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(Note: The celebration of the 200th anniversary of Fort Ross will take place on Saturday, August 25, 2012.)

by Father Konstantin Gavrilkin

In our celebration of the Fort Ross bicentennial, we might overlook the importance of a rather sobering fact: in its 200-year history (1), this Russian military outpost in California performed its original function only for 30 years (1812-1841), was a private property for over 60 years (1841-1903) (2), and has been an historical landmark or a museum for more than 100 years (1903 – current) (3). All three of these periods have been subject to studies from a variety of perspectives (4). It is important to remember that, as an intricate part of both Russian and American history, Fort Ross was a place where Russians interacted with Americans, Spaniards, and Indians, where people of different cultures coexisted, struggled to survive, and cooperated, and already for this reason alone it continues to inspire narratives shaped by diverse interests, agendas, and identities. Out of the three Eastern Orthodox Churches, presented in this collection of essays and related to Fort Ross historically and ecclesiastically, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) is both the fruits and the continuation of the mission, initiated by the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 18th century in Alaska and later spreading through California to the rest of the United States (5).

In paying our tribute to Fort Ross on occasion of its bicentennial, we also would like to highlight the ultimate importance of the chapel (6) and its continuous recovery from all kinds of misfortunes in the course of the settlement’s 200-year history. Despite the desecration at the hands of its private owners, the earthquake damage in 1906, and the fire destruction of 1970, the chapel was repeatedly brought back to life through the efforts of many people: the state authorities, conservationists, and numerous enthusiasts, both Russian and American, for whom Fort Ross has been a place of inspiration and powerful symbolism.

What is also noteworthy, the chapel is the only edifice in Fort Ross Historic Park which continues to serve its original function as a place of worship, albeit, at the moment, on rare occasions. Beginning in 1925 (7), the Orthodox clergy and faithful from San Francisco and other parishes of the Russian Orthodox Metropolia (the OCA since 1970 ) have been conducting services at the Fort on July 4, the Independence Day, and continue to do so under the leadership of the Diocese of the West. A few years later, a tradition of serving at Fort Ross on Memorial Day (Last Monday of May) was initiated by the clergy and faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), and it’s carried on to this day. Recently, the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate have also begun to celebrate memorial services at the Fort Ross Historic Park. It is remarkable that the Fort Ross chapel has become the focal point of the first united celebration by the hierarchs, clergy, and lay people of the three Churches of the Russian origin who came to honor the 200-year anniversary of the settlement’s foundation.

Established by the Russian-American Company (RAC) (8), Fort Ross was a short-lived but energetic and memorable attempt to advance Russian interests south of Alaska. As L. Kalani and S. Sweedler put it, “The legacy left by the Russians is vast. Russian colonists built the first windmills and ships in California. Explorers, scientists, and artists from Imperial Russia visited California and recorded their findings; their pioneering work in the region contributed information that is valuable to the present day." (9)

While the political, economic, and social life of the Fort Ross settlement has received considerable attention and is well documented (10), quite little is known of its religious life, except that the chapel was built around 1825, the prayer services had been conducted there by the colonists (11), and that on extremely rare occasions Orthodox priests from Sitka (12) visited Fort Ross and conducted sacraments and rites for the living and the dead. (13) According to S. Kenton Osborn, “The Orthodox priest Alexei Sokolov and subdeacon Nikolai Chechenev visited Ross in 1832” and that, according to the RAC correspondence, “this was the first visit by a priest to perform church rites at Ross,” (14) that is, twenty years after the foundation of the settlement! Another rare occasion when a priest visited Fort Ross is described in the diary of Father Ioann Veniaminov (1797-1879), who a few years later, after losing his wife and a son, became a monk with the name Innokentii (Innocent), was consecrated the first Bishop to the Russian-American colony, and in 1867 became Metropolitan of Moscow. (15) Father Ioann Veniaminov visited California and Fort Ross in July-October 1836 and, while at the settlement, spent five weeks conducting services and sacraments in the chapel, and instructing the residents in the Orthodox faith. (16)

Fort Ross was sold in 1841, that is, years before the agreement between Russia and the United States on the sale of Alaska in 1867, which included a special provision regarding the Orthodox churches (17). Since the chapel was not a free standing and consecrated ecclesiastical building, on the one hand, and no Russian settlers stayed in the area after the sale to John A. Sutter, on the other hand, the chapel was treated by its private owners with no regard for its religious significance. As we know from Nikolai (Ziorov), Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in 1891-1898, who visited Fort Ross in March 1897 (18), both the chapel and the cemetery were in bad shape. He especially lamented the desecration of the chapel, used for feeding the animals (19). He reproached George W. Call, the owner of the Fort at the time, for the condition of the chapel and the cemetery and proposed to transfer them, together with the neighboring house, to his care in order to restore and maintain them properly. Call agreed to discuss it the next day but didn’t say anything at all when they met again before the Bishop’s departure. (20)

Although Bishop Nikolai claimed that “the stubborn and greedy Yankee didn’t want to understand” how painful it was for the Russian Orthodox visitors to see this “Russian holy place” desecrated, it might well be that this encounter played a role in George W. Call’s decision to sell the Fort Ross compound in 1903 to the California Historical Landmarks League. After the sale the condition of at least the chapel was dramatically different already in February 1905, when Tikhon (Belavin), Bishop of the Aleutians and North America (1898-1907) and the future Patriarch of Moscow (1917-1925), visited Fort Ross with a group of clergy and laymen, one of whom published a report soon after the trip (21). They were “pleasantly surprised by the order and cleanness” of the chapel and attributed it to the State of California’s supervision.

Nevertheless, the author of the report ended his story on an ominous note:

Years will pass, even decades, but the visits to Fort Ross of the Orthodox Hierarchs will remain in its history as memories of the days of light in the unattractive future that Fort Ross is almost certainly facing. (22)

Ironically, in only a decade this gloomy prediction would become more applicable not to Fort Ross but to Russia itself. The Revolution of 1917 destroyed the Russian Empire, left the Russian Orthodox Church in ruins, and forced millions of people to seek refuge outside of Soviet Russia. For many of those who came to the United States and California in particular, Fort Ross gradually acquired a new importance and meaning, becoming a powerful symbol of the lost great empire and its political, economic, and spiritual power, once spreading from the western borders of Poland to Alaska and the California frontier.


The Fort Ross bicentennial not only reignited the interest of thousands of people, both in Russia and the United States, in the history of Russian America, but also allowed for new and unexpected ways of interaction and cooperation between various institutions and group of people. On the one hand, restoration of communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in May 2007 also allowed for the communion and cooperation between the latter and the Orthodox Church in America, both of whom have a substantial and active ecclesiastical presence in California but could not participate in joint and mutually beneficial projects until the 2007 reconciliation. On the other hand, the continuing financial crisis of State of California and a threat of Fort Ross closure, together with many other state parks, on the grounds of state budget crisis, allowed the Russian government, as well as Russian financial and cultural institutions, not only to voice their concerns over the future of Fort Ross, “the only site with Russian fortress remains in the contiguous 48-states,” (23) but also to offer various forms of assistance, including a substantial financial support, to Fort Ross Historic Park in order to guarantee its uninterrupted function, preservation, and restoration. The creation in 2010 of the Renova Fort Ross foundation, a new form of international cooperation between the American Fort Ross State Historic Park and the Russian Renova Group (24), could not have been more timely.

No doubt, all who visit Fort Ross and experience this unique place, its serene environment and beauty, connect to its past and present in particular and personal ways that reflect their identity and understanding of life and history. Yet, we may ask ourselves, what is the vital importance of the Fort Ross celebration for those of us who identify themselves with the Orthodox Church in America which grew out of the Russian Orthodox mission to America but has always identified itself with evangelization and mission rather than a particular ethnic or immigrant group, no matter how substantial the latter might have been numerically at one or another moment in its history? In one of his parables Jesus says:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn." (Mt 13:24-30)

And it seems that wisdom teaches us to embrace this celebration with gratitude and humility, for any human endeavor carries in it the seeds of both wheat and weed. As Father Leonid Kishkovsky wrote in his reflection on Orthodox Christianity in America, “the reality of Orthodoxy in America is as complex as America. Many of the histories and cultures and backgrounds which compose America also compose Orthodoxy in America.” (25) Celebration of the Fort Ross bicentennial brings together Orthodox Russians, Americans, and all those who fall in between. The crucial question regarding the importance and role of Christian Orthodox tradition in the cultural heritage of Russian America can be answered by all who witness and participate in it only from within their personal or institutional framework of reference.

The political, economic, cultural, and ecclesiastical circumstances of this celebration are dramatically different from what was happening in the world even a quarter century ago. In the last two and half decades the radical changes in the political landscape of Eastern Europe (and other regions, for that matter), and the following economic and political migration brought hundreds of thousands of people from the regions with historically Eastern Orthodox roots to the United States. Open political and economic borders have made it easy for people to travel back and forth, and social media and internet provide people of practically any religious, cultural, and ethnic background with instantaneous access to unlimited sources of information on every subject of choice. Conversely, the decline of the American, previously unquestionable, political and economic supremacy in the world and a deepening economic crisis in the US have made many new immigrants more critical of the US, its policies and values, and reinforced their growing appreciation of their native religious and cultural traditions.

All this is of vital significance for our understanding of the Fort Ross anniversary, for it has created a new political, cultural, and religious context for all those who experience Fort Ross as a historic monument of national, cultural, religious, or symbolic, significance. What could have been a couple of decades ago a limited in scope and rather academic in nature commemoration of what happened in California in the first half of the 19th century, has grown into a large international celebration of the religious and cultural heritage of Russian America, and it has to be respected and appreciated.

(1) For a short but well-illustrated introduction to Fort Ross history, see L. Kalani and S. Sweedler, Fort Ross and the Sonoma Coast (San Francisco: Arcadia, 2004); E.O. Essig, A. Ogden, and C. John Du Four, Fort Ross, California: Outpost of Russian Alaska, 1812-1841 (Fairbanks , AK; The limestone Press, 1991); S. Kenton Osborn, "Death in the Daily Life of the Ross Colony" (Ph.D. diss, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1997). See also the websites of Fort Ross State park
( and Fort Ross Conservancy (

(2) Cf. Kalani and Sweedler, Fort Ross and the Sonoma Coast, 35-88.

(3) In 1903, George W. Call, the owner of Fort Ross settlement at the time, sold the part of his property, including the fort compound, to the California Historical Landmarks League; in 1906, the fort was turned over to the State of California, and Fort Ross Historic Park was established in 1909. See Kalani and Sweedler, Fort Ross and the Sonoma Coast, 89-127.

(4) For the sources and studies of Fort Ross history, see Fort Ross library and its digital collection here.

(5) For the introductory reading on the history of the OCA, see the following: M. Stokoe and L. Kishkovsky, Orthodox Christians in North America (1794-1994) (Orthodox Christian Publication Center, 1995); Arkhimandrit Avgustin (Nikitin), "Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America [in Russian]," in Istoria Russkoi Ameriki, Tom III: Russkaia Amerika: ot zenita k zakatu, 1825-1867, edited by N.N. Bolkhovitinov (Mockva: "Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia" 1999), 118-153; A.A. Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Orthodox Church (New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1963). See also John Erickson, Orthodox Christians in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(6) Since the 1960s, the chapel has often been given the name of the Holy Trinity, but this attribution has no historical grounds. According to the early Russian sources, the settlers wanted to dedicate it to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors. Yet, since no Russian bishop visited Fort Ross in 1825-1841, when the chapel was in use, it seems that it was never consecrated and given a formal name. - K.G.

(7) Possibly, even in 1910, if we believe Kalani and Sweedler, Fort Ross and the Sonoma Coast, 95, Father Andrew Kashevarov claimed that Priest Vladimir Sakovich of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco (OCA) in 1917-1931, "celebrated the first liturgy in the old Fort since the early Russians sold their Fort to Captain John A. Sutter" on July 4, 1925; Rev. A. P. Kashevaroff, "An Account of the Russian Settlement in San Francisco Bay," reprint from Alaska, 1926, p.8. +Rev.+A.P.Kashevaroff.pdf (accessed May 25, 2012)

(8) For recent studies of the history of Russian America and the RAC, see I. Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867 (Oxford University Press, 2011); N.N. Bolkhovitinov (ed.), Istoriia Russkoi Ameriki: 1732-1799, v trekh tomakh: t.l. Osnovanie russkoi Ameriki, 1732-1799; t.2, Deiatel'nost' Rossiisko-amerikanskoi kompanii, 1799-1825; t.3, RusskaiaAmerika: ot zenita k zakatu 1825-1867 (Moskva: "Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia," 1997-1999. See also Cf. H. Chevigny, Russian America, The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741-1867 (New York: Viking Press, 1965). For the most substantial early Russian study, see P.A. Tikhmenev, A History of the Russian-American Company, translated by R.A. Pierce and A.S. Donnelly (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1978), originally published as Istoricheskoe obozrenie obrazovaniia Rossiisko-Ameriskanskoi kompanii, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia E. Veimara, 1861-1863).

(9) Kalani and Seedler, Fort Ross and the Sonoma Coast, 7-8.

(10) See, for instance, A.A. Istomin, J.P. Gibson, and V.A. Tishkov (eds.), Rossia v Kalifornii: russkie dokumenty o kolonii Ross i rossiisko-kaliforniiskikh, 1803-1850: v 2-kh tomokh (Moskva: Nauka, 2004).

(11) Cf. S. Kenton Osborn, "Death in the Daily Life of the Ross Colony," 251.

(12) Fort Ross was under the administrative care of the Sitka parish.

(13) In the Appendix 1 of her dissertation, Kenton Osborn lists all the people who were baptized, christened, and married at Fort Ross, using her extensive research of the records on the settlement in the vast collections of documents related to Russian America; ibid., 367-414.

(14) Ibid., 189.

(15) On Metropolitan Innokentii Veniaminov, who was canonized as Enlightener of North America in 1977, see: P.D. Garret, St. Innocent: Apostle to America (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979); see also I.P. Barsukov, Innokentii, Mitropolit Moskovskii i Kolomenskii po ego sochineniiam, pis'mam, i rasskazam sovremennikov (Moskva: Sinodal'naia tip., 1883). In all studies of Fort Ross one would find references only to Veniaminov's pastoral visit.

(16) See Ioann Veniaminov, Journals of the Priest Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska, 1823 to 1836, translated by Jerome Kisslinger (Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 1993); cf. Garret, St. Innocent, 112-114. According to Fr. Ioann's testimony, the chapel was decorated with "two small icons with silver ornamentation" and had "almost no income whatsoever from the Russian members who rarely visit it"; cf. excerpts from the diary on the travel to California from July 1 to October 23, 1836 at

(17) According to the treaty, "the churches which have been built in the cede territory by the Russian government, shall remain the property of such members, of the Greek oriental Church residents in the territory, as many choose to worship therein (Article II). For the English-Russian text of the document, see "Prilozhenie: Dogovor o prodazhe Aliaski - Treaty with Russia. March 30, 1867," in Avgustin Nikitin, Rossia i SShA 2:100-116.

(18) Some sources mention that Vladimir (Sokolovsky-Avtonomov), Bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska (1888-1891), also visited Fort Ross, but we have not been able to document it so far. Cf. F.P., "Staryi 'Ross' - nyne 'Fort Ross': Po povodu poseshcheniia ego Preosviashchenneishim Tikhonom, Episkopom Aleutskim i Severo-Amerikanskim," Amerikanskii Prevoslavnyi Vestnik, No. 7 (1905), 145.

(19) Episkop Nikolai [Ziorov], "Poezdka v Fort Ross (iz pis'ma Preosviashchennogo)," Pravoslavnyi Amerikanskii Vestnik, No. 17 (1896-97): 342-345. Both Bishop Nikolai and one of his fellow-travelers, Hieromonk Sebastian Dabovich, left records of their sad impressions of Fort Ross in the registration book of the former Fort Ross hotel. Father Sebastian wrote: "The undersigned, a native born of California, and a priest of the Holy Orthodox Russian Church, has visited the historic landmarks of Fort Ross - scared to the hearts of Christians, who observe the progress of each and all governments and nations with jealous eye. I have had honor to visit this place and pray in the old cemetery yonder on the hill (for we could not in the church, which is now, - since the stars and stripes have been raised, - a house of cattle)"; F.P., "Staryi 'Ross' - nyne 'Fort Ross'," 149.

(20) It is not entirely clear from the Russian text if Bishop Nikolai meant buying the property or some other form of arrangement. Cf. the original text "Kogda zhe ia zagovoril o tom, ne mozhet li on [G.W. Call - K.G.] ustupit'mne chast' Forta, imenno tserkov', sosednii dom s ogorodom i kladbishche - chto ia privedu vse eto v poriadok i budu v letnie mesiatsy zdes' prozhivat', on otvechal kak-to zagadochno: Ob etom pogovorim zavtra utrom"; no kogda ia ego vstretil na drugoi den' na pristani, on uzhe no odnim slovom ne obmolvilsia"; Episkop Nikolai, "Podzdka v Fort Ross," 344.

(21) F.P., "Staryi 'Ross' - nyne 'Fort Ross'," 147-149.

(22) Ibid., 149.

(23) "Russian Philanthropy Effort Spearheads Preservation of California State Park," U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission: Press Releases, October 21, 2010, (accessed May 19, 2012)

(24) A Russian business conglomerate, actively supporting arts, culture, education, international relations, environmental initiatives, and public health. Cf.

(25) Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, "Orthodoxy in America: Diaspora or Church?" posted October 10, 2004, (accessed June 15, 2012).
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