied with cannons.
And in the mid 1820s they buit a chapel.

The population of Fort Ross was a melange of races. Children born of Russians and Europeans who mated with Alaskans or Indians were known as Creoles.

Enclosed within the protected palisade were storehouses and outbuildings for curing animal hides, and for spinning and weaving yarns, in addition to a kitchen, an apothecary, and facilities for studying and evaluating the local botany, geology, biology, and meteorology.

When my husband and I visited Fort Ross earlier this month, I took photos of all of these rooms. Particularly striking to me was the (barely furnished at present) governor's house that had been occupied by the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev and his family, complete with spinet. Rotchev was a cultured polyglot whose home boasted a library as well. That house is now a National Historic Landmark.

Although the fort was predominantly populated by men, there were a few women who dwelled there. After all, one assumes, someone had to do the laundry!

The original purpose of the siting of the fort was to establish a brisk trade in the pelts of sea mammals, but the Russians branched out into other areas in order to be self-sustaining: agriculture, tanning, shipbuilding, and brickmaking--although the fort's structures are constructed of timber.

Overhunting severely depleted the marine mammal population so that by 1820, scant years after Fort Ross had been established, there was little left to hunt and the Russian-American company instituted a moratorium on hunting the native seals and otters. Although they had initially come to destroy, they ended up establishing the first known marine mammal conservation laws in the Pacific. Their contributions to the 19th century's scientific knowledge of California are measurable.

In December 1851 the Russian American company sold the fort to a familiar name ... John Sutter (remember Sutter's Mill of goldlust fame). Fort Ross's livestock were transferred to Sutter's own fort near Sacramento. The fort changed hands several more times during the 19th century until the California Historical Landmarks Committee purchased the Ross stockade in 1903.

Although my mother is from Beverly Hills (which makes my blood 50% Californian by my own arcane calculations), I admit that I never knew the Russians had staked a claim there -- and right in our own writing period!

Did you California hoydens know that a Russian fort had been established just a few hundred miles from where you live?

And for you four, as well as the other hoydens and our treasured blog visitors -- during your book research, have you ever come across a slice of history that took you by surprise? What was it?


Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I knew it! I knew it! We lived in Kodiak for 3 years and I was active in the outdoor theatrical that they did every summer on the Russians settlement in Alaska -- learned about Fort Ross at that time.

When me moved to San Francisco I never did get to Fort Ross (one baby and one on the way) so thanks for the details. I did not know about their conservation efforts or the sale of Fort Ross to Sutter.

As for a slice of history that took me by surprise -- I have posted here about it more than once -- to find out that there was a Blayney ancestor who was a significant Regency soldier/(Irish) aristocrat was a delightful discovery.

Thanks for sharing that part of your trip, Amanda.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you, Mary, for immediately getting my cinematic allusion in the post title (there wasn't enough space to repeat the first phrase and still have room for my punch line).

I've so enjoyed your posts on your dashing ancestor; I think it's just the most marvelous thing to discover your own real-life Regency hero right in the family.

And I'd love to hear about your years in Kodiak some day!

4:40 AM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

I want to be a tourist and go walk around Ft. Ross now. I never knew it was here (close to me in Califorina).

Look at those wide plank floors in the room with spinet! Wow.

Thanks for a great idea for a road trip with my kids, Amanda!

11:14 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, you may just want to move in to the governor's house at Fort Ross. It's surprisingly bright and airy (I was so enamored of the sunlit room with the spinet) and you can't beat the view from the front yard. :) One of my favorite photos from the entire trip is the one looking from the window of the Fort Ross gun tower out at the Pacific.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great photos, Amanda! And what a fascinating slice of American history. Yet another place to put on my list of places to visit before I go on to the great library in the sky.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

It was indeed a fascinating discovery, Louisa. I'm glad you like the photos; I just couldn't stop snapping them! And it was so hot that day. I expected a breeze to be blowing off the Pacific, but the stockade kept that out, too!

I like your metaphor. Here's hoping there will be untold heavenly tomes to check out after I eventually check out.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My idea of heaven is so many books and all the time in eternity to read them.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

For me, the discovery (that plays a near-invisible part in propping up the backstory of THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY) was the failed French invasion of Ireland in 1797. I always think of French/English imperial struggles as going the other way (quite ignoring the Atlantic, I'm afraid).

But the history you're recounting, Amanda, is also going on while Napoleon is trying to invade Russia, and then retreating.

The world is always so much bigger than we think.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, part of what fascinated me about the history of Fort Ross as it was connected to early 19th c. Russian history at large, was indeed what Napoleon was up at the time, to vis-a-vis Russia.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Chiming in late from Ashland, Oregon. Great post! Fabulous pictures. I've been to Fort Ross and love the Regency/Napoleonic era connections. I hadn't thought about trying to work it into a book, but now that you bring it up...

I was surprised recently to read about publishers at the Congress of Vienna complaining about copyright violations being a serious problem.

And I adore the movie "The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming".

12:41 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I can still hear Alan Arkin pronouncing the other nationality "Nor-wee-gans."

That's fascinating about the publishers at the Congress of Vienna, Tracy. Copyright protection was evidently a major issue in the 19th century. Years ago I visited the home of Thomas Carlyle in Chelsea and I could swear that I read something about his being in the forefront of copyright protection.

Seen anything good at Ashland?

1:11 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy -- I had the same thought about using it in a novel BUT it would suit your Regency world so much better than mine.

My favorite line from The Russians Are Coming is "Egermency! Egermnecy! Everyone to get from street!" We still use it in our family when one of us is totally out of their depth on a subject (me on football or my husband discussing the internet)

6:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have to watch the movie again -- soon! I need to put it on my Netflix queue.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Hels said...

The Ross Colony is truly a great story and your images are better than any of the others I could find. Thanks for the link to my post.

What is the building in your last photo? It looks like one L-shaped house or two small houses next to each other, grey with white windows.

Art and Architecture, mainly

5:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you, Hels, for your comment! The photo you mention is of two buildings, actually. If memory serves (and I should have documented the photos as soon as I took them, because I was away for more than 2 weeks and took many photos) -- the building in the foreground (on our left) is the governor's house and one to the right is one of the storehouses.

6:24 PM  

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