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Does Russia Still Own a Piece of the U.S.?

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Sometime in March of 1812, a ship manned by 25 Russians and 80 Native Alaskans arrived on the shores of northern California in a spot roughly 20 miles to the north of Bodega Bay, where a seasonal Kashaya Indian village was located. By August of that year, the Russian-American Company had built its southernmost fort in the Company’s burgeoning Pacific trade empire: Fort Ross.

The Russian-American Company already had a decent foothold in Alaska, and was known throughout the entire Pacific Rim - from Alaska to Mexico to Peru to Australia to Java to the Philippines to China. Fur was used as the initial excuse for Russian claims in North America, and, once the fur was overexploited, the main reasons for maintaining forts along the North Pacific Rim were farming, shipbuilding, and, less so, geopolitics.

 California and the other west coast states have had a long history of ties with Pacific Rim trade, which helps to explain not only their relative wealth, but also their peculiar culture relative to the rest of the country. The Pacific Rim was, and is, a massive trading zone filled with drastically different cultures, polities, and religions. For Americans, this participation was based out of Saint Louis for a long time, and when the Russians built Fort Ross, the United States was an Atlanticist polity preparing for a war with the United Kingdom and its Native American allies (which officially began in June). The Russian-American Company was far more concerned with the British and the Spanish at the time of the founding of Fort Ross, and was far more focused on earning profits from the lucrative Pacific Rim trade rather than outright geopolitics.

The Russian-American Company was run through Saint Petersburg and thus had a strict racial hierarchical code in place, in conformity with the latest beliefs about race at the time. The neighborhoods of Fort Ross were segregated, but an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Kent Lightfoot, has produced excellent research at Fort Ross, showing how the company’s racist charter was unofficially ignored, with miscegenation widespread (“creoles” was even created as an official race for documentation purposes) and interethnic activities commonplace. The people inhabiting Fort Ross preferred to follow instead something the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle calls “mestizo logics."

The fur trade in northern California eventually fizzled out, as the prized sea otter pelts (one of the few New World products considered worthy of purchase by Chinese consumers) became rare due to overhunting (imperial competition between various European empires guaranteed that a system of property rights would never be agreed upon in the Pacific Northwest) and by 1839 most of the residents of Fort Ross were homestead farmers competing for land with subsidized farmers from New Spain and the United States.

Imperial Russia gave up on its company, and the latter tried to sell the fort to the British, the French, and the Mexican governments before finally approaching an American businessman with an offer. Fort Ross was bought by John Sutter (of California Gold Rush fame) in 1841, and Sutter, a Mexican citizen who was born in Switzerland, paid the debt in full. Sutter supported French interests in the New World (he was from the French-speaking part of Switzerland) before initially supporting Mexico during the Mexican-American War, and his payment has raised questions in some quarters about the legality of his purchase.

There are some nationalists in Russia who assert that Sutter never paid up, and thus that Russia’s California colony still belongs to the Russian people (along with Russia’s other former colonies in North America). Andrei Znamenski, a historian at the University of Memphis, has an excellent paper  on recent Russian calls for the return of Russia-America. This argument, which has moved more and more to the mainstream of Russian society under Vladimir Putin, may seem obscure to American minds, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Check out the website for Fort Ross Historic State Park.

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