Explore some of our favorite State Parks that have special connections to Sutter's Fort!
Fort Ross and the Fort Ross Conservancy
John Sutter purchased Fort Ross in 1841. Officially Sutter purchased all the moveable goods from Ross –the bill of sale shows the inventory he was able to move to Sutter’s Fort after purchase.
Fort Ross, (Russian: Форт-Росс), is a former Russian establishment on the west coast of North America. It was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America between 1812 to 1842, and today is one of the main tourist attractions between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg. This California State Historic Park located in western Sonoma county eleven miles north of Jenner on California Highway One showcases a historic Russian-era fort compound that has been designated National Historic Landmark status.
The following excerpt describes why the Russians sold their settlement, and how John Sutter managed to purchase it:
The Last Years of the Russian Colony (excerpted and copyrighted from the publication Fort Ross, by Fort Ross Interpretive Association).
In 1839, officials of the Russian-American Company decided to abandon the colony. The California sea otter population had been largely depleted by the mid-1830s, and the Russian shift of emphasis from hunting to farming and stock raising, to produce large quantities of grain, beef, and dairy products, did not match expectations. Moreover, the experiment in shipbuilding, while impressive in the short run, proved defective over time, and trade in manufactured goods did not return enough profit to offset deficits.
At the same time, the Mexican government’s active encouragement of new settlers into the area, as well as a growing influx of Americans, posed a looming challenge to Russian claims over territory, which neither the Imperial government in distant St. Petersburg nor the Russian-American Company was able to meet. A last effort to avert a Russian withdrawal came in 1836 when Baron von Wrangell journeyed from Sitka to Mexico City to seek an improvement in relations with the new Mexican Republic. He also sought Mexico’s formal recognition of the legality of Russia’s claim to Fort Ross, previously denied by both Spain and Mexico. The Mexicans were willing to yield on this issue, but only in return for Russia’s diplomatic recognition of their own national independence as a republic. However, Tsar Nicholas I, an unwavering defender of absolute monarchy and a foe of revolutionary change, rejected the condition, and so ended any chance of a favorable resolution of the contested issue of the "legitimacy" of the Russian colony. In April 1839, the Tsar approved of the Company’s plan to liquidate the settlement, and shortly thereafter the Company offered all of its California holdings for sale.
The man charged with selling the colony and its assets was Alexander Rotchev, who had arrived at Fort Ross in mid-1836, on a temporary assignment. Joining him later were his wife Helena the Princess Gagarina, and their three children. Rotchev was quick to grasp the problems facing the distant colonial outpost and proved himself to be a resourceful administrator and diplomat. Although he personally opposed the decision to sell the colony, he faithfully carried out his orders, ably conducting the intricate negotiations that led to the sale of the Company’s assets in California.
Rotchev first approached the Hudson’s Bay Company regarding the purchase, but the British turned down the offer in 1840. He then made overtures to France through the French military attaché in Mexico City, Eugène Duflot de Mofras. Duflot made an extensive visit to Ross to investigate the area first-hand, but he, too, declined to put forth a bid, on the grounds that he lacked authority in such matters. The Russian-American Company then ordered Rotchev to offer the outpost to Mexico. Both the Mexican Government and General Vallejo of Sonoma rejected the Russian terms, partly because Mexico already considered Fort Ross as legally its own, and possibly because they hoped that the Russians would simply abandon the outpost.
Rotchev then approached Captain Sutter at his ranch in the Sacramento Valley, and in late 1841 Sutter agreed to buy the Russian-American Company’s assets. This included all the buildings, livestock, and implements, but not the land itself, which was still claimed by Mexico. The contract stipulated that Sutter pay the Company the equivalent of $30,000 in installments, in both cash and produce. However, a separate, unofficial deed, signed by Rotchev one day earlier than the day on which Sutter, a Mexican citizen, signed the official contract, transferred to the new owner a stretch of land extending from Cape Mendocino to Point Reyes and inland for 12 miles. This deed did not surface publicly until 1857 and then caused considerable legal controversy.
On January 1, 1842, Rotchev and about one hundred colonists sailed from Bodega Bay on the last Russian ship bound for Sitka. After 30 years, the flag of the Russian-American Company was lowered at Fort Ross, and the Russian epoch in the history of California came to a close.
It is worth noting that the business transaction did not go smoothly for either party. For further reading on the sale of Fort Ross to John Sutter, see John Sutter, written by Alfred Hurtado. For more information on Fort Ross please visit Fort Ross.