California's Tsarist Colony

The Russians are coming... not the fantasy of a Cold War movie, but the 19th-century attempt at incorporating the West Coast of America peacefully into the bear's domain. Jeffrey Miller tells the story of how it happened and why it failed.

Americans always have loved a bargain, if only in hindsight. And as bargains go, the 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians for a mere $7.2 million (or two cents per acre) was one of the biggest of them all.

For the Russians, however, the sale was merely the last step in a retreat from North America that began on January 1st, 1842. On that day the Russian American Company abandoned its thirty-year-old settlement 'krepost Ross', eighty miles north of San Francisco, and sailed its employees back to Alaska.

Since that time, Ross and its sister settlements in the North Pacific have been at the heart of Russia's 'Wild East' saga. This saga of discovery, courage, cunning, misfortune, misdeed and missed opportunities resembles that of other European ventures in the New World. Yet there is something so paradoxical about the Russian colonial experience – and the government policies that propelled and ultimately undermined it – that it stands apart.

Nowhere did these paradoxes appear more starkly than at the Ross colony in California. As the southern-most base of the Russian American Company (RAC), it was intended that Ross be the breadbasket for Alaskan and Aleutian fur-hunting outposts. Yet it was built on a site notorious for cold, foggy weather and limited arable land. Created as an important hunting outpost, its skilful hunters virtually eliminated the region's sea otter – its main source of profits – in under ten years.

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