Fort Ross is one state park that should not be missed during one or another of your stays with us. It is on the way for anyone coming up the coast and is a short drive south on Highway One for anyone that does not catch it coming to or departing from The Sea Ranch. It is worth at least a couple of hours and makes a great place for a picnic lunch if you want to make a day of it.
In the late eighteenth century, Vitus Bering, a Dane employed by the Czar, crossed what became known as the Bering Straits and explored the northeastern corner of the continent. In 1799 Alexander Baranoff established a Russian colony in Sitka, Alaska. From there he directed the fur hunting of the Aleut natives and increasingly focused on the sea otter. In those days, a single prime otter pelt might bring $150, a huge sum at the time.
In 1805 Nikolai Rezanov replaced Baranoff at Sitka and the following year he sailed south to San Francisco in search of badly needed supplies. At the time, the Spanish Crown forbade trade with foreigners and Rezanov was unable to purchase the supplies that he needed, however he was permitted to land because many of his crew were suffering from scurvy. During his period ashore he met Dona Conception Arguello, the fifteen year old daughter of the Commandant of the Presidio. A romance followed, they were engaged, and Rezanov was permitted to purchase the supplies that he required for the reprovisioning of Sitka. Shortly thereafter, while crossing Siberia to ask the Czar for permission to marry Conception, Rezanov died, but his bride-to-be did not learn of his death until thirty six years later. She never married.
In 1817 the succesors to Rezanov and Baranoff established Fort Russ about sixty miles north of San Francisco. Fort Russ, or Fort Ross as it is known today, was the center for the Russian and Aleut trade in otter pelts along the central North American continent. The settlement harvested as many as one thousand otter pelts a month during the peak of the hunting. By 1828 the efficient Aleut hunters had virtually wiped out the entire population of otters in the surrounding waters. In subsequent years they took an average of 100 otter pelts a year. The Russians tried their hand at farming the land and establishing a self sufficient colony but were singularly unsuccessful. They abandoned Fort Ross in 1841.
A Swiss citizen named John Sutter purchased Fort Ross from the Russians. His principal interests at the time were in Sacramento where he was building a fort. He purchased Fort Ross to obtain the hardware in it for use in the construction of his fort in Sacramento. In addition to the spikes and hinges and other iron work he also purchased all of the land from the coast inland twelve miles from Point Reyes to Cape Mendocino. The purchase price was 30,000 pesos! Today, a half acre of coastal property frequently sells for more than half a million dollars. Sutter did not retain ownership of his vast coastal land holding. The enormous changes that were to occur in California due to the war with Mexico, the Gold Rush, and the war between the states ensured that land titles changed dramatically. Russian influence in North America ended with the sale of Alaska in 1867. Fort Ross became a State Historical Park in 1906.