and the Russian-American Fur Company
Explored California in: 1806-1842
Exploring for: Russia
Explored: by sea and land in northern California
In the early 1800s, parts of
the western coast of North America were claimed by four nations.
Russian trappers began hunting
sea otters for their fur in Alaska in the 1740s. Their first settlement there
was near present-day Kodiak. The Russian-American Fur Company was chartered
by Czar Paul I of
Count Nikolai Rezanov came from
Rezanov’s ship, Juno,
sailed into San Francisco Bay in April 1806. He asked the Spanish Governor
José Arrillaga for supplies for the Alaskan outposts. Governor Arrillaga had
orders not to assist any “foreigners” who came to California. But then Count
Rezanov became engaged to marry 15-year-old Concepción Argüello, the daughter
of the commandant at the presidio (fort). Rezanov’s ship was now loaded
with food and supplies for the Russian fur trappers. He sailed away on May
8, 1806, promising to return for the wedding. Concepción waited for years,
not knowing that Rezanov had died on the trip back to
Based on the good reports of California from Nikolai Rezanov, a Russian exploring and sea-otter hunting expedition left Sitka in 1808. It was headed by Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov. On January 8, 1809, Kuskov’s ship, the Kodiak, anchored in Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco.
The Russians stayed about eight months, trapping otters and surveying the land. They saw that the Spanish had no settlements in this part of California. They realized that Spanish defenses were too weak to protest if others should move into the area, and they decided this would be a good spot for a Russian fur outpost.
Kuskov returned to California in 1812 with a group of 95 Russians and 80 Aleuts (natives of the Alaska area). He chose a site about 18 miles north of Bodega Bay, on a bluff overlooking a harbor. Here the Russians built a fort made of redwood logs. A log stockade surrounded nine buildings including a large house and a chapel. The stockade had blockhouses at two corners and can non to defend the fort.
Outside the stockade were other buildings used as workshops, storehouses, and quarters for the Aleuts. On the beach was a wharf, a tannery, and a place where ships were built. The fort, known as Fort Ross, was dedicated on August 13, 1812.
The Spanish were not happy about the Russian settlement, but there was little they could do about it. The Aleut trappers from Fort Ross hunted sea otter and seals as far south as San Francisco Bay. Spanish government officials decided to expand the mission system northward, hoping to stop the Russians from moving further south. Mission San Francisco Solano, opened in Sonoma in 1823, was an attempt to do this.
Relations between the Russians and the Spaniards in California were cordial but wary, each keeping an eye on the other. When the mission in Sonoma was opened, the Russians sent gifts including a mission bell. When Gabriel Moraga, sent by the Spanish officials to keep watch on the Russians, found that they were in need of food, he returned with cattle and grain. Trade between the settlements, though illegal, was frequent.
In 1816, a German captain serving
in the Russian Navy sailed his ship, the Rurik, into San Francisco
Bay. He was Otto Kotzebue, on a long voyage to explore the Pacific for
With Kotzebue on his first voyage was Adelbert von Chamisso, a German naturalist credited with giving a scientific name to what later became California’s state flower, the golden poppy. He named it Eschscholtzia Californica in honor of Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, the surgeon on the Kotzebue expedition.
In 1821 the Russian Czar issued
an order declaring that the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco was closed
to all ships except those of
WHAT THEY ACCOMPLISHED
By ignoring Spanish claims to
the land and making a successful settlement in California, Kuskov and the
Russians showed the weakness of
The Russians left behind some place names in the area along the northern California coast. In some communities, Russian customs and celebrations commemorate the brief time that the Russian settlement existed.
The Aleut hunters at Fort Ross were so good at trapping sea otters, that in less than 20 years there were very few sea otters left. The Russians tried growing crops, but did not have good success. Fort Ross was now a financial burden to the Russian government. The Russian-American Fur Company sold the fort to John A. Sutter in December 1841. Sutter moved some of the equipment and supplies to his fort at Sacramento. The Russians then left California.
The site of Fort Ross is now a State Historic Park. All of the original buildings were destroyed by fire, but some have been reconstructed.