It's an explosive revelation! Paul McHugh fires a cannon at Fort Ross State Historic Park.

An explosive revelation! Paul McHugh fires a cannon at Fort Ross State Historic Park.

By Paul McHugh

OCT. 8, 2005 — Most folks first encounter Fort Ross after they drive past a set of hairpin turns on Coast Highway 1 in central Sonoma County. You steer around the last turn and bang, it suddenly appears: a startlingly realistic recreation of a colonial outpost of the Russian Czarist Empire.

The fort is managed by one of California's most important state historic parks, with the aid of a host of ardent volunteers – many of them descendants of Russian emigrants. For them, in particular, an important ritual is attending a Russian Orthodox mass in the fort's tiny chapel, with its approximation of traditional onion domes that have been formed from redwood planks.

Of all the ways to visit Fort Ross, I vastly prefer approaching from the sea. When you see these historic, rustic structures loom on a bluff above the surfline, you truly feel yourself twirling down a time tunnel, a portal to an earlier century.

A Fine Fleet of Native Kayakers

More than 100 Aleut hunters and their baidarka kayaks accompanied Ivan Kuskov, the wily Russian fur trader who established this fort in the spring of 1812. It was part of the furthest-south thrust of the Russian Empire, endgame of the czar's conquests along the Pacific Rim — which had begun two centuries earlier.

As Russian traders and pioneers made initial contact with eight tribes on the Aleutian Islands in the mid-1700s, they inflicted a harsh regime. Many battles for dominance were fought, and gunpowder proved decisive. In addition to bloodshed, women and children were kidnapped to force male hunters to work in the fur trade. A telling anecdote relates the callous way a Russian freebooter demonstrated the power of his rifle: he did it by shooting into a line of a dozen Aleuts, with the bullet penetrating to the ninth man. This sort of brutality, coupled with the onslaught of European diseases, cut the Aleut population to perhaps a quarter of what it had been.

A Rough Rule Turns Benign

However, the Russian-American Company's monopoly of the fur trade was subsumed by the Imperial Navy in 1818. That introduced a second wave of what we like to call "civilization." Thereafter, Aleut hunters became paid employees, and no longer had to endure the bitter fate of forced conscription. Also, missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived to bestow their more benevolent influence upon what had once been a lawless frontier.

By 1822, the distant enclave of Fort Ross had been wholly transformed into a peaceful, cooperative melange of Russian managers, hunters, farmers and craftsmen garnered from the Aleut population and local Kashaya Pomo tribes — as well as "creole" offspring of the Russians and these native associates. Miscegenation between these ethnic groups was not only tolerated, but encouraged, with marriages sanctified and offspring baptized by the church.

What's somewhat surprising is that the Spanish – who regarded the totality of California as their possession – pretty much left the Russkys unmolested up here. That might be due to the fact that the newcomers had demonstrated that the best offense can be a good defense. By erecting redwood blockhouses jammed with cannon right after making landfall, they convinced the Spanish authorities that trying to evict them from Alta California would be a costly proposition. So, this fort never had to fire a shot in anger. The Russians wound up only blasting away with their powder for target practice, or to salute an approaching or departing ship.

Raid on San Francisco Bay

Despite their precarious toehold, the Russians occasionally risked doing things that irritated the Spanish. Kuskov sailed the mother ship Kadiak laden with Aleut hunters and baidarkas to the coast south of Bodega. The hunters portaged their kayaks over the Marin Peninsula and into San Francisco Bay (probably using Miwok tribal trails to go from Tennessee Cove to Richardson Bay), snuck past Spanish soldiers who watched over the main entrance at the Golden Gate from the Presidio. After plundering the bay of sea otter pelts, the paddlers skedaddled back home.

But by 1820, the ready supply of sea otters was in serious decline. Fort Ross settlers sought to supplant this profitable enterprise with agriculture, a tannery, a brickyard, even created a shipyard at the cove. For a colonial outpost, all this was quite advanced. The first ship built in California (the beamy galiot Rumiantsev) was assembled at Fort Ross, as was this state's first working windmill (for grinding grain).

A Cooperative and Collective Effort

Such advancements were paralleled by social improvements that also appeared substantial. The Aleuts built their traditional sod longhouses, "barabaras," on the southwest side of the fort; the Russians had their own replica village on the north side; the Pomos — who purportedly had traded land for the fort site to Kuskov for blankets, axes, hoes, beads, and three pairs of trousers — were encamped to the east.

"They were like three friendly neighborhoods," Sarah Gould, one of the park's volunteer historic interpreters, told us. "They interacted peaceably, and each group was allowed to retain some of its own ethnic character."

Kent Lightfoot, a UC Berkeley archaeologist who has led graduate students in excavation of sites here over the past 17 years, said, "We've found extensive record of daily practices. It seems this colony as a whole was peaceful and interethnic. Some places have evidence of native Alaskan men setting up a household with local native women.

"There's truth to the charge that serious nastiness occurred when the Russians first contacted the Aleuts. Yet, by the time they reached Fort Ross, pretty clearly, all that had changed and evolved. Think of the location of these villages, right by the main stockade. Had there been issues and problems, those naturally would have been placed much further away."

Native Hunters in the Fur Trade

Aleut paddlers were key to initial successes of the Russian-American Company. Their seamanship, their ability to craft sophisticated boats from primitive materials, their hunting skills, combined to permit gathering of sea otter pelts that were the company's most profitable trade item. Some say invention of the three-cockpit baidarka occurred so Aleut paddlers could put a Russian hunter with a musket in the field. The truth is, that model was merely used to transport an administrator who could ride in the middle and refrain from any exertion with a paddle. The true hunts — for otter, sea lions, and even walrus and whales — were accomplished by Aleuts in a cluster of one- and two-hole kayaks. Hunters crept up on their prey, then tried their best shot with atlatl darts and harpoons.

Bone and ivory spear tips, dug up here by Lightfoot's crews, are on display in the small, excellent museum at the fort, as are obsidian arrow points. In a storage area of the replica fort itself, there's a sea otter pelt. By stroking its soft, luxurious fur, you also touch history. Suddenly you grasp why Chinese mandarins so avidly sought such pelts for trim on their robes, and lining inside brocade winter coats for the wealthy.

Bricks of Tea for Sea Otter Pelts

Among other displays are samovars, huge, tea-brewing Russian urns. Oddly enough, those samovars can help explain the aid slaughter of the furry otters. Russian visitors to Mongolian camps discovered the charms of black tea around 1640. Within decades, it became the Russian national beverage; within a century, samovars became the warm locus of hospitality in many a Russian home. To continue getting pressed bricks of China tea, Russians had to have items of value to trade. And so Aleut tribesmen were shanghaied, then hired to bolster trade with China, and otters began to die by the scores, then the hundreds, then thousands.

Faced with the loss of even the otter breeding population, the Russians instituted a ban on hunting the animals in 1834. It was too late. Other enterprises at Fort Ross were incapable of taking up the slack. Net losses here, 7,000 ruples in 1829, mushroomed to 51,000 ruples by 1841. Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter of Sacramento finally bought up assets of the place; Russians and their cohorts sailed away in 1842.

Gates of the now-restored stockade still swing open to admit visitors eager to sample and celebrate the past. Fort Ross' Cultural Heritage Day, held on the last Saturday of July, regularly attracts hundreds of ad hoc re-enactors, including those garbed as Russian peasants, Mexican soldiers, and Pomo tribespeople, even itinerant Hudson Bay traders.

Paddling in the Hunters' Wake

They've even started going to the waterfront to bestow blessings on home-built baidarkas, like the kayak made by Stephen Littlebear. He helped launch a festival on September 24, feast day of St. Peter the Aleut (a Russian Orthodox martyr); perhaps it shall become a new tradition.

The tiny flotilla that showed up for a blessing was just a small samplling of the vast fleets the Aleuts and Russians could field in their heyday — often 500 baidarkas, sometimes more than 700. Enough to intimidate warlike Tlingits on the mainland, at any rate.

Modern paddlers strive to perpetuate the romance of the kayak. For an Aleut, the process of learning to become a centaur of the sea, with the lower half of their body a skin boat instead of a horse, began around the age of six. Learning to build boats of driftwood, whalebone and hide was an art practiced through long, dark winters. By adulthood, a man's kayak was a valued partner, a living entity in its own right. After making love to his woman, a hunter was obligated to show affection to his baidarka as well, lest it become jealous and fail him in a moment of need. When he died, his kayak was broken atop his grave, in an Aleut version of a Viking funeral.

Beside the custom boats of Littlebear and friends, our own hard plastic boats seem rather cold and technological. Still, they've served us well so far, and we do feel some affection for them.

And somehow, down in the cove — where we've won special permission from State Parks to camp — we can't help but feel nearer to California's native pioneers of coastal paddling. The beach, protected and drifting back to nature, no longer rings with the blow of hammer on anvil, the rasp of saws, or shouts that must have blended a wondrous array of dialects. Now, sounds have subsided once more to the random screech of gulls, and the gentle and regular lap of waves.


— See all posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 16th.