Russian California, 1806-1860 : A History in Documents
This two-volume book is a documentary history of Russia’s 19th-century settlement in California. It contains 491 documents (letters, reports, travel descriptions, censuses, ethnographic and geographical information), mostly translated from the Russian for the first time, very fully annotated, and with an extensive historical introduction, maps, and illustrations, many in colour. This broad range of primary sources provides a comprehensive and detailed history of the Russian Empire’s most distant and most exotic outpost, one whose liquidation in 1841 presaged St Petersburg’s abandonment of all of Russian America in 1867.
Russia from the sixteenth century onwards had steadily expanded eastwards in search of profitable resources. This expansion was rapid, eased not only by the absence of foreign opposition and disunity of the native peoples but also by Siberia’s river network and the North Pacific’s convenient causeway of the Aleutian chain leading to Alaska. It was paid for largely by the ‘soft gold’ of Siberian sables and Pacific sea otters.
By the end of the 1700s, however, on the Northwest Coast of North America the Russians met increasing opposition from the indigenous people (Tlingits) and foreign rivals (American and English fur-trading vessels). This combination soon depleted the coast of sea otters, and at the same time the Russians were finding it ever more expensive to obtain supplies from Europe by overland transport across Siberia or round-the-world voyages, so under the aegis of the monopolistic Russian-American Company (1799) they leapfrogged southward to the frontera del norte of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain.
Here, in 1812, they founded Russian California (officially, Ross Counter) as a base for hunting the Californian sea otter, growing grain and rearing stock, and trading with the Spanish missions. Eventually the exclave comprised a fort (Ross), a port (Bodega), five farms, and a hunting and birding station on the Farallon Islands, as well as a shipyard, a tannery, and a brickworks.
The successes and failures of these enterprises, the perils of navigation, experiments in agriculture, the personal, political and economic problems of the colony, and Russian engagement with the indigenous population all come to life in these pages.