By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The Russians Were Here
Fort Ross Highlights California’s Unique History
The restored chapel at Fort Ross.

JENNER — As California beaches go, it clearly doesn’t rate among the Golden State’s list of 20 most stunning stretches of coastline.

Sandy Cove, though, is one of the reasons a weekend or overnight excursion or even as a marathon day trip of seven hours on the road to and from the 209 is one of the reasons a visit to Fort Ross State Park will inspire you and not disappoint.

The protected beach of Sandy Cove is below the fort that Russian and native Alaskan explorers/traders built in 1812 on coastal land that is now a part of modern-day Sonoma County.

As such the Russians were the second Old World people to establish a settlement in present-day California.

The Spaniards had beaten then by almost half a century with the founding of the Presidio of San Diego in 1769.

Russian serfs also referred to as Siberian contract workers beginning in 1742 started combing parts of what is the present-day Alaskan coast for fur-bearing marine animals on and near the many islands along the coast. By 1784 the first Russian settlement was built in Alaska on Kodiak Island.

The effort became known as the Russian-American Company in 1799 when Tsar Paul extended a charter for the company that gave it a monopoly over all Russian holdings in North America. That led to other colonies in Alaska as well as Hawaii.

The company expanded after American ship captains contracted with the Russian-American Company to form joint ventures.

They used Alaskan natives to hunt fur seals and otters along the Alta (present-day California) and Baja California coasts to supply the lucrative fur trade with China.

Alexandra Baranov, the chief manager of the Russian-American Company, sent his assistant Ivan Kuskov to scout a California site to serve as a trading post.

Kuskov arrived in what is now Bodega Bay in 1809. During his stay 40 Russians and 150 Alaskans ended up securing 2,000-plus sea otter and other pelts to take back with them while also exploring the area.

He returned a year later to build an outpost 18 miles north of Bodega Bay. It had plenty of nearby redwood trees needed to construct a fort and village as well as water and pasture lands. It also represented a defensible area from the Spanish controlled territories to the south due to its inaccessibility.

The colony was formally dedicated on Aug. 12, 1812. Fort Ross has two cannon-fortified blockhouses, a wooden stockade, a manager’s house, clerks’ quarters, artisans’ workshops, a chapel, and barracks. Outside the first was a village. All structures were made out of redwood.

Just a small number of Russian men and even less Russian women lived at Ross — as the village was known. Most were Hawaiians, Californians, Siberians, Alaskans, and Native Americans.

Besides farming and hunting sea mammals, the Ross outpost engaged in brick making, blacksmithing, barrel making, tanning and shipbuilding.

The first shop built in California and dubbed “Rumiastev” was finished in 1818.

The Russian-American Company sold its holdings in Ross in 1841 to John Sutter.

Sutter, who had built a fort in Sacramento, sent John Bidwell to retrieve cattle, sheep, and hardware.

In 1906, Fort Ross became a state park making it one of California’s oldest.

The 3,386-acre park is located northwest of Jenner 11 miles up the Sonoma coast.

Spring is a great time to visit given between November and April when a drought is not on, 35 inches of the average 44 inches of annual rain falls complete with gale force winds. The spring can be windy as well.

And if you’re looking for a respite from the coming heat of summer you can often expect a thick layer of fog to cool you off.

The sweeping views of the ocean alone are enough to make the trip.

But the added unique dose of California history makes it even more worthwhile.

The re-creation of the original Russian outpost does its job effectively. It helps you understand that California has always been a melting pot of cultures and because of that the Golden State is what it is today — an incubator of cutting-edge ideas rooted in culture and ethnicity unfolding in a natural paradise.

The park facilities also include a visitors center with interpretive exhibits, a museum bookstore, Russian cemetery, research cemetery, gardens, and historic orchards with a stunning backdrop of densely forested ridges accented with coastal terraces.

There are trails and picnic areas as well.

The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. The visitors’ center is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Entrance fees are $10 per vehicle with those 62 or older $9.

There are three nearby state parks.

The Salt Point State Park/Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve is eight miles north of Fort Ross. The Sonoma Coast State Park is 14 miles south of Fort Ross and also nearby is Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve/Austin Creek State Park.

All are worth combining with a trip to Fort Ross.

You can also stay in a number of coastal towns and villages and make a multi-day trip. Nearby Bodega Bay is clearly the “big choice” with a variety of services and attractions plus a special place in the heart of Alfred Hitchcock fans.

That said there are a lot of “villages” and waysides that offer bed and breakfasts, mom and pop motels, as well as campgrounds to chose from to make an excursion into a rustic, lightly traveled part of California more than worthwhile.

Docents work the windmill.
Volunteers in period Russian dress.