There are Russians in the Soviet Union who can trace their roots to California Indians.
And, there are Pomo Indians living in Northern California who can trace their hertiage to Russian blood lines and to this day, have a number of Russian words in their language. This is but one of the fascinating sidelights to the story of the Russian outpost that existed in California from 1812 to 1841.
There are many facets of the strange saga of Imperial Russia's control over 125 miles of Northern California coastline that only now are being uncovered, nearly a century and a half after the Russians abandoned their settlement here, 98 miles north of San Francisco.
Providing much of the new information about Russia's eastward penetration and its only base in the continental United States is Nicholas Rokitiansky, 60, a Russian history professor at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills in the San Francisco Bay area. Rokitiansky has spent the past 40 years reaching the Russian episode in California history.
The professor delivered the U.S. Bicentennial lectures in 1976 at the Moscow Academy of Sciences and Moscow University. His subject was "Fort Ross and the Russian Settlement in California." Rokitiansky returned from the trip to the Soviet Union with photographs of sketches and paintings of California Indians by Russian artists who visited Fort Ross when it was a Russian outpost. The professor also came across an extensive collection of Pomo Indian artifacts-garments, crafts and ornaments-while doing research at the Ethnographic Museum in Leningrad.
"Most of the Russians who were assigned to Fort Ross came here without wives" noted Rokitiansky. "Many inter-married with local Indians. Their offsprings were the great grandparents of present-day Pomo Indians. Other Russians stationed at Fort Ross returned to their homeland with their Indian wives and Russian-Indian children, ancestors of people living in the Soviet Union today."
Rokitiansky was appointed to the Fort Ross State Park Advisory Committee by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970. A book recently was published at Fort Ross entitled, "Fort Ross: Indians, Russians, American." The book is filled with maps, paintings, sketches and information about the Russian settlement in California. The information is the result of Rokitiansky's research in the Soviet Union in 1960, 1972 and 1976.
Rotitiansky corresponds with historians and ethnographers in the Soviet Union in his search for new information about Fort Ross. Because of his work, he is known as the California Park Department's "Russian connection".
For Russian-Americans throughout the United States, Fort Ross today represents the major cultural contribution of prerevolutionary Russian to the United Stated. The tiny chapel here was the eastern and southeastern extension of the Russian Orthodox faith in the 19th century. Because of that, the state park is a mecca for Russian-Americans. Special Russian Orthodox church services are held here during the year.
The fort also has special meaning for political leaders, dignitaries, historians and other visitors from the Soviet Union and Communist bloc nations. Marina Ilyians, a Russian-speaking state park ranger, conducts Russians-language tours of the historic fort for visiting Russian groups. Almost every time a Soviet merchant ship docks at San Francisco or Oakland, members of the crew visit Fort Ross.
Rokitiansky is often called upon by the U.S. State Department or the Russian consulate in San Francisco to lead officials of the Soviet Union on visits to the historic site.
Within the fort complex, the 1895 commandant's house, the chapel and the eight-sided and seven-sided blockhouses are filled with artifacts of the Russian period.
In 1812, the Russians laid claim to the 125 miles of California coast from Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco, to Point Arena in Mendocino County. Many Russians starved to death in Alaska in the winter of 1805-'06. The following summer, a Russian ship sailed to San Francisco in search of food and established trade relations with the Spaniards in California.
Nikolai P. Rezanov, head of the Russian mission to San Francisco at the time, returned to Alaska and urged the colonization of the Northern California coasts as a base to raise goods for the Russian settlements in Alaska and on the Siberian coast. Another reason for establishing Fort Ross was to extend the Russian fur trade to California and to bring Aleuts from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to hunt sea otter in this part of the world.
By 1841, the Russians had decimated the California sea otter population. Farming along this part of the California coast proved to be marginal at best, although the Russians did have vegetable gardens and apple, pear and peach orchards that still exist. They also raised grain and have several thousand head of cattle, sheep and pigs.
Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, governor of Russian Alaska, went to Mexico city in 1839 to negotiate with Mexico for new, more productive land in the Sacramento Valley, Mexico agreed to let the Russians expand their holdings in California in return for recognition of the indendence of Mexico from Spain.
"But Czar Nicholas I, a foe of revolutionary change, would not deal a revolutionary Mexican government and ordered the Russian colony in California to disband," Rokitiansky said.
"If the Russians had held on another seven years with the coming of the Gold Rush, the course of world history could have been dramatically different," said John C. McKenzie, 69 state park historian at Fort Ross from 1948 to 1976. "If the Russians hann't pulled out and had maintained control of the coast North of San Francisco, this could be part of the Soviet Union today."
Fort Ross was typical of a series of Russian frontier fortresses built in Siberia in the early 1800s. Carpenters were sent to California from Siberia to construct the fort and eventually about 50 homes outside the walls of the fort. Today, because of recent restorations at the fort, the imprint of Imperial Russia on California is more evident that at any time since the earthquake of 1906, when many of the structures within and outside the fort were damaged or destroyed. The Russian Orthodox chapel originally built in 1824 collapsed during the quake and was rebuilt in 1917 and again in 1959. Fire of undetermined nature destroyed the chapel in 1970 and it was rebuilt in 1974.
It was only recently that the three-acre Fort Ross stockade was enclosed entirely once again-for the first time in 75 years-by a 15-foot-high redwood wall. Within the wall, in addition to the chapel, is the last commandant's home, which is the only original building still standing at the fort. Arsonists are believed to have set fire to the roof of the commandant's house in 1971. The blaza destroyed many Russian artifacts stored in the attic.
To protect several hundred such artifacts from vandalism or other possible fires, the bulk of the historical material has been moved to Sacramento to await the construction of a construction of a visitor's center at Fort Ross. A $700,000 visitor's center was budgeted with construction scheduled for this year but Proposition 13 has delayed the project. It has been rebudgeted for $450,000 with construction possibly to begin in 1980. Plans are to reconstruct several other buildings that were part of the orginal fort, including a sea-otter-fur storage barn, the first commandanths home, barracks, a tannery and a boat house.
Rokitiansky currently is corresponding with historians in the Soviet Union in an effort to locate the 1817 Indian treaty believed to be filed away in a Soviet archive. It is the only known treaty between European and Indians in California. In return for protection from the Spaniards and other Indian tribes, the Pomos granted the Russians 125 miles of coast stretching 18 miles inland.