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March 15 1812: Founding of Russian Fort Ross


Count Ivan A. Kuskov
On March 15 1812, Ivan A. Kuskov aboard the brig Chirikov sailed into a bay he had named Rumiantsev, after the Russian Minister of Commerce, and is now known as Bodega Bay in California. Kuskov brought with him 20 Russians and 80 Aleutian natives from Alaska. They journeyed some 24 kilometres north to set up a settlement that was named Fort Ross after the Russian word rus or ros.

The settlement extended the reach of Russia into the North American continent continuing an expansion that had begun in 1741 with the settlement of Alaska. Fort Ross was one of a number of posts that represented the southernmost reach of this expansion. Fort Ross was supposed to provide food for the Alaskan colonists and also a new area for otter hunting.  

The settlement was not a success. The sea otters were hunted near extinction. Farming proved difficult. There were tensions between the Russian settlers and American and Spanish settlers. Finally, in 1841 the fort was sold to John Sutter, a German-Swiss immigrant. Sutter bought Fort Ross with an unsecured note for the sum of  $30,000, which according to some was never paid. Sutter took supplies from Fort Ross to his own colony in the Sacramento Valley. It was in this other settlement, seven years later, that on the morning of January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, building a sawmill on the American River for Sutter, examined the channel below the mill and noticed some shiny flecks that turned out to be gold. Sutter tried to keep the discovery quiet but the word got out and the California Gold Rush had begun. Sutter's employees left him and, what had been a thriving settlement, deteriorated so that when John Sutter died in 1880 he was bankrupt. 

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