Monday, February 13, 2017

Russians in California? Our Trip to Fort Ross State Historic Park

I've wanted to see Fort Ross State Historic Park for a long
time. The village is not represented, but the recreated 
stockade and interior buildings are awesome to explore.
We had a rather warm couple of days after Christmas, so Sheila and I took the opportunity to drive up the coast to Mendocino County and check out Fort Ross State Historic Park. This place has been on my radar for several years, and since it is too far for a day trip from our house, we made a weekend out of it, staying in Mendocino and visiting the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park (which I’ll tell you about in the next post).

Fort Ross is located on the northern California coast, an approximately 2-hour drive north of San Francisco along Highway 1. The area receives about 44 inches of rain a year, 35 of it between November and April. So typically a visitor in the winter would take the chance of encountering coastal storms with rain and gale force winds. However, on the day that we visited we hit the weather jackpot with the sun shining, highs in the upper 50s and a very gentle breeze.

The weather was perfect on this winter break. Check the
forecast before you go.
Russians had been crossing the Bering Strait in search of furs since the middle of the 18th century. By the end of the 1700s, the Russian-American Company had settlements from Kodiak Island in the Aleutians to Sitka in present-day Alaska. Operations expanded with the contracting of American ship captains to use native Alaskans to hunt sea otters along the California coast. To help in these operations, the Russians chose to build a settlement at Metini, 18 miles north of Bodega Bay. The Russians arrived in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans, who built the first houses and a stockade. The site was populated with a native American village, plenty of fresh water, forage, and pasture. There were nearby forests for an ample supply of wood, and best of all, since they were technically encroaching on Spanish territory, the site was defensible. They named it Fort Ross, to honor Imperial Russia, or Rossiia.

I have never seen so many hand tools!
As it turned out, a defense was not necessary. The site was about sixty miles from the nearest Spanish mission, in Sonoma, and eighty-five miles from the Presidio at San Francisco over rough terrain. Moreover, the Spanish (and later the Mexican Californios) seemed to be more interested in trading with, rather than expelling the Russians. Which is a good thing, since the marine mammal population began to be depleted by over hunting by 1820. Along with trading and hunting fur, the settlement also farmed and ranched. They were productive enough to send foodstuff to their outposts in Alaska. In 1841 the Russian-American Company sold their holdings to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort fame. After the Gold Rush and the American annexation of California, the area was ranched by a succession of owners that ended with the property being transferred to the State of California in 1906. This makes Fort Ross one of the oldest California State Parks.

Did I mention the weather was perfect? The coast the best 
part of the trip.
Fort Ross is definitely a destination. I highly recommend a picnic lunch, which is what we chose to do. The nearest inexpensive restaurant is more than an hour’s drive in either direction. But picnicking is really the way to go if the weather is nice, which it was on the day we visited. Besides the drive, give yourself a half a day to go through the visitor’s center and the grounds. Along with the buildings and the stockade, take the time to walk out to the sea cliff and sit on the bench for a little while.

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