Fort Ross, Northwest Cape

Fort Ross, Northwest Cape

by | Jan 4, 2022

Fort Ross is a historical Russian settlement now part of Fort Ross State Historic Park, situated on a small bight called Fort Ross Cove south of Northwest Cape, about 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Gualala and 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Jenner, California. The name appeared first as Fortress Ross on a French chart in 1842 and is derived from ‘Rus‘, an ancient term referring to the Russian people. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest humans lived in the Northwest Cape area between 1000 BC and 500 AD. More intensive use began around 1500 AD and based on ethnography and the archaeological record, during the winter the indigenous people lived in large and relatively permanent villages located inland and during the summer, they occupied seasonal camps on the coast to take advantage of intertidal and marine resources. Ethnographic evidence suggests that Northwest Cape was part of the prehistorical territory of the Kashaya Pomo who called it Metini. The exact time of their arrival to this part of California is unknown but linguistic studies suggest that the ancestral Kashaya moved to the Northwest Cape region by migrating west along the Russian River from Clear Lake. Their arrival may have displaced an earlier occupation of Yukian speaking people. Northwest Cape was approximately where the Spanish and Russian colonial expansions met along the coast of Alta California in the early 19th century. By that time, British and American fur trading companies had also established a coastal presence in the Pacific Northwest. Russian personnel from the Alaskan colonies initially arrived in California aboard American ships. In 1803, American ship captains were already involved in the sea otter fur trade in California and proposed several joint venture hunting expeditions to the Russian-American Company. Subsequent reports by hunting parties of uncolonized stretches of coast encouraged the Russians to build a settlement in California north of the Spanish presidio and mission at San Francisco. In 1808, the Russian ships Kad’yak and Saint Nikolai were sent south from Sitka to establish settlements in California. Despite Spanish missionary activity at San Francisco and on the Marin Peninsula, the first direct contact between Europeans and the Kashaya was probably by a Russian-American Company promyshlenniki named Timofei Tarakanov, sometime between 1807 and 1811. In 1812, after exploring the area near Bodega Bay, the Russian-American Company selected a site 15 miles (24 km) to the north at the Kashaya Pomo village of Metini.

Fort Ross was established as a fur trading post by Ivan Kuskoff and 95 Russians and 80 Aleuts who were based at Sitka, Alaska. The post was constructed on the same general plan utilized by the Russians for their fur trading posts in Alaska. Fort Ross was a quadrangular enclosure or stockade that measured about 276 by 312 feet (84 by 95 m). Hand-hewn redwood timbers were used for all construction including the stockaded walls which were 12 feet (3. 7m) high. Two two-story blockhouses, one 7-sided and the other 8-sided, were located at diagonally opposite corners of the stockade. Inside the walls were the commander’s house, officer’s quarters, a two-story barracks for the Russian employees, a chapel, 3 storehouses, and offices. Outside the walls were 37 redwood huts for the Aleut and Kashaya Natives, a windmill, farm buildings, granaries, cattle yards, a tannery, and workshops for blacksmiths, coopers, bakers, and carpenters. The fort was completed in 1814. It was the hope of Russian-American Company officials that the settlement would be a base for sea otter hunting in California, and perhaps more importantly to provide food for colonies in the North Pacific where any type of agriculture was problematic. As the California sea otters were hunted to extinction, the Russians turned to other commercial endeavors, such as agriculture, shipbuilding, brick production, blacksmithing, and cutting timber. In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain and in 1833 secularized the mission lands. However, Fort Ross did not live up to expectations and by 1841 it had become an economic liability. In 1840, the Russian-American Company offered its property for sale to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the French and Mexican governments but were declined. In December 1841, the settlement, which included the stockade and surrounding lands, was sold to Captain John Sutter, although Mexico did not recognize Sutter’s claim to the land, and consequently, within two years after the purchase of Fort Ross, Sutter had everything of value salvaged from Fort Ross and moved to his Rancho New Helvetia on the Sacramento River. In 1845, a land grant called Rancho Muniz of 17,761 acres (7,188 ha) which included the Fort Ross property was given by Governor Pío Pico to Manuel Torres. Torres then leased Rancho Muniz to William Benitz and Ernest Rufus, who also owned the adjoining Rancho German to the north, and in 1849 when California was ceded to the United States, Benitz and Rufus acquired the entire rancho.

Benitz and Rufus operated the property as a traditional ranch and raised livestock, agricultural products, established a brewery, and opened the land to mining and timber cutting. The Kashaya provided inexpensive labor and still occupied the small village Metini. In 1867, Benitz sold the property to Charles Fairfax and James Dixon, the owners of Fairfax and Dixon Lumbering Company, and they forced the Kashaya off the rancheria and many of the families moved north to the Haupt Ranch near Stewarts Point. After 1870, the Kashaya lived in three villages near Stewarts Point on the property of Charles Haupt, a rancher who had married a Kashaya woman. By 1873, James Dixon had logged off most of the timber on the property and the southern half of the Muniz Rancho was sold and became the Rule Ranch in the hills above present-day Jenner. Other Fairfax-Dixon lands between Russian Gulch and Fort Ross were sold to dairymen, and about 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) including Fort Ross was purchased by George W. Call, who eventually owned 7,000 acres (2,833 ha). In addition to farming and ranching, Call transformed the old structures of the Fort Ross stockade into a small town. The commander’s house became the Fort Ross Hotel, the official’s quarters were used as a saloon, office and outhouse, and a dance hall was made from the warehouse. The blockhouses held chickens or pigs, and the sheds along the eastern side of the stockade became a blacksmith‘s shop, a wagon shed, horse stalls, and a store. A dairy heard of 470 cows grazed on the hills, and the butter made at the dairy was in great demand in San Francisco. Between 1875 and 1899 the Call Ranch produced and shipped an average of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kg) of butter a year from a small wharf. In 1903, the stockade was sold to the State Landmarks Club and in 1906, deeded the land to the State of California and is now a part of the Fort Ross State Park. Read more here and here. Explore more of Fort Ross and Northwest Cape here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2019 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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