For our latest novel, a steampunk adventure set in the Pacific Northwest, we recently made two trips; one to Fort Ross in northern California and the other to Fort Vancouver in southern Washington State. Both were built as fur trading forts. Fort Ross was built by the Russian America Company; Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Control of Fort Ross was eventually ceded to John Sutter in about 1842, that’s right the Sutter of Sutter’s Mill and the 1848 gold rush fame, while Fort Vancouver passed into the hands of the United States Army around 1849.
Fort Ross was built in 1812 as both a fur trading center and as an agricultural outpost. Given the short growing season in Russian Alaska and the agricultural techniques of the early 19th century, the Russian America Company also attempted to use the settlements further down the coast as” provisioning centers for the Alaskan colony. Grain, vegetables and other food stuffs were shipped northward from both the fort’s fields and orchards as well as their trading with the Spanish settlements in Alta California.
The opportunity for fur trading rapidly diminished due to the depredations by English, American, Russian, and Spanish hunters which reduced the populations of otters and seals to unprofitable levels by the 1830s.The agricultural contributions to the Alaskan colony were spotty and minimal at best. By the 1840s Russia has negotiated provisioning treaties with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Factor at Fort Vancouver and most of her foodstuffs bound for Sitka came from there, rendering Fort Ross an expensive and superfluous effort. It was at that time that the Russian America Company began soliciting for buyers.
The Russian fort was also an important scientific center on the American west coast. Along with the original settlers and traders came natural historians and cultural historians. Much of what we know of the ecology, flora, fauna, and peoples of early Northern California springs from their meticulous research. Fort Ross was also the site of the first vaccination clinic in California History. The crew of the Russian America Company ship Kutuzov inoculated more than 50 people in an effort to stem the tide of European diseases that were introduced through contact with the Russian and other settlers in the area.
Having passed through the hands of a few private owners after Sutter, Fort Ross became a California State Park in 1906. There is also a wonderful museum of artifacts, dioramas, and information at the visitor’s center.
The Fort Ross Conservancy has rebuilt and reconstructed a number of the key buildings at the site. The church, which was severely damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake has been restored. A copy of the original church bell was cast at a Russian foundry using the original design plans. A recently completed reconstruction of the windmill has been erected on the blustery heights above the main fortress. The fruit tree orchard has been replanted on what is believed to be its original site.
The fort’s age is shows in its construction with thick log walls to resist the weather and any intruders. The outsides of the logs are planed smooth but the interior wall of all but the governor general’s house are left as finished, peeled logs. The buildings also reflect the then common practice of using the ground floors for workshops, storage and even livestock housing. The upper floors were for human occupancy. Such economical dual use building is typical of Russian architecture at the time.
But Fort Ross also reflects Russian security sensibilities. The stairs leading to the upper stories of several of the buildings are able to be sealed by massive plank doors which could resist a significant amount of abuse. The curtain wall surrounding the compound is made of squared logs butted tightly together. There is no place for any potential attacker to gain either toe or hand hold in an effort to scale the tall wooden palisade. Sharpened tips add further deterrence to any assault. A pair of two story bastions armed with cannon stand at opposite corners of the enclosure. A fresh water well inside the compound provided not only convenience but further resistance to siege or attack.
Next time read about Fort Vancouver.