As early as the mid-1550s, Spanish explorers claimed vast areas of California land for Spain and spread tales far and wide about the glory of their new world. This attracted explorers from countries around the world.
By 1812, Russian fur traders in search of better food supplies for their northern settlements arrived. And then in the mid-1800s, Mexico gained independence from Spain and, in the process, was granted hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchos in what is now much of Sonoma County.
It’s clear: Sonoma is a crossroads of culture and history, and a meeting place for the many brave settlers who made the county what it is today.
It will be 200 years ago this March that a Russian sailing ship anchored at what was then the home of a Kashia band of Pomo Indians, on a precious stretch of land they called Mettini, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This is now Fort Ross Cove, a State Park about 12 miles north of Jenner.
The ship disgorged some two dozen Russian and 80 Alaskan immigrants, who promptly made themselves at home, building a camp, then houses and a stockade for their bluff-top community. Fortunately for the Indians, the new arrivals were part of a peaceful mercenary colony, and as the tribe lost its lands, its members were at least paid for any labor they contributed to the new settlement.
By all accounts, according to the Fort Ross Interpretative Association, the new residents had great ambition for their Colony Ross. They built a school and a library, and hosted piano concerts. A popular Russian opera was written to chronicle their adventures. The hardy group worked for more than 30 years, producing food to support Russian settlements in Alaska, and expanding into the valuable sea otter trade.
And they helped build the California coast we know today. This crew built the state’s first ships and windmills, introduced glass-paneled windows, created the first brickyard, catalogued the local flora and fauna, completed detailed maps and were, as noted by Fort Ross Interpretative Association officials, among California’s earliest entrepreneurs. Through this band of pioneers, Sonoma County established its Russian River region.
In 1909, California established the Fort Ross State Historic Park on the 3,200 acre site, as one of the state’s first such preserves to exist. Today, the organization’s goal is to promote Fort Ross as an example of the best of California and what it has to offer the world: a rich history, diverse cultural legacy, beautiful nature, and dedicated people working together to preserve a rich and vital legacy for future generations.
For the 200-year celebration, people are invited to attend a series of events and exhibitions at the former Russian colony and throughout the Bay Area, in a rollicking whirlwind of tours, scientific/historic presentations, art shows, and most certainly, parties.
Anniversary organizers anticipate international attendance, from across the United States and Russia, with a special contingent coming in from Alaska. In all, salutes are slated to honor the diverse influences of many people, including the Russians, Kashia and Coast Miwok Native people, Alaskan Native people, Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans.
Visitors are invited to tour Fort Ross, as one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes for hiking. One of the best days to come is Jan. 21 for a presentation titled Kashia People, Yesterday & Today, sharing the history of the Indians, along with traditional Kashia food plus historic art and artifacts on display.
Yet ongoing interpretive presentations are generally held in the park on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 2 p.m. throughout the summer. You can learn about Russian-era buildings, neighborhoods, intercultural relations, agriculture and trade. Plus, many other notable events are on tap through the year, including:
Jan. 20-May 27 – The Sonoma County Museum hosts an exhibit of contemporary and historic Kashia Portraits.
Feb. 25 – Opening reception of The Tsar’s Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts under the Romanovs, hosted at the Sonoma County Museum. The evening features live music, a vodka bar, and Russian-style appetizers.
March 16 – From Russia to California lecture at the Bodega Marine Laboratory by professor Serge Doroshov, highlighting the science endeavors and accomplishments of the Russian American Company. Caviar and drinks included.
April 23-27 – Fort Ross Conference. The Society of Living Traditions presents a five-day conference and performance event, focusing on Fort Ross from the Russian American settlement to the present day, held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa, and with complementary exhibits at Sonoma County Museum, a themed Historic Ball and performance lunch. The event culminates in an all-day trip to Fort Ross and performance at Fort Ross Winery.
June 2 – The 25-Mile Walk to Fort Ross. The Sonoma County Historical Society will sponsor its annual 25-mile hike, traversing the hills, highlighting historic places along the way and ending at Fort Ross for a barbecue with a presentation by park staff.
July 28- 29- Cultural Heritage Celebration. The annual reenactment of history at Fort Ross showcases costumed participants and interactive activities, and is expanded to a two-day event this year. Come together for contemporary culture as shown through song, dance, scenarios, and skits. Tall ships from all along the Pacific Coast and from Russia will gather at Fort Ross and be joined by baidarkas (kayaks) and baidaras (little boats) setting out from the cove.
For a full list of events, visit: fortross.org/events