Fort Ross, where Sonoma and Russia Meet

Fort Ross Sonoma Valley Wine ToursWho were the first European settlers in Sonoma?  If you guessed Mexicans, you’re wrong.  The Russians beat them to Sonoma County by 11 years.

A Russian colony in Sonoma County, California, named Fort Ross was the hub of Russia’s settlements in North America from 1812 to 1842.  Today it is California’s Fort Ross State Historic Park, and it is open to visitors.

Strangely enough, Sonoma was the meeting place for global expansion. Spanish expansion crashed west across the Atlantic, and Russian expansion went east across Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. In the early nineteenth century, the two met on the opposite side of the globe along the Pacific Coast of California.  The United States arrived in 1846 from the east.

Russians from the Alaskan colonies arrived in California aboard American ships.  In 1803, American ships that were already involved in the sea otter Maritime Fur Trade in California, proposed several joint hunting expeditions. 1806 the Russian Ambassador to Japan went to California to figure out how to trade food in California for Russian goods in San Francisco.  When he got home, he suggested a settlement in Northern California.

In 1808 Russians arrived, and they planted secret (translation:sneaky), underwater plaques declaring Russia’s ownership of the seas and land from Bodega to the north shore of San Francisco.   The following year the Russians returned home with 1,160 otter pelts and beaver skins. They settled and planted crops in land that belonged to the Pomo Indians.

Fort Ross became the hub of many smaller Russian communities in Northern CA. Their land extended from San Francisco to Fort Ross and inward to the Russian River.  By 1817, after 20 years of exploitation by Spanish, American, Russian and English ships, the sea otters were pretty much done for.

On the upside, Fort Ross had California’s first windmills and shipbuilding. Russian scientists were also the first to record California’s cultural and natural history. The Russians introduced innovations such as glass windows, stoves, and all-wood housing to Northern California.  Ft. Ross, and the nearby settlements, was home to Russians, Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, Estonians, North Pacific Natives, Aleuts, Pomos, and Creoles.

Go see Fort Ross and imagine this as an outpost of Russia.  Extraordinary.  And, the drive along Sonoma’s north coast is drop-dead gorgeous.

Writer: Meredith Blevins, featured travel writer for the Authentic Wine Country.  Join her at for wine-country mysteries, classes, and the untamed west.

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