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The Forgotten History of Russia’s California Colony

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From Sacramento to Los Angeles, Spain’s colonial fingerprints are plain to see throughout present-day California. But did you know that in the 18th century, Tsarist Russia carved out her own slice of this future state?

Grigory Shelikhov (1747-1795) has been ignored by countless history textbooks. In 1784, this adventurous fur merchant established the Three Saints Bay Colony, Russia's first permanent North American settlement, on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Back then, Russia held high hopes for eastward expansion, seeing Three Saints Bay Colony as the first step towards converting the Pacific Ocean into their empire’s personal “Inland Sea.” With this spirit in mind, the powerful Russian-American Company was established 15 years later and rapidly began asserting a monopoly over Alaskan trade. The Russian-American Company wouldn’t relinquish this authority until Alaska was purchased by the U.S. in 1867.

Otter pelts were easily the area’s most profitable commodity. However, after a few decades’ worth of over-hunting by the Russian-American Company, the animals began to grow scarce. At the same time, Russian settlers had difficulty adapting their traditional farming practices to Alaska’s unforgiving terrain and shortened growing season. As a result, it became difficult to supply the colonists with enough food. Something had to be done.

That’s when Russia set her sights on California. At first, the Alaskan colonies were merely interested in acquiring more food by trading with their Cali-based Spanish counterparts. But California’s abundance proved tantalizing. Soon enough, the Russians started making plans to stake their own claim on its sunny, otter-rich coastline.

Located 60 miles north of modern-day San Francisco, Fort Ross is the largest lingering trace of this effort. A historical landmark today, this wooden settlement was formally founded on February 2, 1812, after it was acquired from the local Native Americans for “three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads.”

Ross, which got its name from a phonetic abbreviation for “Russia,” housed occupants from the motherland for the next 29 years. Unfortunately, despite the settlers' best efforts, this Californian experiment could neither adequately solve Alaska’s food crisis nor produce enough otter furs to become profitable. Also, Russia’s presence there wasn’t exactly met with warmth by the Spanish (more on that below). Finally, in 1841, the Fort Ross territory was sold to an American pioneer named John Sutter (1803-1880), this time for the agreed-upon sum of $30,000, which he never actually paid. 

On a semi-related note, Colonial Russia can be partially credited with prompting the creation of one of America’s most famous documents: the Monroe Doctrine. In 1821, Tsar Alexander I, whose subjects now reigned supreme over everything from Alaska to Oregon (not to mention that tiny slice of California real estate), released an imperial edict which forbade foreign vessels from coming within 100 miles of “his” Pacific Northwest. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams swiftly informed Russia’s ambassadors that the U.S. government would “contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new colonial establishments.” Two years later, this argument would be echoed in President James Monroe’s anti-colonialist manifesto.

Additionally, San Francisco owes its existence to Russia’s North American presence. On October 28, 1776—the day Yankee and British forces collided in the Battle of White Plains over 2500 miles away—San Francisco was established by the Spanish, who hoped this new settlement would discourage incoming Tsarist fur traders from moving further southward.

More evidence of Russia's impact on California is found in the naming of San Francisco's “Russian Hill” neighborhood. During California’s gold rush, a handful of Cyrillic-labeled tombstones (which probably belonged to visiting Russian merchants) were discovered there, providing yet another trace of the Golden State’s deeply-rooted connection to this long-gone empire.  

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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