Wednesday, January 11, 2012

February 2, 1812 – Founding of Fort Ross Begins Russian Gold Rush

As the sea otter fur trade blossomed in the Northern Pacific, settlers from Russia began to colonize the Alaskan coast. They worked alongside native Aleutians to perfect hunting techniques for otters, and American ships provided the transport of processed furs out and new settlers in. Joint Russian-American hunting expeditions took them as far south as the coasts of Spanish California, where otters were plentiful beyond the reach of colonies. Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, Chief Administrator of the Russian-American Company, which had been chartered as Russia’s first joint-stock company in 1799, determined to establish a settlement in California to exploit the natural resources there as well as limiting the northward expansion of the Spanish.

After a trade mission to San Francisco in 1806 and a successful hunting expedition in 1808 during which Russians buried plaques denoting Russian possession of the land, a second try at a permanent agricultural settlement was successfully made in 1812 by Commerce Counselor Ivan Kuskov with what became known as “Fort Ross” (a slurred nickname of “Fortress Russia”). The settlement flourished, though the otters in the area were practically eliminated by American and English hunting expeditions in the next decade. Settlers built windmills and a shipyard and introduced luxuries such as glass windows and stoves to Northern California.

Its great importance, however, came as it was a stop on the exploration route of Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue. The German-born Kotzebue had been given charge of a ship of twenty-seven men outfitted by Count Nikolay Rumyantsev to seek out a passage through the Arctic Circle and chart undiscovered islands in Oceania along with the naturalists Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz and Adelbert von Chamisso and the artist Louis Choris. While a Northwest Passage proved impossible, he stopped in 1824 at Fort Ross after visiting the Spanish missions at Santa Clara and San Francisco. His journals described the region as “of a very romantic though wild character; and the luxuriant growth of the grass proved that the soil was rich.” He also noted, “the inhabitants of Ross live in the greatest concord with the Indians, who repair, in considerable numbers, to the fortress, and work as day-labourers, for wages” and that the natives “willingly give their daughters in marriage to Russians and Aleutians; and from these unions ties of relationship have arisen which strengthen the good understanding between them.”

Kotzebue returned to San Francisco, where “The Californian winter being now fairly set in, we had much rain and frequent storms. On the 9th of October the south-west wind blew with the violence of the West-Indian tornado, rooted up the strongest trees, tore off the roofs of the houses, and occasioned great devastation in the cultivated lands.” Their ship suffered severe damage as its cables broke and wind drove it onto the rocky shore. With such major repairs needed, Kotzebue determined to winter in the safe harbor of San Francisco Bay, giving extra time for Dr. Eschscholtz to obtain botanical samples from far upstream in the lands not inundated by the notable fogs that plagued Russian gardens in the area. Upon his return from one of the expeditions, Eschscholtz revealed to Kotzebue a handkerchief full of gold pebbles gathered from a creekbed. Kotzebue returned the samples of gold to Russia and determined that the storm that had delayed them struck simultaneously in St. Petersburg, as if a herald of the joining of northern California to Russia. Tsar Alexander I and his ministers dispatched expeditions and colonies to the area, igniting a Russian gold rush and securing the claim to the area by supporting America in its war against Mexico in 1846-8 (during which they seized San Francisco). As the Russian gold turned national attentions to the Pacific, they expanded with colonies in the Sandwich Islands and throughout the northern ocean.

While for the most part the Russian settlers worked well with Americans, Russia proved too cordial to natives for the Americans’ taste. After battles in the Oregon territory such as Rogue River, Grave Creek, and Big Meadows, the Russian colony of New Albion welcomed refugees and helped organize a resettlement program that bolstered the defense of the region, ending many Americans’ hopes of annexation as had been seen in Texas. Several warhawks called for an expedition to drive out the Russians, but by the time railroads would have allowed supply chains, Albion was as entrenched of a state as Alaska.

Following the lackluster support given from the tsar during the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian colonies in the Pacific began calling for independence. Although several attempts at insurrection were put down in the early 1900s, the Russian Civil War would give the colonies a wave of successful revolutions in 1917. Fearing Japanese expansion, the defensive Coalition of Pacific Russian Republics renewed its close ties with the Americans and British. Political ties deepened as they came into NATO during the Cold War, though Albion, Alaska, and Gavay (Hawai’i) were often viewed with suspicion due to their historical ties with what became the Soviet Union.


In reality, the ships of the Kotzebue expedition were not heavily damaged in the storm of 1824. The discovery of vast goldfields in northern California did not come until 1848 during the construction of a mill by John Sutter, who had purchased the Fort Ross claims from its last administrator, Alexander Rotchev, in 1841.

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