I wrote this essay for Russian California: Hidden Tales from Fort Ross and Beyond, for the California State Parks Foundation and the Renova Fort Ross Foundation.

Artist Louis Choris accompanied the Kotzebue expedition on the Rurik, the ship shown in the background. This image of an A'lutik hunter off St. Paul's Island in the Bering Sea shows a (foreshortened) kayak. The Russians both coerced and hired them to hunt otters for their pelts, which the A'lutik did so efficiently that nearly the entire otter population of California was destroyed. Many hunters at Fort Ross drowned..


California essayist Richard Rodriguez has argued the the state's history, long dominated by the East-West story of American pioneers, needed to give way to a North-South narrative fully recognizing the northward cultural penetration of the mestizo South.

There is also a smaller neglected North-South story of California, one that originates in the North, with the Russian American Company’s foray southward from Alaska in the early 1800s, and that shares a mestizo cast, or in their vernacular, Creole. Following the same path as the original migrants roughly 15,000 years ago, those Russians were of multiple ethnicities and cultures, and had children with Eskimo and Athabascan Alaskans from Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, who they both indentured and employed to hunt otters and seals. When the Russians, the Alaskans, and their Creole offspring moved south to find food and new hunting grounds, they had more children with those they met in California, particularly the Kashaya Pomo who lived near the settlement at Fort Ross on land that they called Métini. By the time the fort was sold to John Sutter in 1841, Creoles were the majority, and the story of Russian California had become as Californian as it was Russian.

What is their legacy, beyond a few place names in northern California—Russian Hill, Russian River, Russian Gulch? One is tragic. The sea otters once plentiful in California waters were over-hunted and reduced to a small colony that hung on near Big Sur. More affirmatively, the mercantile Russians resisted the pattern of enslavement and conversion of Native Californians practiced by the Spanish, whose northward expansion they arguably helped stall, and of the extermination and assimilation policies later brought by the Americans. As a rule, the Russian American Company preferred trading to fighting. The Kashayan culture was left more intact than many, if now interlaced with Russian and Aleutian words and tools and cuisines. When the fort closed, many of its mixed-blood families went to live in Russia or Alaska. Others stayed.

The later Russian immigration to California, around the time of the Bolshevik revolution, likewise did not possess a single ethnic or cultural cast. Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians, and especially Jews joined the exodus and here, too, they encountered, married, and bore children with people they would have otherwise never met. Russian California was in this way the forerunner of a pattern that continues to this day.

Russian California follows the trajectory of a few individuals who lived at this cultural intersection. Some, such as the Russian Count betrothed to a Spanish commander’s beautiful young daughter, have celebrated stories, but many are less well known. There is the Russian serf who for a time becomes the slave of a Macah toyon, himself possibly the Creole son of an Irish seaman left on Vancouver Island by Captain James Cook. In one story, a Russian Kamchatkan with an Indian mother is captured by Spaniards and converts to Catholicism to marry, while in another an Aleutian hunter dies under torture rather than renounce his adopted Russian Orthodox faith. The four Kashayan stories, passed down orally and recorded by a Berkeley linguist in 1958, show in ways large and small how the Russian encounter changed their history. The first wave of those the Kashaya called the “undersea people” formally left in 1841, but their presence endures in the historic buildings and artifacts at Fort Ross, Angel Island, and other state parks, and also in the state’s ongoing tradition of cultural encounter and transformation.