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Russians built fur trading post at Fort Ross

In 1812, Spanish power in California was declining and other nations were interested in the fruitful and prosperous region. To the north, in what is now Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, Russians had been trapping otters and selling their fur for some time. The north was a difficult place in which to live, however. The governor of these Russian outposts, an employee of the Russian-American Company named Ivan Alexander Kuskov, decided to find a suitable place to build a new base further south, where food would be easier to gather or grow. Having explored the California coast in 1808, he returned in 1811 with 95 Russians and 80 Aleuts, and together they founded a fort. It was located about 100 miles north of San Francisco, which at the time was the largest Spanish settlement in the northern part of Alta (Upper) California.

Spain was by no means happy to have a Russian fort in its territory, but was too weak to do anything other than complain. The fort (named Fort Ross, after Russia) was quite large, with some 50 structures including a governor’s house and a chapel. The Russians traded iron tools, wood, and leather to the Californians in return for agricultural supplies. In fact, despite Spanish opposition, the Californians and Russians had friendly relations for many years. The Russians left in 1839 after they had hunted the sea otters out of existence. The property was sold to Captain John Sutter in 1841. The entire fort was reduced to rubble in the 1906 earthquake, but has since been restored.

John Gilroy, of Great Britain, became first white non-Hispanic settler

In the 1810s, the Spanish tried to prevent foreigners from entering California. However, passages into the area by Russians, British, and Americans were common because Spain was militarily weak. In 1814, John Gilroy became the first non-Hispanic white person to settle in California. Gilroy, whose real name was John Cameron though he took the name of his mother’s Scottish clan, jumped ship at Monterey. Although he was an Englishman, he was adopted by the Spanish. He was baptized as a Catholic, changed his name to Juan Bautista Gilroy, and married the granddaughter of José Ortega, a powerful landowner. Now a Mexican citizen, in 1833 he became part owner of Rancho San Ysidro, one of Ortega’s properties, the first white non-Hispanic to own land in California. He died in 1869; the village where he lived is now named Gilroy in his honor.

Thomas Doak became first American settler

In the 1810s, Spain’s power around the world was on the decline. This was especially true in their far-flung provinces, which were increasingly becoming either independent or colonies of other nations. California was coming under the influence of the English, the Russians, and the Americans. During this decade the first British and American settlers arrived in California.

On January 15, 1816, an American named Thomas Doak was traveling along the California coast on the Albatross, a merchant ship. He decided to desert from the ship and go ashore. He landed near Santa Barbara and became the first United States citizen to settle permanently in California. Later in 1816, in Monterey, he was baptized as Felipe Santiago. Accompanying him was a black shipmate named Bob who also was baptized, as Juan Cristóbal. Doak eventually married a Spanish heiress of the Castro family. Among his contributions as a Californian, he painted the reredos (altar screens) in Mission San Juan Bautista in 1818. He died in 1847 at his California home.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel was founded

Early in the nineteenth century, the death rate of the Indians living in Mission San Francisco de Asís (also known as Mission Dolores) in San Francisco grew alarmingly high. Although this may have been related to their more frequent contact with Europeans, it was thought that the climate was the problem. It was suggested that some of the sick people be sent north across the bay to what was a sunnier and, they hoped, a healthier climate. A small hospital mission, essentially a rancho with a chapel and cemetary, was dedicated on December 14, 1817. The name of Mission San Rafael Arcángel was chosen in honor of the archangel Rafael, who was thought to express the "healing of God," in hopes that this would make the mission a place of health.

Although it was at first simply an extension of Mission Dolores, by 1823 it had become a self-supporting and independent mission. Under the zealous Father Juan Amoros’s control from 1819 to his death in 1832, the mission was at its maximum strength. Even then, however, a French merchant passing by on his way to Sonoma did not "deem this poor establishment worth stopping at for purposes of trade." Eventually, the relatively plain structures there decayed through neglect, and no part of the original mission remains at San Rafael today. A small chapel to represent the mission was built in 1949.

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