In March of 1812 Russians completed a fort—modeled after the traditional stockade, blockhouses and log buildings found in Siberia and on Sitka Island in Alaska—north of Bodega Bay on the California coast and named it “Ross.”
Although fortified the settlement’s purpose was to serve as a commercial, not military outpost. Russian merchants had been exporting seal and sea otter pelts from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, which Russia had claimed in 1741, and needed a source of food to support their northern settlements as well as new hunting grounds to augment declining animal populations in northern waters.
Fort Ross was a thriving Russian-American Company settlement from 1812–1841 with a commander’s house, warehouses, barracks and three officials’ houses and a chapel inside the stockade and a bake house, bath houses, threshing floors, two windmills and a tannery outside.
Houses and gardens for Russian artisans, barns, corrals and dwellings for Aleuts (Native Americans from the Aleutian Islands), as well as a smithy, boathouse and ship-ways had all fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely in the harsh coastal environment when the State of California acquired the fort just before the earthquake of April, 1906 which caused additional damage.
Most of what visitors to Fort Ross National Historic Park will see today has been reconstructed.
Fort Ross NHP photos
A view of Fort Ross NHP from near The Old Russian Cemetery
The recreated Old Russian Cemetery at Fort Ross National Historic Park with its patriarchal crosses.
Patriarchal crosses consist of a small cross above and a larger cross nearby like arms, and below, a diagonally placed stick.
Also known as the Russian Orthodox cross the short top bar represents a sign nailed to the cross, the middle bar Christ’s crucifixion and the angled bottom bar signifies the disposition of the two thieves flanking Christ when he was nailed to the cross.
There is not much left to see of the settlement outside the stockade.
The nine buildings inside and up to fifty outside housed as many as 300 men, women and children along with thousands of domestic animals. Russians, mostly men, numbered from 25 – 100, Native Alaskans 50 – 125. California natives—Kashaya, Cost Miwok and Southern Pomo—worked as day laborers and some married Russian men or Aleuts. Children, about a third of the population
by the mid-1830s, were mostly “Creoles,” born of ethnically mixed unions.
Standing just outside the stockade gate at Fort Ross NHP looking south toward a blockhouse and Sandy Cove.
Many commercial activities were developed around Ross including tanning, flour milling, brick-making, blacksmithing,
foundry work, lumber, ranching and agriculture including grain, fruit and grapes.
Fort Ross Cove, or Sandy Cove served as the arrival and demarcation point for Alaska, Bodega Bay and the Farallon Islands.
One of the earliest shipbuilding facilities of any size on the California coast was here where three brigs, a schooner and
many smaller boats were constructed.
The stockade walls at Ross were never very substantial—a 75-foot section blew down in 1830—and very little was still standing by 1865. The walls were restored over a period of more than 40 years after the fort became a state park. It wasn’t until 1974 that the fort was completely enclosed as it had been during the Russian occupation. Some walls have been rebuilt again.
The south gate, shown closed here from inside and open from the outside in the photo directly above, is the main entrance.
It faces the cove and seashore.
This eight-sided blockhouse on the Southeast corner of the stockade is the same one seen from outside in an earlier photo.
Three cannon, on wood wheeled mounts are connected with ropes to the walls (presumably to restrict their movement from recoil) are on display on the lower floor of the 8 sided blockade.
More cannon are on the second floor, up the wood stairs. All cannon are aimed in the direction of the cove.
A window in the upper floor of the blockhouse on the Southeast corner of the stockade overlooks Fort Ross cove where the
S.S. Pomona, a single-screw, steel-hulled
passenger and freight steamer ran aground on March 17, 1908.
It is still in the cove in 27–40 feet of water.
This view back into the stockade from the Southeast blockhouse second floor, directly above the entry door below, shows
five of the other six structures. Out of view on the left is the barracks, moving clockwise, the first building on the left above is the Rotchev House. Next is the two story Warehouse or Magazin and then in the opposite, Northwest corner a seven-sided blockhouse. The building near the center of the photo is the Kuskov house and the Chapel is on the Southwest corner.
There were nine structures listed on an inventory in 1841.
Barracks & Rotchev House
A well inside the stockade, originally 34 feet deep, offered security in case of attack.
The South Gate is just out of the picture to the left and the Barracks are to the left and the Rotchev House to the right.
Originally built before 1817 as the site of the company workshops the structure now called the Barracks was described as “house of planks containing a foundry and workroom for a coppersmith” on the 1817 map. This is the room you enter from the door near the South Gate which is visible in the photo near the beginning of this essay of the open South Gate.
The next four photos are vignettes from several other rooms in the Barracks showing some of the many interesting items on display.
One of only four surviving structures from the Russian-American colonial period (the other three are in Alaska) and the
only original Russian-built structure at Fort Ross, The Commander’s house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places,
was built about 1836. It served as the home of Alexander Rotchev, his wife Elena and their children.
Another room in the Rotchev House.
Warehouse or Magazin
The recently reconstructed two-story Russian-American Company magazin was both company store and warehouse.
Russian traded with Spanish and later Mexican Californians, Britain, the United States, Europe and China.
The reconstructed residence of Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov the founder, first manager—from 1812–1821—and the person who named Ross. Living quarters were upstairs above an armory.
This room is on the lower right in the photo above.
A side view of the rifles from the photo above.
An upstairs room in the living quarters of the Kuskov House with a view out the window toward the Rotchev House.
The first Russian Orthodox structure in North America outside of Alaska, the original chapel built in the mid-1820s was partially destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Two Russian Orthodox crosses on the chapel cupola. Orthodox religious services have been held here from 1925 to now.
The chapel bell is inscribed in Church Slavonic:
“Heavenly King, receive all who glorify Him.”
Interior of the Fort Ross Chapel.
This replica stolbovka style windmill features authentic mechanisms, nail-free roof structure made of birch bark
and two pairs of blade wings just as the original—the first windmill in California built 1814.
It was used to grind grain into flour for bread at Fort Ross and the Russian’s Alaska Settlements.
The Visitor’s Center at Fort Ross NHP includes a museum, bookshop library and auditorium.
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