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nd the Russian-American Fur Company

Explored California in: 1806-1842
Exploring for: Russia
Explored: by sea and land in northern California

In the early 1800s, parts of the western coast of North America were claimed by four nations. Spain, England, the United States, and Russia all claimed overlapping territory. Russia’s claim to part of California was based on a string of events involving several people in the Russian-American Fur Company.


Russian trappers began hunting sea otters for their fur in Alaska in the 1740s. Their first settlement there was near present-day Kodiak. The Russian-American Fur Company was chartered by Czar Paul I of Russia in 1799, with its headquarters at Kodiak. By 1804 the center of the company’s activities had shifted to Sitka. Many other outposts were established in Alaska.


Count Nikolai Rezanov came from Russia to visit the outposts in Alaska in 1805 and found them in desperate need of food. Supply ships often could not get through. The fur animals (sea otters, seals) were becoming scarce. The Russians had heard that life was easier in California, so Rezanov headed for San Francisco to see what he could find.

Rezanov’s ship, Juno, sailed into San Francisco Bay in April 1806. He asked the Spanish Governor José Arrillaga for supplies for the Alaskan outposts. Governor Arrillaga had orders not to assist any “foreigners” who came to California. But then Count Rezanov became engaged to marry 15-year-old Concepción Argüello, the daughter of the commandant at the presidio (fort). Rezanov’s ship was now loaded with food and supplies for the Russian fur trappers. He sailed away on May 8, 1806, promising to return for the wedding. Concepción waited for years, not knowing that Rezanov had died on the trip back to Russia.


Based on the good reports of California from Nikolai Rezanov, a Russian exploring and sea-otter hunting expedition left Sitka in 1808. It was headed by Ivan Aleksandrovich Kuskov. On January 8, 1809, Kuskov’s ship, the Kodiak, anchored in Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco.

The Russians stayed about eight months, trapping otters and surveying the land. They saw that the Spanish had no settlements in this part of California. They realized that Spanish defenses were too weak to protest if others should move into the area, and they decided this would be a good spot for a Russian fur outpost.

Kuskov returned to California in 1812 with a group of 95 Russians and 80 Aleuts (natives of the Alaska area). He chose a site about 18 miles north of Bodega Bay, on a bluff overlooking a harbor. Here the Russians built a fort made of redwood logs. A log stockade surrounded nine buildings including a large house and a chapel. The stockade had blockhouses at two corners and can non to defend the fort.

Outside the stockade were other buildings used as workshops, storehouses, and quarters for the Aleuts. On the beach was a wharf, a tannery, and a place where ships were built. The fort, known as Fort Ross, was dedicated on August 13, 1812.

The Spanish were not happy about the Russian settlement, but there was little they could do about it. The Aleut trappers from Fort Ross hunted sea otter and seals as far south as San Francisco Bay. Spanish government officials decided to expand the mission system northward, hoping to stop the Russians from moving further south. Mission San Francisco Solano, opened in Sonoma in 1823, was an attempt to do this.

Relations between the Russians and the Spaniards in California were cordial but wary, each keeping an eye on the other. When the mission in Sonoma was opened, the Russians sent gifts including a mission bell. When Gabriel Moraga, sent by the Spanish officials to keep watch on the Russians, found that they were in need of food, he returned with cattle and grain. Trade between the settlements, though illegal, was frequent.

In 1816, a German captain serving in the Russian Navy sailed his ship, the Rurik, into San Francisco Bay. He was Otto Kotzebue, on a long voyage to explore the Pacific for Russia. He spent a month in San Francisco, and returned for a briefer stay during his second voyage of exploration, 1823-26.

With Kotzebue on his first voyage was Adelbert von Chamisso, a German naturalist credited with giving a scientific name to what later became California’s state flower, the golden poppy. He named it Eschscholtzia Californica in honor of Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, the surgeon on the Kotzebue expedition.

In 1821 the Russian Czar issued an order declaring that the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco was closed to all ships except those of Russia. Neither Spain nor the United States paid any more attention to that order than the Russians had paid to Spain’s notification to Kuskov that he should move his settlement out of Spanish territory.


By ignoring Spanish claims to the land and making a successful settlement in California, Kuskov and the Russians showed the weakness of Spain’s control of California.

The Russians left behind some place names in the area along the northern California coast. In some communities, Russian customs and celebrations commemorate the brief time that the Russian settlement existed.


The Aleut hunters at Fort Ross were so good at trapping sea otters, that in less than 20 years there were very few sea otters left. The Russians tried growing crops, but did not have good success. Fort Ross was now a financial burden to the Russian government. The Russian-American Fur Company sold the fort to John A. Sutter in December 1841. Sutter moved some of the equipment and supplies to his fort at Sacramento. The Russians then left California.

The site of Fort Ross is now a State Historic Park. All of the original buildings were destroyed by fire, but some have been reconstructed.

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