Sometimes you read something that causes facepalm, and you find yourself dropping your head and into your hands. This headline… “Russian lawmaker suggests reclaiming Fort Ross on Sonoma Coast as payback for US sanctions…” is one of those times.

[PHOTO Purchased: credit lensw0rld, all rights reserved.]

Time for a little California history, on how the Russian River got its name, if you’re not familiar with the past history and relationship between the (now) United States and what it had with Russia (then).

A Journey into Russian River Valley and Mendocino County

Native Americans Migrations and the Invasion of Russians

This 11,000 years will move right along, I promise. The roots of California are rich with history, who arrived first; however, is rarely discussed as the captivating tale that it is. Who were the first ancient settlers to arrive and cultivate the region?  The Central Pomo Natives, who immigrated to California dating back to 11,000 years ago. The Miwok tribesmen have artifacts that date back 4,000 years. The Russian arrived a mere 272 years ago.


Scientific DNA evidence links our Native American populations back to Asian and eastern Siberian populations. It’s estimated that the earliest ancestors of the Pomo Indian tribes arrived in North American from Asia, as long ago as 11,000 years. This migration began in Asia during the Pleistocene Ice Age, with the route crossing the Bering Strait Land Bridge. This land bridge connected Asia with North America at various times during those ice ages, and was an available mass of earth above water, due to the low sea level of the Bering Sea. At that time, the Bering Sea separated Siberia and Alaska, with the Bering Strait Land Bridge being only about three miles wide in some places.


In 1542 to 1543, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed off the shores of California, under a Spanish flag, and gave it a look. Perhaps the treacherous waters off the Pacific coastline had him decide to just keep going, because he left no real imprint. Cabrillo was on a Spanish expedition that began in August of that 1542. Starting in Mexico, he traveled up the coast making stops in San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island (in October), San Pedro Bay, Santa Monica Bay, Point Conception, Point Reyes (November), and reached the Russian River, before autumn storms forced them to return southward. We don’t have any evidence that the explorers and Native Americans interacted; however, with a ship the size of Cabrillo’s, it couldn’t have gone unnoticed, and was an omen of things to come. No longer would these Native Americans only have to worry about their longtime neighbors encroaching. New players from the Age of Discovery were about to hit center stage.

After the Pomo and Miwok tribes, the next settlers came from Russia, as it turns out… not the presumed Italians nor the Spanish, but the Russians… hence the name Russian River Valley and the Russian River, for example… It was then they who left (1841), with their sails wafting in the wind, after they had taken all that they possibly could, when they thought there was nothing left to cash in on. Irony? They just missed the 1849 Gold Rush by eight years.

PHOTO: Wikipedia, creative commons of a Pomo Native:

The greatest cleverness was the Pomo tribe’s ability to define territories. These people knew their area really well, so they had an advantage when the Miwok’s arrived. The Miwoks stayed along the coastline, from Sonoma County to San Francisco Bay. It was understood if they came over the Sonoma Mountain range into Sonoma’s valleys, it meant instant death. Likewise, if the Pomo’s went over the Sonoma Mountain range toward the coastline, it was also sudden death. It was rare to disrespect the territories, because it was fatal. (Simple law, live and let live.)

Because it was too cold to live on the coast year round in Sonoma, the Pomos did find the Mendocino Coast tolerable. They’d migrated in the spring and the fall, between inland and the coast. Inland, they’d built reed homes and lived along the waterway starting in the fall. So, when the Russians arrived, in order to live in peace and harmony, they actually sold the area of Fort Ross to them.


While the Pomo Indians were the first to arrive, the Russians proved to be the first to also bring grape vines with them; Moscow-trained agronomist Yegor Leontievich Chernykh planted wine grapes in Sonoma County. Better known are the histories of the Italians and French immigrants; because they came, they saw, and they stayed, during that idealized Gold Rush era; but, it was the Russians who made that very first viticultural mark in California’s Russian River Valley, as its name suggests. And then, they returned to Russia, just missing the gold rush, as it turns out. (Imagine history if they hadn’t left, yet.)

It was by 1750 that the Russians turned their attention to the Pacific. The Spanish stopped their explorations in San Francisco Bay, some 60 miles south of the Pomos’ homelands. Word had spread, and by the time the Russians arrived in 1806, the Pomos and the Miwoks were on notice about the potential for invaders… And, invade the Russians did. The difference between Russian invaders and Europeans was markedly different. Europeans came to take what they could in a pillaging way, while the Russians came to expand their existing fur trade. This meant that the Russians were also willing to settle in the area, and interact with the Native Americans, some even taking wives and starting families. It truly was the Russians who made that very first viticultural mark in Russian River Valley, more specifically in Green Valley of Russian River Valley; just missing the gold rush, as it turns out.

[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.]


Science Under Sail: Russia’s Great Voyages to America [in] 1728-1867 tells the story of early Russian maritime exploration in the North Pacific. More than two hundred 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.

Once the fur traders came, they also needed provisions not only for themselves, but also for settlers in Alaska. Initially, they explored southward, as far as  Fort Ross, for their arable land. This was an area where the Native American Pomo tribe summered. It was a great place to find relief from the sweltering inland heat of the summer months.

IRONY OF THE DAY: Unfortunately, and initially, for the Russians, they didn’t know about more favorable, warmer climates inland, and it is unlikely that the Pomos shared that information.

[PHOTO: Jo Diaz, the bounty of Sonoma County’s potential, taken at Kendal-Jackson’s tomato festival. All rights reserved.]

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, between today’s towns of Occidental and Graton, 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, because he was so friendly, like Russian people can be, 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. They just missed the Gold Rush of 1849. Everyone, including Yegor, returned to their homeland, ending the pioneering days of Russia and their viticultural history, as we now know it.

When the Russian left, they sold the Fort Ross land back to the Pomos. The Russians voluntarily GAVE UP OWNERSHIP, which makes their suggested claim completely irrelevant; hence my facepalm.

Fort Ross in Mendocino County is a region that recalls a time when Russian immigrants arrived, like the mist on a wind, and exited as quietly as they had arrived, only leaving the footprint of their Russian name on Russian River Valley and on the Russian River behind, as reminders, not as land they have been working since the beginning of time, but land they temporarily took advantage of,  then deserted, due to the inability to adapt.

When Russians pulled out, they left very little behind; including few animals, by the way, which would have to repopulate themselves. They even called back their agronomist Yegor Leontievich Chernykh, who did leave many plants behind, because he had a good heart…

They had no desire to return… until recent sanctions were placed on them, and this “idea” hit a Russian attorney, who doesn’t know that once land has been purchased, the new owner has control. So, this headline: Russian lawmaker suggests reclaiming Fort Ross on Sonoma Coast as payback for US sanctions made me realize a bit of history is in order.

Like you, I truly hope that history tells a tale of peace in the kindest form, ultimately. Please, let there be peace on earth. Remember what we chanted in the 60s and 70s… War is not healthy for children and other living beings. Ask any returning soldier if war is a walk in the park, said she, daughter of a WW II returning vet. My father’s life, as a returning soldier, was then filled with angst, eternal pain, and much internal suffering… Not just for him, but also for the rest of my family over the ages… and all other families of warring soldiers.

And, thank you to Wine Industry Insight for aggregating this story, as well as Wine Business.