of National Historic Landmark Designation
Fort Ross Chapel
Jenner, Sonoma County, California
Fort Ross, founded in 1812 by the Russian-American
Company, was primarily a commercial settlement; sea otters were
trapped for their pelts and farming was undertaken here to support
Russian colonies in Alaska. As Ross grew, the local Kashaya
people worked for the Company and some Russian men married Kashaya
women. The population became a mixture of Russians, Native Americans,
and Creole inhabitants, as was the case at other Russian colonies
in North America. In the 1820s, company employees began planning
a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas; this log chapel, built
on the Russian quadrilateral plan, was probably constructed
in 1825. The Russian settlement lasted until 1841, becoming
the southernmost limit of Russian colonization in North America.
Numerous Russian companies sponsored
hunting and trading voyages to the Aleutian Islands and mainland
Alaska beginning in the 1740s. The Russian-American Company
became the undisputed master of Russian commercial activities
and settlements in North America in 1799, however, when it
was sanctioned by a charter from the Tzar. With shares held
by members of the nobility and government officials, the joint-stock
company functioned virtually as a government appendage.
Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov, assistant
to the Company's manager, was sent on exploratory missions to
scout possible settlement sites in California beginning in 1808.
In 1811 he located a promising cove and point north of Bodega
Bay on the Sonoma Coast; the native inhabitants of the area,
the Kashaya Pomo people, were amenable to the Russian settlement.
With twenty-five Russians and eighty native Alaskans, Kuskov
returned to this site in March of 1812 and established the settlement.
Completion of the stockade on August 30th was formally marked
by a religious ceremony.
The plan for a chapel dedicated to Saint
Nicholas was assisted by donations from the personnel of three
Russian navy ships in 1823-24. Four icons for the chapel were
soon ordered and the chapel was probably constructed about 1825.
The "newly built chapel" was first mentioned in writing
by Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly, a French visitor, in 1828.
In 1832 a visiting Bostonian described the situation of the
chapel within the stockade: "The Presidio is formed by
the houses fronting inwards, making a large square, surrounded
by a high fence. The Governor's house stands at the head, and
the remainder of the square is formed by the chapel, magazine,
and dwelling houses. The buildings are from 15 to 20 feet high;
built of large timbers, and have a weather-beaten appearance."
In the late 1830s, the
Russian-American Company decided to rid itself of its colony at
Ross. The agricultural output of the settlement was poor; stock-raising
was attempted but not as successful as hoped; and the population
of sea otters had been depleted. In addition, settlements by Mexicans
and Americans created a challenge to tenuous Russian land claims.
The Company offered its Ross holdings for sale in 1840, but proposals
to the Hudson's Bay Company, the French and Mexican governments
were all declined. In December 1841, the settlement was sold to
Captain John Sutter. The transaction included all the buildings
and property, but not the land itself which Mexico claimed.
The Fort Ross complex operated as a rancho
from 1841 to 1867, under the ownership of John Sutter and William
Benitz. From 1867 to 1873, Ross was part of a logging business.
In 1873, George Washington Call purchased Ross and eventually
7,000 adjoining acres. During the ownership by the Call family,
which lasted until 1903, Ross was used as a ranch port and social
center. Some of the fort buildings housed a hotel, a dance hall,
and a saloon. The chapel was used for various purposes - sometimes
for functions such as weddings, but at other times, apparently
for sheltering horses or storing produce.
In 1903, George Call sold 2-½
acres containing Fort Ross to the California Historical Landmarks
League. The property was donated by this organization to the
State of California in 1906 for preservation and restoration.
A few months later, however, an earthquake caused the chapel
to collapse but left the roof and its two towers virtually intact.
The State restored the Chapel between 1915 and 1917; it was
later discovered that mistakes had been made during the restoration.
Most of the earlier errors in restoration were fixed during
repairs undertaken from 1955 to 1957.
The Fort Ross Chapel was found eligible
for designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1969, architecturally
significant as a rare U.S. example of a log church constructed
on a Russian quadrilateral plan. An accidental fire destroyed
the chapel on October 5, 1970. This loss of the original workmanship
and materials of the chapel led to withdrawal of the Chapel's
Landmark designation in 1971. A complete reconstruction of the
chapel was undertaken in 1973 and the Fort Ross settlement,
as a whole, retains its National Historic Landmark designation.