The Forgotten History of Russia’s California Colony
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.