Cemetery of the Week #120: Fort Ross Graveyard

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley.

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley. The cross in the foreground marks the cemetery.

Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1
Jenner, California 95450
Telephone: 707-847-3286
Founded: circa 1812
Size: unknown
Number of interments: 131 or more
The fort is open: Saturdays, Sundays, and major holidays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Two hours’ drive (110 miles) north of San Francisco stands Fort Ross State Historic Park. The fort is a recreation of the settlement built by Russian colonists before California became an American territory.

In March 1812, a large ship sailed into a cove below a bluff settled by Native Americans called the Kashaya. 25 Russians and 80 Aleutians came ashore to build a wooden stockade and houses. They’d come to hunt sea otters and grow wheat and other crops to support the Russian settlements in Alaska. At the time the fort was under construction in Alta California, Napoleon’s army was headed toward Moscow.

The fort was quickly completed and formally dedicated on August 13, 1812. “Ross” is believed to be short for “Rossiya,” as the country was called.

While in California, the Russians traded with the Spanish, who would have preferred to colonize Alta California without challenge. However, they hadn’t explored as far north as this area yet and by the time they became aware of the Russian settlement, the well-armed fort had been completed.

At its peak, the Fort Ross settlement was home to 350 Russians, Aleuts, and Kashaya. There were very few Russian women, who tended to be wives of the officials. The other men took native wives. They lived peacefully in a village of some 60 to 70 buildings outside the stockade walls.

At first, the Russian colony primarily hunted sea otters, whose pelts were then sold to China. Kodiak Islanders, armed with throwing spears, ranged from Oregon to Baja California, even as far out to sea at the Farallon Islands, pursuing otters. By 1820, the otters had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

After that, the colony turned more fully to farming, with indifferent success. (One source I read said that gophers attacked the crops.) Eventually, in 1839, the parent company of the Russian colony reached an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply the Russian settlements in Alaska. After that, Fort Ross was no longer necessary.

The Mexican government didn’t want it, so in December 1841, the fort was sold to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort in what would become Sacramento and owner of the mill in Coloma where gold would be discovered in 1848. Sutter’s men stripped the fort of everything the Russians left behind.

In 1873, George W. Call bought the land and started dairy ranching and logging the redwood forest. Call’s family owned the land until 1903, when the California Historical Landmarks Committee bought three acres from him. They turned the land over to the state in March of 1906.

Unfortunately, the San Andreas Fault runs nearby. Some of the buildings, including the chapel, stood until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake threw them over. Almost everything that stands now, including the markers in the graveyard, has been reconstructed. Trust me, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

So who is buried in the graveyard at Fort Ross? Several archaeological digs have tried to find out. In 1991, anthropologists from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee discovered 35 graves, at least nine of which contained remains of children under 12.

People were buried in redwood coffins with traditional Russian cross medallions on their chests. The acidic soil of the area has destroyed all of the soft tissue and some of the bones, but teeth were founded amongst the coffin nails, trade beads, and uniform buttons.

By 1997, the number of people buried in the graveyard had expanded to 131. Without complete sets of bones, it is difficult to identify people, even to guess their genders. Children were recognized by the smaller patterns of coffin nails.

Several historic photos of the graveyard survive. A photo from 1895 shows redwood boxes over some of the graves. In 1912, several of the graves were still fenced with solid curbs of redwood. Over time, most of the original wooden Russian Orthodox cross  markers were lost, either to decay, vandalism, or wildfires that periodically swept the area. Some of the graves themselves were destroyed in 1972 when construction crews built Highway 1 through the graveyard.

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active part in the reburials, after the archaeologists were through. In fact, Fort Ross is a source of pride for Russians, who make the trek up into Sonoma County to visit. In 2009, when the Fort was in danger of being closed because of the California state financial crisis, the Russian government sent an ambassador to see what could be done.

The Fort weathered that storm and continues to be open on weekends and major holidays.

Useful links:
Fort Ross State Park website

Fort Ross Conservancy website

Cemetery Explorers’ excursion to Fort Ross

Forensic examination of a skeleton found outside the graveyard

Information about camping nearby

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