Russia in California

The Russians were the first Europeans to sense California's potential, George Edinger writes, and had they not sold their settlement there in 1841, seven years before the Gold Rush, the world could have been a different place a century later.

The period of Russian rule in California has almost been forgotten; but, though nothing survives of the little fortress that once commanded a river flowing out into Bodega Bay, they call it Russian river still. In fact, the first Europeans to foresee the possibilities of California were Russians, who came across Siberia, felt their way down the Pacific coast in shitiki—sewn ships of pine logs lashed to boards and caulked with moss—and by the middle of the eighteenth century had started hunting sea otters for their skins in San Francisco Bay. Sometimes they wintered ashore. But these pioneers, the Promyshleniks, were lone venturers. They had no government behind them: Moscow remained unconscious or indifferent.

On the Spanish viceroys in Mexico, however, the rovings of the Promyshleniks had a different impact. True, they were individual adventurers. But such adventurers may found an empire. A Russian California would bar the advance of the Spanish American Empire, and might even push it back to the isthmus of Panama. To forestall the Russians, therefore, Spain moved into California and founded her first colony at San Diego in 1769.

Russia was slow to reply. Her Empire was vast, and California lay beyond its remotest boundaries. Besides, the Spaniards were hard put to maintain their settlements, and Russia could afford to wait. The first counter move was the formation of a Russian America Company in 1799, with headquarters on Sitka Island off the Alaska coast. The new company, which absorbed and co-ordinated the ventures of the old Promyshleniks, had Imperial backing; and the Czar took up a block of shares. Even so, Russian America might have been confined to the mainland of Alaska but for the energy of the Company’s Governor on Sitka Island.

Compact, bald-headed, fired with the restless dynamism that often flares up in men of Russian race, Prince Baranov determined from his first appointment to build a Russian Empire in California. The Promyshleniks had brought him tales of sunny lands lying far to the south, and he passed them on to the Company at Petersburg with urgent pleas for ships and men. But the Company, already doing very well out of Sitka, were not enthusiastic. In 1800 sea-otter pelts fetched £50 apiece at the great fair in Nijni Novgorod; and, though at Sitka the men were living on eagles and sea lions, and Baranov warned the directors that without a supply base his colony would starve, the Company had its own ideas about the desirability of expansion.

In 1805, they sent a mission to Japan; and with it sailed Count Nicolai Rezanov, a widower at forty, but still a giant cast in the Baranov mould. Court Chamberlain to the Czar, he felt confident that Russian power would achieve what Admiral Perry’s squadron was to accomplish fifty years later, and break all barriers against foreign trade. But Japan remained obdurate; and when, in the late autumn of 1805, Rezanov put into Sitka Sound, his hopes disappointed and his mission unfulfilled, Prince Baranov talked to him of Californian prospects.

Nicolai Rezanov needed little persuasion. He had experienced the hardships of life on Sitka; he was eager to retrieve a reputation shattered by his failure in Japan; and, as soon as the biig Juno was fit to sail, Rezanov set out in her for San Francisco. His mission was purposely vague. Rezanov knew neither the strength of the Spanish garrison, nor the possibilities of a Californian market. He had certainly learned that all trade with the Spanish Empire was confined to Spanish subjects; but he hoped to overawe the settlers with the Junos guns, perhaps even to make a landing immediately north of San Francisco Bay.

During the voyage his ambitions faded. Fogbound, becalmed, then tempest tossed, the Juno took seven months to sail to San Francisco from Sitka Sound; and, before she reached her destination, half her crew had died of scurvy. Limping to harbour in April 1806, the Russian expedition came in no state to overawe the Spaniards. But Rezanov met the situation with superb address.

“Weigh anchor,” signalled Fort San Joaquin at the harbour mouth. Answering with a confused flutter of signal flags, the Juno continued to sail on. Finally she signalled compliance and anchored. But by this time she was past the range of the fortress’ artillery. A shore party, twenty strong, thereupon put off in a ship’s boat, Rezanov resplendent in gold and green, officers and sailors in uniforms carefully preserved for such an occasion. As it happened, the Spaniards were in an equally weak state, since, apart from the gunners at Fort Joaquin they commanded no forces, and had no ship-of-war to match the Juno.

But the Spaniards, too, were masters of pretence; and Don Luis Arguello, Commander of the port, received his awkward visitors on the quay with a suite of thirty, bravely, plumed, their swords and pistols embossed with silver from the. mines of Mexico. Rezanov having proclaimed his peaceful mission from the Czar of all the Russias, Arguello announced wholehearted welcome in the name of his king. As neither could understand a word of the other’s language, these courtesies were wasted. For a moment Rezanov faced Arguello baffled. Then the humour of the situation overcame them, and both men burst out laughing.

At length a certain Father Uria, a Dominican from the mission the Franciscans had founded, stumbled on the solution of the language difficulty. He spoke some sentences of Latin, which a member of the Russian party, Dr. Langsdorff, a German naturalist who had shipped with Rezanov to write his observations on the life, the climate and the prospects of San Francisco, understood and was able to answer. And so the awkward negotiations began. Rezanov expatiated on the cargo that his ship had brought—furs and fabrics and semi-precious stones.

For this fine merchandise he wanted only corn and fruit and meat to feed the Junos crew. Naturally Arguello temporized. He had no authority, he said, to deal with Rezanov; that was a matter for the Governor of California and not the Commandant of San Francisco. He would be honoured, nevertheless, if the company dined with him. Spanish hospitality in the New World at the beginning of the nineteenth century was lavish but incongruous. The party ate off silver plate, but sat on the floor on rugs woven by the Indians. There were fifteen children in the Arguello family, and the youngest daughter, Concepcion, was seated next to Rezanov.

The outcome is not surprising. The sixteen-year-old girl, who had never left a lonely settlement, was deeply excited by the coming of such a man as Rezanov, by the tales he told and by the giant figure of the Czar’s Court Chamberlain in his splendid uniform; while the middle-aged diplomatist warmed to her interest and sympathy. The friendship that sprung up betwieen them ended with their engagement.

Every day that the Juno lay off San Francisco, Nicolai Rezanov visited Concepcion Arguello, made her gifts of semi-precious stones and recounted the story of his triumphs and his failures. Some American historians suggest that Rezanov was merely anxious to gain the support of Concepcion’s father; but all the evidence points the other way. Besides, Rezanov must have known that Arguello could not help him.

When Arrilaga, the Governor of California, came down from Monterey, his capital, the attitude he adopted was wholly uncooperative. He had definite orders from Madrid; there was to be no trade with foreign ships. Arrilaga was upright, fearless and incorruptible; but the colonists ignored his veto. They were eager to buy the fine Orenburg cloth, the furs and sables, the embroidered coats that the Russians had brought; and the Russians were desperate for supplies of corn and fresh fruit. “Out of humanity”, Arrilaga agreed to sell them corn for cash; but, when he had retired, the Dominicans began to act as intermediaries and unofficial bargains were soon struck.

If Arrilaga wished the Juno were gone, so did Davidyov, her Captain. His chief was making foolish love to a young girl; his men were corrupted by the lazy Californian life. A friendliness that authority could not quite approve had sprung up between the two races; and at night staccato notes of Russian harmonicas alternated with the melody of the Spanish guitars, as Spaniards learnt to dance the Kazachok, and Russians the Barrego.

But there were many who did not wish to end the episode: Rezanov, unwilling to leave Concepcion; Arguello, less scrupulous than his superior, who found the trading profitable; the Dominican monks who enjoyed their role as intermediaries. And secretly Rezanov hoped for a Russian squadron to seize San Francisco, whereas Arguello believed a Spanish ship-of-war might put in and take the Juno as a prize. But they could not wait forever. Rezanov persisted in his efforts to induce the Dominicans to sanction his enagagement to Concepcion.

Once they had agreed to overlook the fact that he was a schismatic, and had assured him that only a Papal dispensation would be needed, he made light of every obstacle. Back in Moscow he would ask his master, Alexander I, to send him on a special mission to Madrid. There he would achieve both the objects he sought— sanction to marry Concepcion and a Russian California. The brig sailed at the end of June. On the quay, Rezanov wrapped Concepcion in a shawl of Brussels lace and assured her of his swift return.

He did not reach Madrid. He did not even reach Moscow. At Sitka Island he fell sick, and Baranov urged him to rest. But Rezanov would not rest; and through the bitter cold of the Siberian winter his sledge pushed on from posting house to posting house. But in the sledge there sat a dying man. At Krasnoyarsk his strength collapsed; and there, on June ist 1807, Count Nicolai Rezanov died. Concepcion Arguello awaited him year after year; and, though the Dominicans released her from her marriage vow, she rebuffed all suitors; till, abandoning hope, she eventually took the veil.

Since Rezanov had failed to mention her in his report to Baranov, she received no news from Sitka. Her thirty-five years’ constancy became a Californian legend. At last, in 1840, the master of an American coasting steamer, named Harry Simpson, put into San Francisco and asked to be allowed to visit Concepcion in her convent. From him she heard of Rezanov’s death; and it seems that she did not show surprise; for she had felt certain that only an accident could have prevented him writing to her.

The death of Nicolai Rezanov did not bring to an end Russia’s designs on California. It was an epic beginning. Rezanov’s report to Baranov, backed by Langsdorff’s account of the country and the weakness of the Spaniards, stirred Czar Alexander I and the Russian America Company; and in February 1811 the frigate Cherikoff, commanded by Captain Kuskov, set out to find a site for Russia’s first Californian colony. After forty years, the answer had come to Spanish settlement at San Diego. Kuskov chose a site eighteen miles up river from Bodega Bay, forty miles from San Francisco; whereat Arguello, now Governor of California, smarting perhaps under the insult Rezanov seemed to have inflicted on his family, lodged an immediate protest and banned all dealings with the Russians, though from Arrilaga’s experience he might have known such an order would be ignored.

Neither the Spaniards nor the Indians were deterred from dealing with the new colony, at Fort Ross. Kuskov cared for it least of all, since in 1809, there was only one fleet in the Pacific, and that fleet was Russian. Thus the colony grew. On a bluff above a river, surrounded by a stockade, its buildings clustered under the gilt bulbous dome of an Orthodox Church. Outside the stockade, Aleuts and Californian Indians had their huts. Beyond the town stretched corn and pasture lands. Awkwardly enough for Arguello, the Californian Indians preferred the Russians to the Spaniards. They had never seen white men like these who refrained from ruling their lives or attempting to discipline their religious beliefs. But Fort Ross did not pay, possibly because it fed Sitka. It was, indeed, a heavy expense to the Company, costing 13,000 roubles to maintain, and only yielding 5,000 roubles profit in a lucky year.

Such considerations did not daunt Kuskov. Still less did they dismay his Lieutenant, Zavalashin. For Zavalashin had seen the chance to build a Californian Empire. All lands north of San Francisco should be Russian; and every legal sanction that he could procure for his grand project was set down on parchment, and filed and forwarded to Baranov. Indian chieftains had affixed their marks to a document that placed eight hundred miles of Californian coast under the protection of the Russian Czar. The hinterland was not defined: it had not yet been explored. Even the title to the seashore was dubious; it is unlikely that the Indians understood what they were signing, and still more unlikely that they had either power or authority to make so vast a grant. But empires have been based on less. And circumstances helped the Russians, who were to outlast their Spanish rivals.

When Mexican independance was proclaimed in 1823, Iturbide, first Emperor of Mexico, showed no great interest in California north of San Francisco Bay. But he saw the need of keeping his Empire together; and, even in 1823, the westward trail from the United States had become a real threat. A great European Power upon his northern frontier would have suited Iturbide very well. Russia was to be his shield; and, without exacting conditions, he offered to confirm the Indian grant. Alexander I had previously hesitated. Won over to the Californian project at last, he still insisted on caution; for he was not anxious that California should involve him in a war with Spain. But, once there was no Spanish power in California, there was no bar to Russian settlement. On the contrary, there were considerable incentives. Only labour was lacking, and Kuskov began to study the scheme that Rezanov had sent to Moscow. It was not impracticable, and it was economic. Twenty years later American prospectors adopted it. Rezanov was the first to see the benefits of bringing in Chinese labour.

This was the climax of Russia’s Californian projects; the dreams of Baranov and Rezanov and Zavalashin were realized; and by 1824 Russia was master of North California both in law and fact. But, as Czarist Russians used to observe, heaven was high and the Emperor far away. Had Baranov been at Fort Ross, the Pacific seaboard of America might have had a vastly different destiny. True, there was Zavalashin; but Zavalashin was a junior officer and the enthusiasm he showed began to frighten Kuskov. A dutiful official awaiting orders, Kuskov played for safety. Zavalashin was a dreamer in a hurry. Worse still, he was contaminated by the reformist doctrines that were sweeping Russiain the eighteen-twenties— ideas which the Emperor had favoured seven years earlier, but which, subsequently, he had come to dread. Was he right, Captain Kuskov wondered, to treat with a power that had rebelled against its legitimate sovereign? His doubts were not allayed by Zavalashin’s zeal; and he gave a non-committal answer to the Emperor Iuirbide and forwarded his offer to Prince Baranov.

But Baranov was growing tired and California now seemed far distant. He had his supply base at Fort Ross. The dream of imperial aggrandisement had long ceased to fire his ageing brain. He still remembered Rezanov, the man who had been in a hurry. Rezanov had been his friend. Somehow, in his mind the vision of a Californian Empire was linked with Rezanov’s tragic death. Thus, although he reported Iturbide’s offer to the Imperial Chancellery, he did not recommend it with his old fire. It is doubtful if Czar Alexander ever saw the offer; and Alexander was a prey now to those strange absent moods that foreboded his equivocal end. St. Petersburg was restive with the new Reformist movement. Californian plans must wait. In 1825 Czar Alexander died or disappeared. That December the Reformists struck in vain. Zavalashin was thrown into the Peter and Paul fortress. His fate entailed the annihilation of the schemes he had been harbouring.

The new Czar, Nicholas I, had no doubts about California. The place was contaminated by rebel Mexicans who had ousted their rightful king; the project linked with dangerous lunatics like Zavalashin. Holy Russia must not touch it. The orders that came to Fort Ross were unequivocal. The place was to continue to supply the colonists on Sitka; but Russian settlement was not to be expanded. Fort Ross had the choice of espanding or decaying. Till 1841 the Imperial Eagle and the Greek Cross still floated on the bluff above the Russian river; but that year it became too costly to maintain and was sold to a romantic Swiss adventurer, Johannes Sutter, for thirty thousand dollars.

The Russians had made a poor bargain. At thirty thousand dollars, two thousand cattle, two thousand sheep and horses, the mills and factories and houses were cheap. But there were greater treasures there than Rezanov had imagined. Russia sold Alaska some years before the gold rush; and in California her Empire ended when the great discovery was even nearer at hand. Gold was first struck at Sutter’s millstream in the year 1848. In 1951 a Russian California might change the prospects of the world.

Recent stories