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National Historic Landmark FORT ROSS

Location: Sonoma County, near the town of Fort Ross.

Ownership and Administration. State of California; Division of Beaches and Parks.

Significance. Fort Ross was established by the Russian-American Fur Company in 1812 for the threefold purpose of exploiting the rich fur hunting grounds of the California coast, opening trade with Spanish California, and providing an agricultural depot to supply Russian settlements in Alaska. Ivan Kuskoff, who began the construction, arrived in the spring of 1812 with 95 Russians and about 80 Aleuts. By fall, enough progress had been made so that the fort was officially dedicated, although it was not completed until 1814.

The fort was built near the ocean on a plateau, about 1 square mile in extent, which terminates at the ocean in a precipice about 70 feet high. Redwood was used for all construction, including the stockaded walls, which measured 12 feet high. The quadrangular enclosure measured about 276 by 312 feet. Two hexagonal-shaped, two-story blockhouses at diagonally opposite corners of the stockade defended the walls. Eight cannons were mounted in 1812, and the number increased to about 50 by 1841, when more than 50 structures had been built.

Inside the walls were the commandant's house, officers' quarters, barracks for the Russian employees, a chapel, and 3 storehouses and offices; outside the wall were 37 redwood huts for the Aleuts, a windmill, farm buildings, granaries, cattle yards, a tannery, and workshops for blacksmiths, coopers, bakers, and carpenters. The population of the post, including Russians, Aleuts, and California Indians, never exceeded 400.

Commandant's House
Commandant's House, at Fort Ross, California. Established in 1812 by the Russian-American Fur Company, Fort Ross supplied Russia's settlements in Alaska with farm produce and was a center for Russian-Spanish trade.

Fort Ross was not successful as an agricultural colony. Level land in the immediate neighborhood was scarce and not particularly fertile. Also, the prevalent coastal fog caused the grain to rust, and rodents caused much crop damage. Farming was carried on rather ineffectively both by private individuals and by the fur company. Not until 1826 were any considerable shipments of grain made to Sitka, only 216,000 pounds being forwarded during the period 1826-33.

In 1833 the company opened a new farming center, Slavianka, near the mouth of the Russian River, midway between Fort Ross and the Russian port at Bodega Bay. The new establishment had uneven success—good at first, but disappointing between 1835 and 1840. The Russians obtained animals from the Spanish for stockraising, in which they had some success. At first, because of the scarcity of pasturage around Fort Ross, the cattle strayed over the forested mountain ranges half of the year, where many fell prey to bears and Indians.

To improve livestock management, in 1833 the company established two small ranches south of Fort Ross. The first, called the Kostromitinof Ranch, was located just south of the mouth of the Russian River and consisted of about 100 acres; the second, the Tschernick, or Gorgy's, Ranch, was about 5 miles north of Bodega Bay, at Russian Gulch. The latter also included a vineyard and some fruit trees. In the last 15 years of the fort's existence under Russian management, the managers exported some 216,000 pounds of salt beef and 18,000 pounds of butter to Sitka, as well as considerable quantities of excellent tanned leather.

As time went on, the Russian company decided to abandon its operation. In 1839, because of the great excess of costs over revenue in maintaining the fort, the company leased the southern coastal strip of southeastern Alaska to the Hudson's Bay Company, which agreed to furnish the Russian Alaskan settlements with agricultural commodities produced on its Columbia River farms. In 1841, John A. Sutter purchased Fort Ross for $30,000 in cash and a specified amount of agricultural products over the succeeding 4 years. The last Russians withdrew in January 1842.

Russian Greek Orthodox Chapel
Russian Greek Orthodox Chapel, built about 1828, is one of several restored buildings at Fort Ross, California.

In addition to illustrating Russian activities in North America, Fort Ross exemplifies the threat of foreign intrusions into America that produced the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and heightened colonial activity on the part of certain European powers, notably the British.

Present Appearance. In 1906, the California Landmarks League donated 3.01 acres of the fort site and the Russian Chapel to the State. In 1928, Fort Ross was assigned to the Division of Beaches and Parks as a State Historical Monument, and since then has been gradually restored. The chapel, commandant's house, and part of one blockhouse—all of which were still standing in 1906—have been carefully restored, and a second blockhouse and the stockade reconstructed. [6]

NHL Designation: 11/05/61

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005