The Russian River watershed extends from Sonoma Mountain a hundred miles north into Mendocino County. The Southern Pomo Indians, who have lived along the river for millennia, gave it a name meaning “water on the east.” Two centuries ago, the Russians dubbed the river Slavyanka, or “little Slavic maiden.” Its name in Spanish was San Ygnacio and then the Rio Russo, or “Russian River,” as we know it today.
The Russian Empire began exploring the Alaskan coast in the 1740s. The valuable sea otter pelts brought back by early expeditions drew the Russians to enlist Alaskan natives to hunt otter, seal and beaver for them. Trading posts, settlements, and a territorial capital at Sitka sprang up along the coast.
In 1799, the czar granted the Russian-American Fur Co. a monopoly on the fur trade. In return, the company was charged with expanding colonization. Partnering with an American sea captain, the company found otters on the coast all the way south to Baja. In 1806, a Russian ship sailed into San Francisco Bay and negotiated a trade agreement for grain to feed the Alaskan settlements.
Finding no Spanish outposts north of the San Francisco Presidio, Russia established Port Rumiantsev at Bodega Bay in 1809. Three years later, nearby Fort Ross became the headquarters of Russian California. The Spanish responded to this meddling by extending the mission chain north to San Rafael and then, under newly independent Mexico, to Sonoma in 1823. For two decades, Russia and Mexico shared a fuzzy border that ran through Sonoma County.
Russian California expanded to include Point Arena, Tomales Bay, the Farallon Islands, and three inland farming communities. One of these, Chernyk, was 20 miles from Fort Ross, near modern Graton. It had a barracks, agricultural buildings, fields of grain and vegetables, an orchard and a vineyard.
The Russian-Mexican relationship evolved from wariness into respect and even friendship. When Yelena Rotcheva, wife of Fort Ross’ manager, had a birthday party in 1841, Russians and Mexicans came together to celebrate for two days straight.
By then, the sea otter and seal populations were exhausted and the plan to supply Russia’s Alaskan settlements from California had not been realized. The Russians soon sold their holdings and sailed away.
Sonoma Magazine: 20 things to do on the Russian River