This post took me a little longer than expected to finish up because I have a ton of photographs for Fort Ross. I hope you enjoy them all!
The main route from Point Reyes to Fort Ross is Route 1, which winds dangerously along the coast. Some “shoulders” of the roadway are literally the coastline with the Pacific Ocean with its waves crashing below the cliffs. There are many spots and turn-offs along the road to stop and take photographs, as you can imagine.
Google Maps oddly enough, directed me off of Route 1 and into the mountains and cow pastures along the coast. Eventually, I found myself on a single dirt lane road in the middle of the woods in my Kia Soul rental. I assumed immediately that Google Maps was off its rocker and had gotten me lost, which wouldn’t have been the first time. As I was driving along the dirt road, I figured it had to be an old logging road in the woods and since there were no easy ways to turn around, I decided to keep going because there had to be an end to the road. My favorite part of the dirt road detour was when Google Maps announced that I had arrived at my destination. I had in fact, not arrived at my preferred destination of Fort Ross but was still in the woods.
It would seem that Google Maps had chosen a path less traveled by for me to adventure down. The single lane dirt road ends right across the street from the main entrance of Fort Ross; the dirt road is actually a path that goes by the old Russian orchards that are also part of the Fort. On that note, for those also adventuring along Route 1 to Fort Ross….trust me, just stay on Route 1, you’re drive right by Fort Ross. You won’t miss it.
Fort Ross is for the most part a reconstruction that has been beautifully done and is as historically accurate as possible. Even though it is greatly reconstructed, the Fort has a very interesting history and if I was to do a full run through of the land and it’s history, this was would become a book. So instead I’m going to focus on four different aspects of Fort Ross’ history: the Kashaya Tribe, the Russians, the Call Family, and the preservation efforts of the Fort.
Before the Russians began to settle the area that would eventually became Fort Ross, the first people known to live there were the Kashaya- they still live in the region today. The Tribe consider their name to be “People From the Top of the Land,” while the name “Kashaya,” meaning “expert gamblers” was given to them by a neighboring Pomo group. Originally, the Kashaya made the lands surrounding today’s Fort Ross, their home; roughly a range of 30 miles inland from the coast and 30 miles North-South from Gualala River to Duncan’s Point (South of the Russian River). An important village site of Mitini, which was near Fort Ross was important to the Kashaya territory, since it was the site of an assembly house where people would gather for ceremonial and social events.
In comparison to the other California Indians, the Kashaya experiences less acculturation and fewer forced removals to missions and reservations but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. When the Kashaya first encountered the Russians in 1812, the two groups came to an agreement over the use of a parcel of land, which was to become Fort Ross. The agreement was in accordance to a Russian policy that had been created to seek cooperation with local inhabitants that had previously been established in Siberia and Alaska. Fort Ross in a short time became a “tri-cultural community” of Russians, the Kashaya, and Aleut hunters where elements of culture and languages came together. Based on historic Fort records it also seems that the Coast Miwok Indians from Bodega Bay had a presence at the Fort as well.
After the Russians left, obvious changes occurred to the Kashaya’s way of life. Access to their traditional resources areas became more difficult because much of the land had become private property. Luckily, relationships with the Kashaya and new settlers near Fort Ross were better than in other parts of California and the country. By the 1870’s, the Kashaya were living in two villages located on property owned by Charles Haupt, a rancher who had married a Kashaya woman. The property was about 5 miles inland from Stewart’s Point, while a third, smaller village had been established near Stewart’s Point. In 1914, the federal government at the behest of Charles Haupt Jr. started the process to purchase a 40 mile acre tract of land four miles inland from Stewart’s Point, as a permanent location for the Kashaya; the location was not the best given that it is on an exposed ridge with poor soils and little water.
The reservation still exists today but the story doesn’t stop there, in 2015 after five years of fundraising through a group effort including the Kashia Pomo (another spelling of Kashaya), The Trust for Public Lands, Sonoma County, as well as other private foundations and groups were able purchase nearly 700 acres of ancestral lands of the Kashaya along Stewart’s Point. In exchange for the land, the Kashia agreed to build a public bluff-top trail along the coastline. The purchase enlarged their small reservation but about 18 times the size it originally was from the 1914 land purchase by Charles Haupt Jr.
Throughout the 1600’s the Russians had begun to move east across Siberia and the Pacific Ocean into Alaska. They set up posts in the Alaskan frontier and began working with Native Alaskan tribes to hunt for furs. From there, the Russians moved south, eventually pushing into California at the beginning of the 1800’s. In 1812, a team of 25 Russians and 80 Native Alaskans arrived in California with a number of goals, which included: establishing both a fort and a colony to grow crops (like wheat) that could be shipped back to Russian settlements in Alaska; hunt marine animals such as otter because the need was great for furs; and to trade with Spain. Spain’s colonies were located across Southern California and would have been a great opportunity for Russia to expand their holdings through trade. Another way to think about all of that, is that this is 1812, and Russia is entering the colony game really late in comparison to Spain, England, France, and now the newly established United States of America. In comparison the French, English, and Spanish already had established colonies as early as 15th century when Columbus, sailing for Spain, first landed in what is known today as South America. Along those lines throughout the 17th and into the 18th centuries France had a steady claim on the fur trade in North America along the St. Lawrence River.
The Fort the Russians established was named, “Ross” as a play on words and their mother county, since imperial Russia was known as “Rossia.” Their plans of having a successful establishment never fully came to realization- the climate along the coast was not suited for growing the needed crops; from over hunting, the population of otters drastically declined; and the anticipated trading with Spain never occurred. By 1841, the Russian-American Company was looking to sell their holdings and get the hell out of America, which leads us to the Call Family.
Fort Ross, as I’ve mentioned consists of many replica buildings save for a couple of buildings. With that said, the buildings are authentic to Russian construction methods and exhibits within the buildings give an idea of what life would have been like during its Russian era.
Buildings at Fort Ross:
The Rotchev House
The Kuskov House
The Official’s Quarters
The Call Family:
After the Russians sold their Fort and associated land, the property changed hands a number of times and was used primarily for ranches. The family was care about this post, is the Call family who owned a portion of the original property including the Fort. In 1873, George W. Call purchased 2,500 acres and the Fort property with all of its buildings, eventuality he would go on to acquire a total of 7,000 acres and create a business enterprise with components in agriculture, livestock, and shipping. Under his ownership the property became a community center and a shipping port, which included a post office, store, saloon, hotel, wharf, warehouse, and even a school house.
Prior to purchasing the land, George W. Call had made a fortune in Chile and when he moved to the Fort Ross property he brought his wife, Mercedes Leiva, who is consistently called a beautiful Chilean woman and their four young children. When they Calls moved to their new property, they first lived at the Rotchev House. By 1878, there were a total of 8 Call children (five girls and three boys), which made George build a new house.
The Call Family House is still a part of the Fort Ross State Park site and the building is open for docent led tours the first weekend of each month. That was the main reason for when I visited the Fort when I went. The docent led tour was very informative about the Call Family. The coolest thing about the house is that it was is still very much the homestead of the Call Family; the last Call children passed away in 1976 but descendants of George and Mercedes’ children still live in the area. One of the family’s direct descendants was actually at the house the day I went and he was answering questions for visitors. The family still occasionally has reunions at the home from what my docent said. Another fun tidbit that my docent shared was that the Call family were, “pack rats,” meaning they kept everything and for that reason everything on display in the home was originally was owned by the Calls, which makes for a very real interpretation of the family’s home and the family’s life at Fort Ross. The other cool thing about the home is that parts of the Call House were originally parts of the Fort.
Time Line for Preservation Efforts of Fort Ross:
Fort Ross has a long history of historic preservation started in a way by George W. Call himself. During his family’s ownership of the property, the Rotchev House was maintained, first as the home of the Calls and then as the Fort Ross Hotel. At the same time, the Russian Official’s Quarters were renovated to be a saloon. The family also preserved the Chapel and used it for a number of things including a horse barn and for the occasional wedding.
1891- Interest in Fort Ross for its cultural and historical important as a sacred place for Russians, resulted in many pilgrimages to the site. One such pilgrim was Bishop Vladimir, who made a proposal to George Call to buy the Chapel and cemetery to save them from further deterioration. The purchase never happened, but Call did start putting a thought into preserving the site.
1897– Another Bishop from Russia pilgrimaged to the site- Bishop Nikolai who also attempted to obtain the Chapel and cemetery from Call. Again, nothing came from the talks but in September of that year, Call donated lumber to restore the Chapel for the use as a Sunday school.
1902– The California Historical Landmarks League is incorporated.
1903– William Randolph Hearst sponsors a Citizen’s Campaign to raise money to save several historic landmarks, including Fort Ross. The stockage portion of Call’s property is purchased with funds raised.
1906– Fort Ross becomes an official historic site; less than a month later, the San Francisco Earthquake damaged a number of the historic buildings at Fort Ross.
1916- Funding is made available to begin repairing the damaged buildings at Fort Ross. The organization, Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West take special interest in the Chapel and use the area as a place to celebrate the July 4th for a number of years.
1925- The Russian Orthodox Congregation of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco are invited to a July 4th celebration by the Native Sons and Daughters; the Congregation still continues an annual July 4th pilgrimage to this day.
1928- Fort Ross becomes one of five historical monuments in the new California state parks system.
1936- A group from the San Francisco Russian community begin the initiative group for the memorialization of Fort Ross and begin publishing articles in Russian newspapers about the property’s history. The new year, the group creates the Russian Historical Society in America.
1945- The Society locates the lost bell of Fort Ross- it was at the Petaluma Adobe. The Society, along with the Native Sons and Daughters bring the bell back to the chapel in a special Labor Day celebration.
1961- Fort Ross is designated a National Historic Landmark.
1962- Fort Ross becomes a State Historic Park after the State purchases 353 acres from the Call Family.
1966- Fort Ross is nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.
1970- The Rotchev House is nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. That same year, fire destroys the Chapel and the historic bell, less than a year later an arsonist sets fire to the Rotchev House, which luckily only burned the roof and attic.
1972- A new water supply system is built and plans are carried out to reroute Highway 1 (it had originally divided the stockage of the Fort). Federal money is available to restore the sites in the state. Various organizations come together to get funding for the “Restore Fort Ross Fund.” Key groups include the local Sea Ranch residents and several Russian-American groups. That same year, state parks director, William Penn Mott Jr. develops the first Citizens Advisory Committee for Fort Ross, which includes local residents, Russian Americans, and the Kashaya Pomo.
1976- The last of George and Mercedes Call’s children pass away.
1985- Ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Fort Ross Visitors Center
1990- The Citizens Advisory Committee is dissolved. The Fort Ross Interpretive Association continues the work the Committee had started.
2010- Fort Ross almost closes because of the state budget crises. Viktor Vekselberg, president of the Russian business group, Renova Group, meets with then Governor Arnold Schwarzengger to discuss plans to keep the Fort open, and creates the Renova Fort Ross Foundation to help with funding.
2012- Fort Ross celebrates its bicentennial!
This is all a very small snippet of the history of Fort Ross. There’s a lot more I could have went into detail on such as the Native Alaskans who came here with the Russians of the other ranchers who owned the Fort Ross property after the Russians sold the land. Visiting Fort Ross was super exciting and there wasn’t a lot of people there when I visited, so it was nice to be in the building by myself for the most part.
There’s a lot more to learn about, so please check out some of the resources listed below for more information on this really amazing place.
As always thank you for reading!
Further Information and Resources:
Most of my information on Fort Ross comes from the following book I purchased during my visit:
Kalani, Lyn, Lynn Rudy, and John Sperry, ed. Fort Ross. Fort Ross Interpretive Association, 1998.
Sections that were relevant to my post include:
Parrish, Otis, “The First People,”pgs. 6-7.
Watrous, Stephen, “Fort Ross: The Russian Colony in California,” pg. 11.
“The Ranchers,” pgs.24-25
Sakovich, Maria, “Partners in Preservation,” pgs. 27-28.
“The Fort: Structural History and Reconstruction,” pgs. 29-38.
Information from the book can be found on the Fort Ross website under “History”: https://www.fortross.org/history.htm
Kashia Coastal Preserve
Call Family House
Fort Ross Almost Closes