I typed in a name, and then it asked me to assign a URL. Oh my gawd, they are serious – am I? Well, if you are reading this you know the answer. It took only a few minutes and really was fun. I wrote my first post last night and ever since my mind has been whirling with ideas of what more to write about. I thought I should start at the beginning and explain the basics: What is HALS? Why was it created? What is its purpose? But all that sounds too dull and what I really want to tell you about is some of the fascinating historic landscapes I’ve visited in the past few months. So I decided to start with Fort Ross.
I took the photo of Fort Ross that appears on my blog banner in spring of 2009 while my partner, two dogs and I were on a weeklong vacation in Northern California. This state historic park recently made headlines when Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak visited on August 27, 2009 in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s threat to close many of our state parks. Kislyak urged the governor to consider how important the site was to the people of Russia. According to a September 18th article in the Independent Coast Observer by Lisa Walters, “Ambassador Kislyak said he would lobby Russian business interests that might be willing to help with the needed funds.”
Fort Ross History
Fort Ross is a 3386-acre park that preserves North America’s southernmost Russian settlement originally founded in 1812 by the Russian-American Company. Today the site includes the restored Rotchev House and 5 other reconstructed buildings including the Northwest and Southeast Blockhouses, the Kuskov House, a chapel and Officers Quarters. The original fort is enclosed by a stockade built of Redwood with wood spikes on top.
The park property includes the Call Ranch House, remnants of a Russian Orchard and cemetery, a visitor center with interpretive displays, picnic and parking. Archaeological excavations have been undertaken to insure that the placement, orientation and size of features is historically accurate. The fort is set on a point of land between Fort Ross Cove and Sandy Cove on California’s northern coastline. It has a broad view of the Pacific Ocean and of forested hills to the northeast. Because the Call family valued the site the property today it is almost the same as it had been when the Russians left it in 1841.
Prior to the Russian settlement Native Americans used this site known as Metini for centuries. The Kashaya Pomo people seasonally moved their village from the ridges where they lived in winter, to their summer home along the seashore where they hunted, gathered food and harvested seafood.
Russians began exploring in North America as early as 1742. In 1784 they built the first permanent Russian settlement on Kodiak Island, Alaska. This organization became the Russian-American Company in 1799. In 1809 the Russian-American Company sent Ivan Kuskov to locate a California site to serve as a trading base. Kuskov chose Metini which had plentiful water, good soil, forage and pasture and a supply of redwoods. The site was relatively inaccessible which gave the settlers a defensive advantage. The settlement was never threatened by outside attack. Kuskov returned in 1812 to build houses and a stockade. The colony was dedicated on August 13, 1812 as “Fortress Ross” to honor its connection with Imperial Russia – or “Rossiia”. Kuskov was an avid gardener, growing cabbage and beets for pickling. He produced enough to ship the excess to Sitka, Alaska. At its peak the Fort Ross settlement included 300 men, women and children and thousands of livestock.
Outside the stockade a village grew to the southwest that had 50 buildings, Native Americans continued to live nearby and worked at the fort. Ross was a successfully functioning multicultural settlement for at least 30 years; residents included Russians, Native Alaskans, Californians and Creoles. Activities included agriculture, ranching, hunting sea mammals, blacksmithing, tanning, brick making, logging and shipbuilding. The decline of the marine mammal population contributed to the departure of the Russians.
One of the first horticultural efforts was the Russian experiments with fruit trees. Peach trees were brought from San Francisco and planted in 1814. Grapes from Peru were planted in 1817. A Russian orchard located on the hillside included apples, peaches, grapes, quince, cherries and several types of pear. An 1841 inventory listed 216 fruit trees. This orchard is still maintained. Agriculture at the site peaked in the 1830s but was never very successful do to the severe climate and gophers.
In 1841 the property was sold to John Sutter who was based in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter had Otto Benitz manage the Ross property (1841-67). Benitz sold to James Dixon and Lord Fairfax who ran a lumber company (1867- 1873) when Fort Ross was sold to George W. Call (1873 – 1979).
In 1903 the California Historical Landmarks Committee acquired the Fort Ross property within the stockade from the Call family. The state acquired the property in 1906 and has implemented the restoration and reconstruction work.
The Rotchev House is a designated National Historic Landmark
The Chapel has been recorded by HABS (Historic American Building Survey)
The entire property is State Historic Landmark No. 5
Sources for this article include the following:
Fort Ross State Historic Park brochure, California State Parks, www.parks.ca.gov
"Fort Ross" published by Fort Ross Interpretive Associates, General Editors: Lyn Kalani, Lynn Rudy and John Sperry. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1998
Historic Spots in California, by Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch and Ethel Grace Rensch, third edition revised by William N. Abeloe, 1966.
Next time you drive up Highway 1 make a point of stopping at Fort Ross. It is a unique part of our state park system with an excellent visitor center.