During the eighteenth century, Vologdians showed remarkable enterprise in exploring distant territories, and, by the end of the century, a number of expeditions to Alaska were funded in Tot'ma (214 km (133 miles) north-east of Vologda). Merchants from Tot'ma took over the pioneering role. They set out on long journeys to Ťexportť salt mined from the areas around the town which was rich in salt mines. Salt, being highly valued in Siberia and the Pacific Islands, was exchanged there for furs which were much priced in European Russia. Since that time the town has been adorned with graceful churches resembling the silhouettes of ships and a black Alaska fox was added to the town emblem of Tot'ma. Russian merchants, involved in fur trade with America, founded the Russian-American Company, the biggest in Alaska. The company was allowed to have its own flag and issue its own money, it has a big fleet of trade ships.
On 15 May (Old Style), 1812 in California a native of Tot'ma Ivan Kuskov laid the foundation of the first house of the Russian fortress - Fort Ross, that became the most southern Russian settlement on North American coast of the then existing Russian-American Company. The efforts of Nikolay Rokityansky, a professor of history from California have made it possible to restore the fortress to its original form. Recently a granite bust of Ivan Kuskov has been erected in Russia in front of the house where the first commandant of Fort Ross spent his last years.
The strong influence of representatives from the Vologda province on properties in the Pacific Ocean continued until the sale of Alaska to the USA.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Mikhail Buldakov, a merchant from Veliky Ustyug was, using the modern terminology, the chairman of the Board of directors of Russian-American Company. At the very end of the twentieth century Stanislav Zaitsev, a student of local lore from Tot'ma, managed to repeat many nautical exploits of his fellow-town's men. As a member of the crew of Russian enthusiasts Zaitsev sailed along the coast of North America from Alaska to Vancouver.
The magazine Russian Life in its issue of July 1997 briefs the history and present development of Fort Ross:
"Some 185 years ago, the Russian-American Company founded Fort Ross, its southern-most settlement in North America. The fort's site, which is located near the Russian River (then the Slavyanka), about one hundred miles north of San Francisco, was acquired from local Kashaya Pomo Indians for "three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads." It was formally dedicated on August 13, 1812. Just a month later, on the other side of the world, Russian forces would face Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino.
The fort was founded to support trade in sea otter pelts, which were extraordinarily valuable in trade with China. Most of the hunting (ranging the entire coast of present-day California and Oregon) was done by native Alaskans from Kodiak island, who were in the service of the Russian-American Company (and lived in a village just outside the fort's walls). Within eight years, however, the sea otter population was so depleted that the main economic activities at the fort became agriculture and animal husbandry. Unfortunately, climate, location and the flagging desire of hunters-turned-farmers led to failure.
By the late 1830s, the Russian-American Company was starting to pull back from the Pacific Northwest. In December 1841 the fort was sold to John Sutter, of Sutter's Fort. There was a succession of owners and, in 1906, the site was turned over to the State of California for preservation and renovation as a historic monument.
he majority of the fort's structures are built of local redwood, using joinery techniques typical of the 19th century maritime carpentry. The Chapel was the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America (outside Alaska). The fort's buildings have suffered from the ravages of time, earthquakes and fire, and most have been rebuilt during this century.
Very few Russians actually lived at the fort, and intermarriage between Russians and Alaskan and Californian natives was common. Thus, 185 years on, the region retains a bit of its Russian heritage. Not only are there many Russian surnames in the area, but there is also a local farming community named Sebastopol, the Russian River, and numerous Orthodox Russian churches.
The last weekend in July, Fort Ross hosts Living History Days, when volunteers and park personnel dress in attire of the early 19th century, cook Russian dishes, do carpentry, spin wool and perform Russian music. At the high point of the day, a trading ship arrives in the little harbour as if from China. Cannon salutes are exchanged with the fort and the captain is welcomed with toasting all around. Typically, some 1000 visitors come to the fort over these two days (which is when photographer R.C. Hall took these shots). The site is also a draw for travelling Russians. Park managers report that hardly a day goes by without a group of Russian tourists passing through. The fort is open year round. The Chapel is used for Orthodox Services on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
has been turned into a modest, but attractive museum