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Just when you think that you've heard it all, another story jumps up and demands attention.

Such was the case at an all-day conference last month at the San Francisco Presidio on Russian influences in California's history — one of the California State Parks Foundation's "Hidden Stories" series.

Nowhere in the state have the Russians had more impact than Sonoma County, where Fort Ross and its three inland farms constituted the southernmost expansion of Imperial Russia.

Since Fort Ross is a hot topic at the moment, poised as we are to observe its bicentennial next year, the presentations of historians, archeologists and researchers at the Presidio convocation could be regarded as a kind of kickoff event.

This is the first 200th anniversary of any European adventure north of San Francisco Bay. And it has brought the parks foundation and the Fort Ross Interpretive Association some financial help, not only from Chevron's foundation, but also from two Russian companies, Renova Corporation and the magazine Russkiy Mir.

Participants came to the Presidio to share stories around the basic tale of the Russian American Company's otter-hunting voyages and the search for warm ports to grow food for the Alaskan outpost. The explorations along the coast, including a yearlong visit to Bodega Bay in 1809, resulted in the establishment of Fort Ross in 1812.

The speakers wove tales of adventure on the high seas, clandestine trade with the mission padres, a renegade Russian, an international romance — and gophers.

As I learned to my amazement (and, yes, amusement) a substantial part of the Fort Ross population ate gophers.

That's right. The Native Alaskans that came to hunt sea otter with the Russian American Company were delighted with the abundance of the pesky critters and knew exactly how to catch and cook them.

This culinary revelation is the sort of story that comes from underground. According to Fort Ross's interpretive specialist Robin Joy Wellman, who introduced Kent Lightfoot, the UC archeology professor who calls Santa Rosa his hometown, it was Lightfoot-led excavations that turned up the tiny bones of well-done gophers. It's only one of the many secrets Lightfoot and his students have unearthed in their "digs" at the fort over the past two decades.

Present day coastal residents will tell you that they didn't eat enough gophers

And I, personally, would like to know how they caught them.

THERE WAS a nice story, told by historical archeologist Glenn Farris, about relations between the California Indians and the Russians that speaks to the fact that the Russians were kinder and gentler intruders on the Native Americans' land than either the Spanish or the Yankees would be in years to come.

This was something we already discerned from the existing drawings of artists who visited Fort Ross and sketched the Kashia and Coast Miwok, making detailed portraits that show both humanity and mutual trust.

The story about the friendship medals underscores this attitude.

In 1817, Capt. Leontil Hagemeister came to Fort Ross where he drafted a formal agreement between the Russian company and the Native Americans. It was a treaty of sorts - a statement of friendship between the Russians and four chiefs of the native people. Each of them was given a medal, called the Ally of Russia medal, which, according to reports, they wore with pride when they visited the fort.

THE RENEGADE Russian story is about Prokohor Egorov, who deserted from Fort Ross in 1820 or 21. (It is said there was a woman, a Creole, involved in his dramatic decision.) He went to Mission San Jose, then to La Purisima, near present-day Lompoc, and finally to Mission Santa Barbara.

"He taught the Indians to shoot," Farris said, and was in Santa Barbara in 1824 for the Chumash Revolt, the largest uprising in mission history.

Egorov apparently survived that fight only to die in another "dust-up" in the Central Valley.

SEVERAL SPEAKERS made reference to the great love story of Spanish California — a tale that has been told and retold and, in fact, was the subject of a novel by the romance writer, Gertrude Atherton, published in 1906.

The protagonists are:

1) Baron Nikolai Rezanov, emissary of Czar Alexander I, captain of the Juno, who sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1806 with a plan to buy land on the northern coast, an offer the Spanish refused.

2) Concepcion Arguello, the daughter of the commandant of the Presidio, which was the northernmost outpost of Spanish California.

It is said that they fell (madly, passionately) in love and that Rezanov set off for home to get permission from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to marry Concepcion, a Roman Catholic.

On the overland journey across Siberia, Rezanov was injured and died — never to return to claim his bride.

Concepcion, as the legend goes, went every day to Land's End at the entrance to the Golden Gate, to look for the ship bearing her Russian count, returning to marry her.

Finally, heartbroken, she took vows in a Catholic order and has the distinction of being California's first nun.

Some people are skeptical of this tale — or at least the wild romance of it. Rezanov was 37. Concepcion was 14.

But it still captures the fancy — on two continents.

Farris, speaking at the Presidio (where it all began ... sigh) told of a Russian woman, a historian, who visited not so long ago and who wanted, more than anything, to visit Concepcion's grave.

She is buried in Benicia and Farris took his visitor there, where she asked to have her picture taken alongside the headstone. It was a very big deal, he said. She told him the story is "magic" in Russia.

WHILE I HAVE concentrated on the Fort Ross stories, there were many other insights into Russian influences revealed that day. Many of the 20th Century post-revolution Russian ?igr? came through China and, on arrival in the United States, through the immigration center on Angel Island — another of California's historic parks.

We connect with them through some of the Jewish families that chose to join the community of chicken farms around Petaluma.

We also heard the story of the Russian scouts, a youth organization that was outlawed by the Bolsheviks and reconstituted here. It survives today, with the great grandchildren of those Angel Island pilgrims spending their summers camping in various locales in our Redwood Empire — Austin Creek, Richardson Grove, Russian Gulch, the Lost Coast — speaking their ancestors' native tongue and keeping alive the traditions of "Mother Russia."

The long day ended with a reception at the Russian consulate where Vladimir N. Vinokurov, consul general of the Russian Federation, greeted each participant. His staff offered iced Stolichnaya and caviar, which reminded us of another of the day's stories.

That would be how Alexander Baranov, the governor of New Archangel in Sitka, a man who endured unimaginable hardship to keep his trading post alive, mused in some of his writings how it was that so much of the vodka shipments "evaporated" on long sea voyages.

Hidden stories, hidden no more.

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