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Two centuries of Russian America: Fort Ross 200 anniversary

Its Majesty World history
Forever related Fort Ross and Totma city,
On the banks of faraway California
There is a Russian fortress and a Russian river.

Vladimir Kolichev. The day of history

City of sailors

On the emblem of a Russian city Totma you can see an American black fox – a valuable fur-bearing animal, in the second part of the XVII century it was a popular game for Russian merchants who came fr om Totma. They reached in this field so great a success that in 1780 Catherine II, empress of Russia, approved of the emblem with a black fox against the golden background on to highlight that “the citizens of this city are exercising in catching these animals”. The golden background of the emblem symbolizes generosity, wisdom, wealth, as well as loyalty and reliability. Why were the Totma citizens so highly appreciated by the emperor of the Russian State?

The XVIII urged entrepreneurial activity of many Russians: the unprecedented increase of trade and industry, extension of the number of foreign contacts during the reign of Peter I, the first Russian emperor, for many decades ahead gave a great impulse to explore new economic fields and new territories. Clever Totma merchants started to expand far lands – the Pacific shore of the North America rich on fur-bearing animals. Totoma citizens were the ones who carried on 20 expeditions to the far Aleut islands – more that Vologda, Veliky Ustug and Moscow merchants all together. The trips made great profit, the significant part of which Totma merchants gave for the building of churches. Many of the churches still can be seen nowadays, their erected bell towers remind of the poles of the ships which were setting off for full of dangers journeys to the shores of faraway California many centuries ago…

Totma merchant Ivan Kuskov

The history of Russian America will always remember the name of our fellow countryman Ivan Kuskov. In 1812 he founded a Russian fortress on the shore of California, which went down in history by name Fort Ross. On the eve of the 200 anniversary of Fort Ross the interest to this unique monument to Russian entrepreneurship has been recently rising. Today this is a museum in the open air – international memorial which keeps the live evidence of Russian-American relationships development and a memory about a famous native of Vologda land – Totma citizen Ivan Alexandrovitch Kuskov.

He was born in Totma in 1765. Like many of his co-citizens he started trading and in 1787 he left for Siberia. In 1790 in Irkutsk he signed a contract with a Kargopol merchant Alexander Baranov who later became the vice-president of Russian-American campaign. It was a Russian trade union created to assimilate coastal lands of the North America. According to the contract Ivan Kuskov “was committed to assist him at some commercial position and follow him fr om Irkutsk to Okhotsc fr om where he had to proceed to the shores of America to work under command of Golikov and Shelikhov”. Kuskov had been working in Russian-American campaign for two decades. From 1791 to 1808 he was organizing the fur trade , exploration of the new lands, he was managing the work of Russian settlements in America in all its spheres. He was supervising the building of Novokonstantinovskaya fortress on Nunchuk island in Tchugatsky Bay, after a while he was made its commander. Later he was commanding Russian settlements in Yakutat Bay. Ivan Kuskov also showed extraordinary skills in sailing. Under the authority of Alexander Baranov he made a succession of trips by kayak and by ship exploring the American shores.The name of Kuskov is also connected to the foundation of a Russian merchant fleet on American land. He initiated and took apart in the building of the sailing vessels such as Yermak, Rostislav, Sitka, three-masted Discovery, galliot Rumyantsev, brig Buldakov.

Ivan Kuskov’s work was highly appreciated by Russian government. In 1804 he was awarded a Medal for Perseverance and in 1806 he was given a rank of a commercial counselor, it made him a person of a different social class and an opportunity to fulfill commercial and diplomatic missions on behalf of the campaign.

Fort Ross

The idea to build the fortress on the California coast belonged to one of the managers of Russian-American company Nikolay Resanov. Ivan Kuskov was to bring this idea to life. He chose a place on a high rocky coast with a little bay. It took only three months to make the main constructions. 11 September 1812 to the sounds of cannonade a Russian flag was raised over the fortress which got the name Fort Ross according to the lot which had been cast and then put under the icon of the Savior.

It is amazing how quickly Russian explorers were getting used to the conditions. To protect themselves from possible attacks of the Indians they built a high wooden fence and set twelve cannons around the fortress. Inside there was a decent house of the governor, there were a few barracks for fisher men, hunters, etc., ware houses, the armory, the kitchen, a few other constructions and a well supposed for the usage in case of siege. I 1820s they built a Russian Orthodox church – a little four cornered building with a high roof and two towers. Outside the walls of the fortress there were not less than 50 constructions: leather and brick factory, smithery, joiners, locksmith’s and shoes work-rooms, which provided the workers, the dockyard and all the population with hunting weapons, sea gear and necessary things for houses. Here one could find cattle yards and stables, dairy farm, bath house. It was in the fort wh ere wind and water mills appeared for the first time on the USA Pacific coast. Russians constructed a little dockyard which was the first one in history of California. It was the most amazing construction built in the times of Ivan Kuskov taking into account rather primitive conditions of life in the fortress and lack of necessary tools and materials to say nothing of the fact that all the builders were self-taught. The vessels were built not only for themselves but also for the Spanish neighbors who used plain-bottomed barge to sail down the lakes of California.

The main aim of the fortress was to provide Russian settlements on Alaska with food, primarily with bread which was in extreme demand. Outside the fort there were about 50 vegetable and fruit gardens. Cabbage, lettuce, horse radish, carrots, onions, cucumbers, radish and potatoes grew in abundance and people got a good harvest twice a year. Russian settlers also developed farming. In the fortress in 1818 there were 10 horses, 80 heads of black cattle, about 200 sheep, about 50 pigs and a big number of chicken and geese. While the attempt to produce grain was not successful: the close position to the sea made the soil bad for arable farming, moreover birds caused damage to harvest a lot.

Good economist and diplomat

Ivan Kuskov was governing fort Ross since 1812 to 1821. Managing so many spheres of economy he kept on paying attention to marine fisheries. He encouraged organization of expeditions to hunt sea beavers, seals and sea lions. During those trips information about nature, geography, ethnography and history of America was collected and diplomatic contacts were made, he made a contact with the king of the Sandwich (Hawaii) islands and signed a trade contract with him.

It was a hard job to start diplomatic relationships with Spanish colonists who wanted the Russians to leave the territory which they considered to be the possession of the Spanish crown. Kuskov had to carry out the negotiations, postpone the subject matter and tell them that the question about the fort Ross settlement should be examined by the authorities in Petersburg and Madrid and that he as only an executive of the company’s decisions doesn’t have power to solve the problem. Despite all the tension and troubles, Ivan Kuskov personally contacted with the Spanish quite well. He often visited the misson in San Francisco wh ere he used to buy seeds, cattle and sell longboats.

To make his right for life in California official Kuskov decided to get support of the Indians. And he managed it! In 1817 there appeared a document stating that the Indians “are satisfied with the Russians who occupy this territory, they are safely protected” from other Indians, that this territory, which had first been their possession, is willingly given to the Russians. Indian leaders “signed up” that agreement with their finger prints. Ivan Kuskov showing humble and fair position united Russian and indian population: fort Ross had never been attacked by the latter.

In 1821 Kuskov finished his service on the territory of Russian-American campaign. In 1823 Ivan Alexandrovitch returned to Totma wh ere he lived only three months after it. Full of energy and desire to work he probably couldn’t get used to the quiet life with no room for adventures… He is buried on the territory of Spaso-Sumprin monastery near Totma.

The destiny of Fort Ross

After Ivan Kuskov’s departure Fort Ross had existed for 20 years more. It was governed by many people. Its last governer Nikolai Rotchev signed up the act of sailing of the fort to a Swiss John Sutter for 30 thousand dollars. The latter had to pay out all the money within four deadlines with a one-year break between them. According to that act Sutter got all the constructions of the Fort Ross, all the cannons, all the cattle ( 3540 heads), tools for agriculture ( 40 harrows, 47 ploughs, 5 four- wheeled carts and 10 two-wheeled carts). However the money which he had to pay were never paid…

Later the constructions of the fort which were used for purposes other than that intended started decaying and dilapidating. The final stage – the earthquake of 1906 – turned the fort into the ruins. In 1936 some volunteers – Americans of a Russian origin – began reconstruction of the buildings. They renovated the bell tower, one of the towers of the fort, so-called “house of the commandant” and the fence. They rebuilt the second tower of the fortress. But the fire of 1970 burned the bell tower and the old Russian bell. Reconstruction works were restarted, and since 1974 Fort Ross has been a national park of California state. Every year more than 200 thousand Americans visit this museum under the open sky, they learn about the life of one of the first European settlers in the west of the USA.

23 June 2010 in Los-Angeles within the framework of Dmitry Medvedev’s, Russian President’s, visit of the USA, Viktor Vekselberg, a chairman of “Renova”companies’ board of directors, and the governor of California Arnold Shvarzneger signed the contract about protection and preservation of the national park Fort Ross. This cooperation is a kind of call to assist in the development and refinement of Russian-American intercultural relationships, in further co-understanding between the people of Russian and America.

People still remember Totma sailor Ivan Kuskov. In his home town there is a devoted to him memorial museum, the embankment of Suhona river which has his name and a monument which appeared in 1990. Every year in Totma during Preobrazhenskaya fare people can take part in an unusually festive and exciting campaign – the ringing of the bells of Totma and Fort Ross. This tradition was founded in 1991 by the members of Moscow historical and educational community “Russian America”. That way historically related towns of Russian and America are reunited, that way the glorious memory of our ancestors’ work is kept.

Irina Savkova,
A manager of the department
“Totma municipal museum association”
I.A. Kuskov museum