Fort Ross prepares for its cameo
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Fort Ross is about to celebrate its 200th birthday. When Ivan Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay on behalf of the Russian American Company in 1812 he had a to-do list. He needed to send highly profitable otter furs to Russia, he had to plant crops to feed the Alaskan colonies that were starving, and he had to find a good place to put his 41 cannons to defend a new settlement.
So he built Fort Rossiya because it was defensible and because it was near a large Kashaya Pomo settlement. He raised the flag over the fort August 13, 1812. The Russians planted orchards and put in crops. They did not enslave their Native American neighbors; instead they married them.
Almost 30 years later, with no sea otters left, the Russian settlement effort was defeated by fog and gophers. Cannons don’t work well against gophers, and the settlers never could grow enough food to send to Alaska.
In 1841 they sold the fort to John Sutter of Gold Rush fame, turned their pigs loose (they went feral and still are a nuisance to local gardeners), took their Pomo wives and children and went home to Russia.
The Kashaya Pomo are still trying to locate their distant kin with the help of modern Russians.
The fort eventually ended up in hands of an American ranching family, the Calls, who donated it to the park system. The Call ranch house is still part of the park, as is the historic orchard that the Russians planted.
Fort Ross’s modern history is as colorful as its early history.
At one point the historic chapel burned. It had fallen in the 1906 earthquake and been restored. This time rumors abounded because the Native American activist movement was in full swing.
One angry brave among the Kashaya had expressed anger against the fort, so one rumor was the fire was his doing. Another rumor said drunk young hooligans had done it.
Dan Murley, retired ranger and Fort Ross historian, said none of it was true. A park employee taking a cigarette break in a storeroom below the chapel accidentally started the fire.
Sculptor Bruce Johnson headed the restoration work and rebuilt the chapel using the same tools the original Russian carpenters would have used.
Since Sonoma County was the farthest their explorers traveled, Fort Ross appears in every Russian school child’s history book. Every Russian who ever made it to San Francisco wanted desperately to make a pilgrimage to the historic site.
For decades they weren’t allowed to. A secret military listening post elsewhere in the county was so classified that no Soviet was permitted to cross the county line.
It took Perestroika and a lot of lobbying for the government to finally loosen up and let the Russian Children’s Peace Chorus sing at the fort.
Then in 1991, Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev sent a good will cruise ship down the U.S. coast filled with scientists, business people and government officials. When it docked at San Francisco, a bus convoy took them to Fort Ross. The government had declassified its secret post.
At Fort Ross, the party was in full swing. Russian Americans, Russian Orthodox priests and history buffs in period dress cooked in great cauldrons over open fires and played Russian music to welcome the visiting Soviets.
Then word came that the Soviet military had staged a coup, and no one knew where Gorbachev was. The captain of the Soviet cruise ship was beside himself. Who was his boss? Would he be shot when he got back to Russia? Should he continue the voyage or get everyone on planes to the USSR?
Just then the rangers shot off one of the fort cannons, which are startlingly loud. The captain keeled over with a heart attack. He was helicoptered to a hospital in Santa Rosa and released a few days later when he learned Gorbachev was fine, the coup had failed. Yeltsin had climbed a tank in Red Square, and the army chose him over old bosses. The voyage could continue.
On July 28 and 29, Fort Ross again will be the scene of festivities as docents and volunteers don their Russian period clothing, make music, cook and shoot off some more cannons.
The Kashaya Pomo who still have their home in the area will turn out in regalia to dance. Historians will lecture, and the fort’s museum will show off its collection of artifacts from the Russian settlement.
Tallships accompanied by Russian period longboats and Aleut kayaks will sail into the doghole port and fire their cannons, too. Visiting Russian dignitaries will be wined and dined with vodka, California caviar and Sonoma County wines.
Priests will conduct services in the Russian graveyard above the fort, where some of the Russian men are buried. Their graves were excavated in the 1980s by archeologists from the University of Wisconsin. Then the bodies reinterred and the graveyard consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The simple wooden Russian crosses on the lonely bluff over the crashing sea drive home just how far from home these settlers were when they died.
So celebrate its birthday by stepping back in time at the beautiful fort that is special to two world super powers.
The two-day Fort Ross Bicentennial Celebration at the historic Russian outpost north of Jenner starts at 9 a.m. Saturday and continues until 5 p.m. Sunday. There will be Russian singing and folk dancing, sword wielding Cossacks, re-enactments of fort life, Mexican dancing and music, Kashaya Pomo crafts and education, and more. Admission is $35 per car per day ($30 if a senior is in the car). More information: 847-3437, fortross.org.