Who arrived in Sonoma County first to begin growing wine grape and making wines, for instance, is rarely discussed. This is perhaps because it was so fleeting, in the grand scheme of time. Yet, it’s very important to note and not be left trailing into the sunset. If we forget history, and all that jazz… Especially now, during this current time of the Russians (again) having an interest in what resources the United States has to offer.
The Russian River, Russian River Valley, Russian River Road
From the Russian American Company Council, an 1813 report to Emperor Alexander, concerning trade with California and the establishment of Fort Ross…
“This settlement [Ross] has been organized through the initiative of the Company. Its purpose is to establish a [Russian] settlement there or in some other place not occupied by Europeans, and to introduce agriculture there by planting hemp, flax and all manner of garden produce; they also wish to introduce livestock breeding in the outlying areas, both horses and cattle, hoping that the favorable climate, which is almost identical to the rest of California, and the friendly reception on the part of the indigenous people, will assist in its success.” [From: The Russian American Colonies]
[PHOTO CREDIT: By Russian Post, Publishing and Trade Centre “Marka” (ИТЦ «Марка»). The design of the stamp by A. Polotnova. Scanned by Dmitry Ivanov. – From a personal collection, Public Domain.]
It was an invasion of Russian maritime, fur traders that is missing from above; however, this was also just as important for the Russian American Company. Hunters were working east from Kamchatka, along the Aleutian Islands, to the southern coast of Alaska. Some continued to migrate southward, and finally arrived at their southern-most post. They called it Fortress Ross (Крѣпость Россъ). Today it’s called Fort Ross (Russian: Форт-Росс).
The Russians Arrive
Better known, when we think of California history, are stories handed down of Italians and French immigrants; because they came, they saw, and they stayed, during that idealized Gold Rush time. But, historically speaking, it was the Russians who made that very first mark along the Pacific coastline, leaving an indelible fingerprint in Russian River Valley and viticultural practices… Just as its name suggests… and then returned to Russia, just missing the gold rush, as it turns out. (Big historical regret there, I’m betting.)
Unlike the Christo Crew, who invaded in 1492, raped women, and killed as many natives as they could find, the Russians were more polite. For instance, they bought the land from a native Pomo tribe, and then established their territory in the Fort Ross area… Creating the Fort, as it now stands as a tourist destination.
It’s not the presumed Italians nor the Spanish, but the Russians, who have the distinction of understanding the real “bounty of the county.” Hence, the name Russian River Valley, Russian River Avenue in Monte Rio, and the Russian River, for example… they left their mark.
Science Under Sail: Russia’s Great Voyages to America [in] 1728-1867 tells the story of early Russian maritime exploration in the North Pacific. [Nearly 300] years ago, Russian naturalists, ethnographers, astronomers, cartographers, geographers and artists first described the west coast of America to the rest of the world. To this day, much of our knowledge about the peoples and places of the North Pacific Ocean is based on those Russian reports, artworks and maps. The exhibit showcases a scale model of Bering’s ship and the brilliant, colorful maps made during that expedition’s 7000-mile trek across Siberia, along with portraits of Native Californians and Alaskans, artifacts, and original watercolors of botanical and animal species.
An eastward Russian expansion took on a new dimension in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Europeans expanded westward, the Russians expanded eastward. As English colonists first settled along the Atlantic seaboard, Russian explorers, trappers, and settlers pushed into Siberia, and then reached the Pacific Ocean by 1639. By the mid-seventeenth century self employed, contract entrepreneurs sailed through the Bering Strait, and discovered a sea route from the Arctic to the Pacific. This became of great interest to hunters and fur traders. By the early 1800s, Russian entrepreneurs annually exported an average of 62,000 fur pelts from North America, roughly worth about $133,200, which was a large sum of money at the time.
In 1836, the Russians sent Moscow-trained agronomist Yegor Leontievich Chernykh to the Sonoma Coast, in order to improve the crops being grown for their consumption. Chernykh settled in Green Valley, and established a farm along Purrington Creek. That’s found today between the towns of Occidental and Graton Chernykh, where Chernykh erected barracks and five other structures, growing fruits and vegetables, as well as wheat and other grains. Chernykh also developed a large vineyard, introducing the first wine grapes into Sonoma County. Interestingly, Yegor Chernykh became known as Don Jorge.
The Russians pulled out of California in 1841, because finding furs and growing food crops to deliver back to Alaska had become difficult. Everyone, including Yegor, returned to their homeland, ending the pioneering days of Russia and their viticultural history, as we now know it.
They’ve not forgotten us and our land of resources… What states will they settle in this time around, if that’s our fate?