Romance, hardship, tall tales in Russian California

  • View of Fort Ross, Russian settlement near Bodega.
    Illustration from the Italian translation of A. Duhaut-Cilly, Viaggio inteno al Globo, Turin, 1841.
    In the Society Library.
    [1980 photograph of 1841 illustration]

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.

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