When Russia Colonized California: Celebrating 200 Years of Fort Ross
By afternoon, the fog has burned off the hillsides at California’s Fort Ross State Park. The wood-burning oven is loaded with hearty loaves of bread, little boys are climbing on the cannons and dancers hold hands as they circle in the grass, singing a lilting Russian folk song.
The women and girls wear long, brightly patterned dresses, with strands of amber beads around their necks and their hair swept up under colorful scarves— festive attire for a weekend gathering. The men and boys are dressed in simple white tunics, belted at the waist. Except for the intermittent murmur of traffic winding along the Pacific Coast Highway nearby, this remote stretch of coastline about 90 miles north of San Francisco looks and sounds much as it must have two centuries ago, when the Russian-American Company, a mercantile firm chartered by the Tsar, chose the site for the empire’s only colony in what would become the contiguous United States.
This year,which marks Fort Ross’ bicentennial, has been packed with lectures, performances and visits from Russian tall ships. But the main event comes on July 28 and 29, when the park will celebrate 200 years of Russians in America with a heritage festival expected to draw up to 3,000 people.
It’s a celebration that almost didn’t happen. In 2009, California, seeking to cut costs in the midst of a financial crisis, marked more than 200 state parks for closure. Among them was Fort Ross.
The American history of the site began in 1841, when the Russian colonists gave up their enterprise and sold the colony to pioneer John Sutter, who transported its equipment and supplies to his own fort in Sacramento. The area served as ranch land for more than 60 years, until California designated it as a state historic park in 1906. By that time, the colony’s remaining structures had fallen into disrepair, and most of the buildings visitors see today are 20th-century reconstructions.