This article examines how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. colonists in California constructed an imaginary “Fort Ross Story” alongside a broader attempt to claim the Kashia Pomo homeland of Metini. This settler heritage work at Metini-Ross began in 1892, following the removal of Pomo and Miwok peoples. Fiction and journalism about Russian Fort Ross captured the public imagination with tragic stories of European aristocrats and imperial outposts. Heritage groups such as the Native Sons of the Golden West rebuilt the decaying fort in the mold of these stories. Together, writers and preservationists attempted to conceal the Kashia homeland beneath imagined layers of Russian romance and tragedy. Examining this history reveals the broader role of local heritage work in U.S. settler colonialism and the connections between forced removal and heritage work in California.

The Pacific Coast Highway twists along the cliffs, inlets, and river valleys of California’s Sonoma Coast. Along this scenic route, some eighty miles north of San Francisco, Fort Ross State Historic Park rises in a large clearing between the road and the Pacific Ocean. The fort’s weathered wooden walls surround a Russian Orthodox chapel and numerous buildings. Just down the coast from the fort, dozens of wooden grave markers stand atop a knoll, and, inland, an orchard grows midway up a large hill. Cars dot a large parking lot, and tourists wander through the site, exploring restocked Russian warehouses, shuffling past Russian Orthodox iconography, examining the pristine garden of a U.S.-era ranch house, and resting in the air conditioning of a visitors’ center.

Within the visitors’ center, guests learn a brief history of Russian colonialism in California. In 1812, the Russian American Company (RAC) ventured south from its base in southern Alaska and established a small hunting and agricultural outpost in Northern California. The Russian colony sprawled thinly across the coast of present-day Sonoma County and was centered at Settlement Ross, a site within Metini, the homeland of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. Roughly twenty miles to the south, the Russians built Port Rumiantsev (today called Bodega Bay) in Coast Miwok territory. From 1812 to 1841, Colony Ross depended on the support of neighboring Kashia Pomo and Coast Miwok communities. The RAC profited from the forced labor of Indigenous Alaskan peoples (mainly Supiaq and Unanga○), sporadically forced labor from more distant California Indian communities, and hired Coast Miwok and Kashia Pomo workers. This colony was short lived. In 1841, the RAC sold its fledgling imperial outpost and left California.1

Today, this story of Russians in California, physically reconstructed along an iconic U.S. highway, draws substantial numbers of visitors. In 2010 alone Fort Ross State Historic Park received more than 224,000 guests.2 But why does this story attract so much attention? Colony Ross was a short-lived colony on what has long been Kashia Pomo and Coast Miwok land. Stewarts Point Rancheria, the home of the Kashia Band, is located just some fifteen miles from the park. Graton Rancheria, the home of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (a federation of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo groups), is about forty miles away. What do U.S. stories of Russian colonists mean on Kashia land?

This article argues that American settlers constructed a “Fort Ross Story” as part of an effort to claim Kashia Pomo lands. Contextualizing this Fort Ross Story opens a window into understanding the settler colonial function of California heritage work at the turn of the twentieth century. The annexation of California from Mexico in 1848 and the genocide against California Indians from 1846 to 1873 established the U.S. empire in California.3 Over these years, settlers transformed Metini-Ross into a U.S. ranch. By 1892, heritage workers began reimagining Metini-Ross as a site of history, constructing romantic and tragic stories of Russian elites that provided Euro-Americans with an aristocratic European heritage in California. The work of writers such as Gertrude Atherton made Fort Ross significant to readers, and heritage groups, led by the Native Sons of the Golden West, reconstructed the fort as a physical symbol of the writers’ tales. Together, they attempted to erase and absorb the Kashia homeland with an imagined European history. Local heritage work followed and supported Indigenous dispossession as settlers worked to materialize the view that they had inherited California from past colonists and that California Indians had disappeared.4

Existing literature on California heritage work has primarily focused on how Anglo American boosters commodified and mythologized Spanish pasts to attract newcomers and enforce racial hierarchy. The “Spanish fantasy past” supplied white settlers with nostalgic stories of Spanish colonists and concealed the violent U.S. conquest of California.5 Bolstering these narratives was what scholar Genevieve Carpio has called the “Anglo fantasy past,” a narrative of white pioneers traversing and developing a Mexican desert.6 Together, the Spanish and Anglo fantasy pasts helped produce the myth that a process of racial evolution resulted in the U.S. state.7 Although the Fort Ross Story mirrored the Spanish and Anglo fantasy pasts’ claims to California, its focus was hyperlocal. A growing body of literature has examined how local heritage work supports the U.S. empire’s expansion into Indigenous lands.8 In New England, for example, settlers frequently use localized myths of Indigenous extinction to claim land, a move historian Jean M. O’Brien has called “replacement narratives.”9 With the Fort Ross Story, white Californians added an additional layer to these “replacement narratives,” sensationalizing the disappearance of Russian colonists rather than Indigenous peoples. U.S. settlers used Russian colonists to erase California Indians from both the present and the past.

This article is divided into three sections. First, it examines the dispossession of Kashia and Miwok peoples during the Metini-Ross ranch era (1841–1903). Second, it analyzes the development of a Fort Ross Story in the aftermath of removal. Third, it considers how the Fort Ross Story presented Russian and U.S. colonialism as a singular tale that nullified Kashia and Miwok sovereignty. The conclusion reflects upon resistance to the myth and the incompleteness of the American settler colonial project at Metini. A critical history of the Fort Ross Story reveals how turn-of-the-century California heritage work became a flexible and dynamic settler colonial tool that colonists used to reshape local histories in support of continuing colonization.

RAC officials founded the colony far south from their Alaskan headquarters in pursuit of sea otter furs and a food supply for Russia’s Pacific colonies. For the entirety of the Russian period (1812–1841), Indigenous peoples constituted the predominant population of Colony Ross and shaped its daily operations.10 While more militarized forms of Russian colonialism in Siberia and Alaska made Colony Ross possible, including the forced labor regime that brought Alaska Natives to California, Russian colonists had relatively little military power in California.11 Even the name “Fort” Ross is misleading, as Russians usually referred to the site as Selenie Ross (Ross Settlement) or Koloniia Ross (Colony Ross) rather than ostrog (fortress).12 This terminology differentiated Ross from other Russian outposts in North America and Siberia that were built for territorial control.

Some Kashia and Miwok communities accepted the Russian presence as a means for diplomatic protection from Spanish and Mexican colonists. As archaeologist Tsim D. Schneider has argued, the Coast Miwok territory between Colony Ross and San Francisco Bay became a borderland where Indigenous communities offered shelter to runaways from Franciscan Missions and decided “which, if any, [colonial] institutions they should engage.” Metini-Ross often served the needs of these communities, at times providing refuge to those fleeing Franciscan missions and even a market for stolen Spanish cattle.13 Just thirty-eight Russian colonists lived at Colony Ross in 1821. Over two hundred Indigenous people lived at the site, mostly Alaska Natives that the Russians had forced south and California Indians, but also Kānaka Maoli (from Hawai‘i) and Sakhas (from northeastern Siberia).14 Many more neighboring Pomos and Miwoks worked seasonally at Metini-Ross. By the 1830s, Russian colonists began using violence and hostage-taking to coerce labor during harvest season, but only from distant Indigenous communities. For the most part, neighboring Kashia and Miwok worked at Metini-Ross voluntarily. Alaska Native, Sakha, and Kānaka Maoli intermarriage with Pomo and Miwok women enmeshed the migrant Indigenous labor force into local kinship networks that stretched far inland from colonized sites, creating an Indigenous world that existed beyond colonial objectives or understanding. As historian David Chang has observed, Colony Ross was a “Native American world with a European colonial incursion.”15 Many Pomo and Miwok communities selectively engaged with the colony until 1841, when RAC officials, responding to decimated sea otter populations and an 1838 trade agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company that promised to supply Russian Alaska with food, sold the settlement to the Swiss colonist Johann (John) Sutter (figs. 1 and 2).16

Figure 1.

A depiction of Settlement Ross in 1828, looking northwest. Source: Duhaut-Cilly, “Vue de l’etablissement russe de la Bodega, à la Côte de la Nouvelle Albion, en 1828 [View of the Russian Establishment of the Bodega, on the coast of New Albion, in 1828],” lithograph by Landais and Martenelle in A. Duhaut-Cilly, Voyage Autour du Monde, Principalement A la Californie et aux Iles Sandwich, Pendant les Années 1826, 1827, 1828, et 1829… (Paris, 1835), frontispiece, Courtesy of Fort Ross Conservatory Photo Archives.

Figure 1.

A depiction of Settlement Ross in 1828, looking northwest. Source: Duhaut-Cilly, “Vue de l’etablissement russe de la Bodega, à la Côte de la Nouvelle Albion, en 1828 [View of the Russian Establishment of the Bodega, on the coast of New Albion, in 1828],” lithograph by Landais and Martenelle in A. Duhaut-Cilly, Voyage Autour du Monde, Principalement A la Californie et aux Iles Sandwich, Pendant les Années 1826, 1827, 1828, et 1829… (Paris, 1835), frontispiece, Courtesy of Fort Ross Conservatory Photo Archives.

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Figure 2.

A depiction of Settlement Ross, looking west. While there are many similarities with Duhaut-Cilly’s earlier image, the settlement is presented with a much more open layout here. This change could reflect the deterioration of the stockade that occurred during the Russian period. Source: Water-color image of Settlement (Fort) Ross painted in 1841 by I.G. Voznesenskii, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Figure 2.

A depiction of Settlement Ross, looking west. While there are many similarities with Duhaut-Cilly’s earlier image, the settlement is presented with a much more open layout here. This change could reflect the deterioration of the stockade that occurred during the Russian period. Source: Water-color image of Settlement (Fort) Ross painted in 1841 by I.G. Voznesenskii, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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In the sixty years following the RAC’s 1841 departure from California, colonists transformed Metini-Ross from a carefully negotiated Indigenous space to a settler commercial hub.17 Initially, with Sutter as an absentee owner, the Kashia retained significant control of the territory. When the Swedish travel-writer G.M. Waseurtz af Sandels visited the settlement in 1842, he found Indigenous Californians (presumably Kashia people employed by Sutter) to be the sole occupants of the site, and he reported that the nearby “Russian Indians'' continued to follow a seasonal, migratory economy. Sometimes they accepted work with foreigners, and often they did not.18 The Kashia navigated shifting colonialisms on their own terms.

In 1843, Wilhem (William) Benitz became Sutter’s manager at Metini-Ross. Benitz had immigrated from Germany to New York in 1833, and in 1842 arrived in California, quickly finding work with Sutter. Benitz leased Ross from Sutter in 1845 and purchased the site outright in 1849.19 Kashia workers from neighboring villages did the majority of the labor in these years, just as they had during the Russian period. An 1848 ranch census listed “161 Indians,” and Benitz noted in 1852 that “our work is all done by Indians, of which we have about 100 families.”20 However, without diplomatic protection of the Russian empire, colonial attacks on the Kashia territory escalated. In 1845, rancheros from Sonoma and Marin counties raided Locaya, a Kashia village neighboring Metini-Ross. The rancheros had already captured and enslaved 150 people from other villages. Two Kashia leaders warned their village of the expedition, faced the raiders, and then refused to disclose where their people had fled. Unable to find the village, the invaders attacked those who remained at Benitz ranch.21 This episode marked a departure from the Russian period, when neighboring Kashia and Miwok had utilized the Russian empire to prevent Spanish and Mexican raids.22

Following the U.S. invasion of California in 1846 and the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, newcomers enveloped Northern California in violence. In the six months from December 1849 to May 1850, vigilantes and U.S. Army soldiers killed perhaps 1,000 or more Indigenous peoples in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino Counties.23 While these operations did not enter Metini-Ross, news of these killing campaigns, punctuated by the nearby Clear Lake and Cokadjal massacres, surely reached Kashia communities. Further, in April 1850, the California Legislature passed an “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians,” legalizing, among other things, new criminal and forced labor codes for Indigenous Californians.24 Settlers flooded the region, violently transforming Metini. One newspaper reported that in 1857 a settler mob publicly lynched three Indigenous men near Metini-Ross on accusations of “murder, robbery, etc. committed at various times and places over the last two years.”25 Almost a century later, Kashia elder Herman James recalled his grandmother, Lukaria, telling him about this lynching. Lukaria remembered settler violence at Metini becoming increasingly common under U.S. rule and physical resistance becoming difficult as “the white people became so numerous that they [the Kashia] couldn’t kill anymore.”26 From 1850 to 1860, Sonoma County’s white population ballooned from 559 to 11,587.27 The Kashia fortified their community against the onslaught by developing a spiritual and communal center, Metini Village, adjacent to Benitz’s ranch. It became an essential sacred site that protected Kashia economic, social, and religious practices in the early years of the U.S. settlement28

This period provided lucrative opportunities for Benitz, who by 1860 held legal title to 17,760 acres of surveyed land.29 Benitz owned livestock and crops, built a small timber operation with a dock at Ross Port, leased land to miners and petroleum prospectors, co-operated a fishery with San Francisco fishermen, and managed a brewery as well as a ferryboat on the Russian River.30 In 1861, one journalist compared Benitz to “an old feudal baron,” as his ranch became an economic center for coastal Sonoma County.31 In an era when the sponsorship of propertied white settlers was the surest way for California Indians to remain on their land, the Kashia strategically utilized Benitz’s employment.32

In 1867, Benitz sold the ranch to James Dixon and Charles and Ada Fairfax.33 Dixon, an Irish immigrant who had spent over a decade in the California timber industry, quickly took over management and repurposed the ranch’s infrastructure for timber extraction. By 1873, Dixon employed fifty men to operate a mill that cut up to 15,000 feet of timber per day.34 Dixon refused to hire Kashia workers and forced them to move away from their villages surrounding Metini-Ross.35 The Kashia moved elsewhere on their territory, creating two new villages north of Fort Ross on the property of Charles Haupt, a German rancher who married a Kashia woman named Pashikokoya (Molly Haupt).36 Meanwhile, Dixon’s operations harvested the forests of Metini.

In 1873 Dixon sold 2,500 acres of his holdings, including the Settlement Ross complex, to Ohio-born George Call and Mercedes de Levia Call.37 The Calls arrived with a fortune amassed from wild west shows in California, and from textile and railroad industries in Mercedes’s native Chile.38 Building on changing regional demands, they sought to emphasize Ross’s role as a port. Within a few years, nearly all goods coming to and from the region traveled through Ross Port, with as many as eighty-six vessels loading cargo at Ross chute in 1877. By 1897, the Calls owned boats offering weekly trips to San Francisco, and Ross Port became a critical entry and exit point for people and commercial goods in coastal Sonoma County. To accommodate growing commercial traffic, the Calls repurposed the still-standing fort complex. They transformed the “Governor’s House” into a hotel, the “Officers Quarters” into a saloon, a Russian warehouse into a dance hall, and so forth.39 Call Ranch became, in many senses, a quintessential county center, and the Calls, with their diverse commercial operations, quintessential county leaders.

The first fifty years of U.S. rule in California dramatically altered the demographics and geography of Metini-Ross as Kashia dispossession, commercial agriculture, the timber industry, and shipping made Call Ranch a center of trade and settlement along the Sonoma coast. Today, the beautifully kept “Call House”—which the state purchased from the family in 1962—stands outside the walls of reconstructed Fort Ross, portraying the “ranch era” as a peaceful interlude between Metini-Ross’s Russian and state park periods. There is little reflection on how the Kashia and Miwok peoples endured the U.S. invasion by drawing upon their relationships to homelands that included, and stretched far beyond, Colony Ross.40 While forced away from Metini-Ross, Kashia and Coast Miwok communities maintained their autonomy. Meanwhile, in the 1890s, a “replacement narrative” emerged from Metini-Ross’s colonial history that recast the site as a mythic space which symbolized Indigenous extinction and Euro-American belonging.

In the winter of 1891, San Francisco–based writer Gertrude Atherton arrived at Call Ranch’s Fort Ross Hotel. The ranch’s shipping services, business activities, saloon, and brothel attracted a wide variety of clientele, and Atherton garnered more attention than most. At thirty-four years old, she had already worked for California newspapers writing controversial opinion columns and had published three novels, the most famous of which, Hermia Suydam (1887), created a national scandal, prompting one publisher to call it “the most immoral novel ever written in the English language.”41 After critics wrote off Hermia Suydam as a sensationalist fad, Atherton, nursing a bruised ego, traveled Europe, seeking to redefine herself as a writer. She found inspiration in London in 1889, where California’s most famed writer, Bret Harte, continued to pen fanciful stories of California’s Gold Rush.42 As Atherton later claimed, she recognized that Harte had neglected California’s Spanish and Russian past and “its nuggets were mine.”43 She returned to San Francisco in the Spring of 1890 and soon arranged her stay at the Fort Ross Hotel (fig. 3).

Figure 3.

An 1878 advertisement for the Fort Ross Hotel. This advertisement self-consciously advertises modern amenities and industries. Heritage is relegated to a secondary interest—which would change dramatically over the following fifteen years. Source: “Lithograph of a flyer advertising the Fort Ross Hotel and its amenities at Fort Ross, California, September 1878,” Courtesy of Sonoma County Library, Sonoma County Advertising and Marketing Collection.

Figure 3.

An 1878 advertisement for the Fort Ross Hotel. This advertisement self-consciously advertises modern amenities and industries. Heritage is relegated to a secondary interest—which would change dramatically over the following fifteen years. Source: “Lithograph of a flyer advertising the Fort Ross Hotel and its amenities at Fort Ross, California, September 1878,” Courtesy of Sonoma County Library, Sonoma County Advertising and Marketing Collection.

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During her winter at Fort Ross, residents saw Atherton, dressed in black, wandering along rainy cliffs and through redwood forests. She sought material for her fiction. The literary market wanted ruins, and Atherton, hungry for success, was ready to fabricate and dig for them.44 One midnight, dreaming of “the romance of Fort Ross,” Atherton supposedly sneaked into the ranch’s old cemetery in search of “an officer in full uniform.”45 She put shovel to dirt and dug under the cover of darkness, upturning shin bones, shoe soles, some buttons, and the ire of George Call.46 Atherton left Metini-Ross in the spring. In 1892, she published The Doomswoman, a romance in which the climactic scene occurred at the fort. Thus began a hugely popular body of work that would forever tether Atherton to Fort Ross.

Atherton used her 1891 visit to Call Ranch to make herself into one of California’s leading mythmakers, and, building on the works of Hubert Howe Bancroft and Harte, she helped transform Fort Ross into a site of U.S. heritage.47 In a literary marketplace eager for a romanticized past, Atherton located histories ripe for reimagining and proved well positioned to popularize Fort Ross. Critics trumpeted her as a quintessentially California writer. In the words of one biographer, Atherton manufactured “a career out of being a Californian.”48 Her novella, The Doomswoman (1892), short story, Natalie Ivanhoff: A Memory of Fort Ross (1894), bestselling novel, Rezanov (1906), and journalism created a popular and lasting Fort Ross Story.49

Atherton wrote during a nationwide heritage craze that was especially pronounced in California. By the 1870s, barely twenty years after the California Gold Rush, the first generation of U.S. citizens born in California began coming of age. Members of this generation were unsure how to understand themselves as Californians and hoped that regional histories could create a sense of belonging in the recently conquered territory. This search for belonging encouraged an explosion of heritage organizations in California, none more important than the Native Sons of the Golden West (NSGW). Its formation marked the start of a new California heritage movement. On July 11, 1875, twenty-one members of the newly organized fraternity met in San Francisco to adopt a constitution. They aimed “to perpetuate in the minds of all native Californians the Memories of one of the most wonderful epochs in the world’s history, the Days of '49.”50 Members had to be “white males born in California on or after July 7, 1846,” the date John Fremont first raised the U.S. flag in California.51 The group rapidly expanded. By 1915, there were 20,000 members in California, and the fraternity had dozens of “parlors” (chapters) throughout the state.52

The NSGW was instrumental in the development of California state park offices and left a massive body of preservation work. This understudied group, according to journalist Carey McWilliams, “dominated state politics…until the mid-twenties.”53 Although today best remembered for its role in early-to-mid-twentieth-century anti-Asian immigration campaigns, the NSGW’s stated purpose was heritage work. In the words of an 1899 publication, white men formed the fraternity to “emphasize every ennobling endeavor which dignifies the present and idealizes the future.”54 As a 1956 fraternity publication succinctly put it, from its founding the organization’s primary concern was “the perpetuation of the romantic and patriotic past.”55 Its strategy was to create place-stories that rooted white men in the California past, legitimized their present, and propelled them into the future.

Organizations like the NSGW sought and produced narratives that marked landscapes with regional histories to assert California’s righteous and unique place in the United States. At their core, these stories were land-claiming mechanisms. As one member wrote, “Nothing so exalts human pride as the neverfading memories of home and the thousand associations that bind man to it.”56 Inventing heritage in California was a U.S. colonial project to create memories of a home that, just two decades before, was not home. Such memories depended upon narratives of Indigenous absence and white belonging.

In 1903, Atherton’s narrative vision of Fort Ross began to be physically constructed: what had been Call Ranch’s thriving business center became a “shrine” to history. In 1903, newspaper mogul Joseph Knowland, the NSGW’s leading preservationist, founded the California Historic Landmarks League. A year later the league purchased the two-and-a-half-acre fort complex from George Call for $3,000.57 Metini-Ross would be rebuilt and marketed through Atherton’s sensationalized lens. Before Atherton and other writers began publishing in 1892, Fort Ross was a minor historical curiosity. By 1903, it was the focus of one of California’s earliest preservation campaigns. As Knowland claimed, Atherton “immortalized” Russian California “in poetry and prose.”58 Meanwhile, Kashia people remained on their ancestral territory at nearby Haupt Ranch. Twentieth-century settlers used historical fiction to conceal Kashia sovereignty beneath sensationalized layers of colonial history.

Atherton’s Fort Ross was, before all else, a military fort set apart from Indigenous California. While historian Bancroft had written of the defensive aspects of Settlement Ross in 1885, Atherton sensationalized these descriptions with fantasies of danger and aristocracy.59 The walls, she insisted, bounded colonial space. Outside was uncolonized wilderness. For Atherton, this contrast was the seed of romance—Russian nobility tragically at odds with California’s uncolonized wilderness. She placed Fort Ross between “the sunless forest and the desolate ocean” and “miles away from even the primitive Spanish civilization.” The ocean’s “sterile crags and futile restlessness” imbued the landscape with death.60 The forest teemed with darkness and animals. To accentuate this danger, Atherton’s Fort Ross was heavily militarized. She focused on its “mounted cannons,” “iron-barred gates,” and walls always “paced by watchful sentries.”61 Within these walls were buildings “occupied by the governor and officers” where “all was luxury, nothing to suggest the privations of a new country.”62 This contrast of “old world” European luxury within the walls and a dangerous “new world” outside became a defining trope of the Fort Ross Story.

Atherton used fictional royal Russian women to further juxtapose civility and wilderness. In her writings, the coast’s harsh environment led to hysterical despair, exaggerated by the suicidal tendencies of Atherton’s female Russian characters and the cliffs they were “addicted to roving.”63 Desirous Indigenous and Spanish men scattered Atherton’s tales, including her recurring character “Prince Solano,” a caricatured Indigenous chief, who was "smitten with [the] blonde loveliness” of a Russian Princess and planned to “storm the Fort by night, spike with arrows all who resisted and…snatch the beautiful princess from the ruins and carry her off to his mountainlair [sic].”64 While Indigenous characters occasionally appeared in Atherton’s tales, she never placed them within the fort. In her stories, the walls supplied a clear but fragile contrast between an aristocratic European space and an uncolonized wilderness.

Journalists found this juxtaposition immensely appealing despite the fact that, by the time journalists began visiting the site in the 1890s, little of the settlement’s military stockade remained. In the 1830s, seventy-five feet of the stockade were blown over, and ranch-era photography (beginning in 1865) shows little of the original stockade standing.65 Two articles in the 1890s reported that nearly the entire stockade had been removed.66 Still, journalists typically began their descriptions of the historic settlement by describing “heavy fortified” “redwood” “twelve feet [tall]” walls. In an 1893 article, one journalist claimed that Fort Ross had been “the best garrisoned, best armed, and strongest fortress in California.”67 An 1898 article insisted, inaccurately, that the walls had seen “some hot fighting.”68 These stories of war-worn walls subsequently shaped preservation work. In 1917 the California legislature appropriated $1,500 to rebuild “the old entrance site and portions of the stockade.”69 In 1925, they unanimously passed another bill for $2,500 to “reconstruct the old stockade.”70 Further projects in 1929, 1954, and 1974 led to the complete reconstruction of the stockade.71

As mentioned earlier, while the stockade did serve a defensive purpose at Settlement Ross, the outpost was not designed as a military fortress, and a substantial amount of its operations occurred outside the walls. Yet “Fort” Ross evokes broader colonial myths of development and wilderness.72 This misreading is an error that Atherton’s narratives and reconstructed walls supported—writers and preservationists overemphasized the defensive aspects of Ross in their reconstruction and frequent interpretations of the historic site.73 Prioritizing the reconstruction of the stockade accentuated the imagined tension between colonial order and wilderness.

Atherton’s Fort Ross was designed for European nobility. She imagined a place of unusual luxury and tastes, consistently emphasizing what she framed as superior class and racial characteristics.74 The Russian women were “beautiful” with “faultless blondinity,” “blue-gray” eyes, and skin so white it was “transparent.”75 The men were enlightened leaders of “commanding stature” and the “highest breeding.”76 Within Fort Ross’s walls, they enjoyed an oasis of aristocratic whiteness, best embodied in the governor’s house and the orthodox chapel. Atherton described the governor’s house as an “abode of luxury” with “thick carpets,” tapestries, “books and pictures and handsome ornaments,” chairs “designed for comfort as well as elegance,” a “dining table,” and the “finest damask,” all of which “glittered with silver and crystal.” Meanwhile, “rich curtains [hid] the gloomy mountain and the long sweep of cliffs,” shutting out the wilderness. Atherton described the chapel as similarly ornate: “magnificent within; the pictures were in jeweled frames and the ornaments were of gold and silver.”77 Its belfry and cupola dominated the landscape. Both the chapel and the governor’s house depicted a European aristocratic tradition that allowed “the gay congenial band of exiles to forget that they were not…in the Old World.”78 For Atherton, Fort Ross was a European oasis in an uncivilized California.

This motif of European space shaped the reconstruction of Fort Ross. Soon after Atherton began publishing on Fort Ross, newspapers called for preserving the “fast decaying relics” of the “queer old Russian chapel.”79 The Calls, likely aware of these shifts, responded to the changing views of the past. In 1888, the chapel served Call Ranch as a hay barn and horse stable. In 1893, Atherton wrote that after seeing the “dilapidated” state of the chapel she felt “anger at the indifference of the owner [Call].”80 By 1898, the Calls had repaired the chapel’s cupola and belfry, rehung the door, and replaced the windows.81 Further, they turned the chapel into a hodge-podge museum with, according to an 1898 newspaper article, “benches, altars, and candlesticks…Russian swords, a twenty four pound cannon ball, grapeshot, and other historic relics.”82 In a decade, the Calls repurposed the old chapel into something they imagined to fit a Russian past.

Interest in the chapel only grew after the California Landmarks League bought the site in 1903 and preservationists began raising funds to restore the chapel. A 1911 article claimed the chapel was “one of the most historic landmarks in the county.”83 Elsewhere, fundraisers claimed that “the relic” was “one of the most important and unique in all American history.”84 Such calls led to significant preservation efforts. Five years after California’s 1906 earthquake toppled the Russian chapel, the NSGW organized a “church raising” effort, funded through local newspapers.85 The building was further restored in 1916–1917, when the state legislature committed $3,000 to rehabilitating the chapel and opening it to the public. By 1922, when Carlos Call (the son of George and Mercedes Call) hosted the NSGW’s Sebastopol and Santa Rosa parlors to paint the church and dine outside, the reconstructed chapel had become a venerated landmark.86 For several years, the Sebastopol chapter of the NSGW celebrated the fourth of July on the chapel grounds, and in 1925 they invited members of a San Francisco Russian Orthodox church to their celebration. Following this, when Russian American communities began regularly visiting the chapel, years of mythologizing had already ensured its preservation.87

Today, as in 1903, the chapel is Fort Ross’s most iconic site. Why has it sustained so much interest? Preservationists stressed that Fort Ross was, in Atherton’s words, “unlike anything in modern California.”88 The Fort Ross chapel told a distinctly different story of California than the state’s Franciscan mission chapels. Heritage workers have long used Franciscan missions to symbolize Christian colonization and developmental histories of California. Unlike Fort Ross, heritage workers portrayed Franciscan missions as racially heterogeneous spaces that expanded into Indigenous landscapes. As anthropologist Elizabeth Kryder-Reid has argued, reconstructed missions included California Indians in their narratives as historical props for a Spanish fantasy past that posited a developmental narrative in which Spanish and Mexican colonization was a stepping stone towards U.S. rule.89 Fort Ross and its chapel, on the other hand, were not considered symbols of expanding European culture, but as symbols of isolated European culture, kept apart from California’s development and insulated within the military walls. If Spanish missions existed in a developmental teleology concluding in U.S. colonization, then Fort Ross’s chapel ignored Native Americans, failed to contribute to developmental timelines, and instead echoed Atherton’s fantasy of the turn-of-the-century United States—a cultured white space separate from Indigenous pasts and presents.

The Fort Ross Story did not restrict itself to the secular, scientific conventions of the emerging discipline of history. Writers blurred temporal borders with stories of ghosts and landscapes, delving into the deep past and distant future. These stories did not make truth claims, but emphasized hearsay and the emotional resonance of Fort Ross in twentieth-century California. At the heart of these myths was a tension between a mythically tragic Russian colony and the destined expansion of the U.S. empire. Heritage workers fabricated a “replacement narrative” that suggested Russian colonists were exotic casualties in the long colonial march to modern California. Examining the discursive construction of Fort Ross’s landscape and cemetery reveals how writers presented the site as an incomplete Russian project bequeathed to the United States. The Fort Ross Story addressed contemporary anxieties of living in a young U.S. state founded upon stolen land.

Fundamentally, the Fort Ross Story was about colonial permanence. In Atherton’s novel Rezanov, a retelling of Bret Harte and Hubert Howe Bancroft’s stories of Concepcion de Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov, Atherton played on the juxtaposition of whiteness and wilderness to emphasize the promise of colonialism. Atherton’s aristocratic Russian hero, Rezanov, visited the Spanish presidio of San Francisco in 1806. There, he fell in love with the young Spanish-Californian beauty Concepcion. Courting her, he claimed "I wish I had a sculptor in my suite. I should make him model you, [and] label the statue ‘California’.” Concepcion, an embodiment of Spanish California, contained an “unawakened inner life” that Rezanov’s cultured Europeanness unleashed—Rezanov made Concepcion’s “individuality, long budding, burst into flower.” Concepcion’s improvement, in turn, strengthened European Rezanov, helping rid him of the unmasculine trappings of European civility. In her presence, he “throbbed…with a pagan joy…the keen wild happiness of youth.” She “excited the elemental truth in him” and he “[dreamed] as he had dreamed in a youth.”90 Their gendered developments fed off one another; Rezanov, the colonizer, became virile and full, and Concepcion, colonized California, became conscious and beautiful.91

This symbiotic relationship between Concepcion and Rezanov represented a gendered image of colonial belonging. As editor William Marion Reedy wrote in the book’s introduction, Rezanov’s “old world grace…is made native there by this bright, deep, fond girl.”92 It was “made native” through a process of gendered improvement—to become fully realized, feminine California needed the male colonizer, and the male colonizer needed feminine California. In other words, Atherton’s novel suggested California only became California with colonists.93

This gendered argument for colonial belonging mirrored a new myth at the Fort Ross orchard. During the Russian-era, RAC employees planted crops from around the Pacific in a small orchard outside the settlement. After the RAC departed, Benitz added an expansive second orchard, but by the mid-1890s, the Russian-era plot had fallen into disrepair, and its approximately two hundred surviving trees were unpruned and unkempt.94 By most accounts, the orchard’s “gnarled trees” produced fruit that was small, bitter, and “very inferior as far as quality is concerned.”95 However, in the late 1890s, with Fort Ross’s rising profile, the orchard began to attract attention. An 1897 newspaper article on California apple production noted that the orchard was “still in bearing” and that the infamous apple pest, the Codlin Moth, “never made its appearance there.”96 A tale of fertility grew. A 1904 newspaper article celebrated that the “famous old apple orchard…yielded a large crop of apples this season.”97 In 1908, two papers claimed the “ancient trees…planted by the Russians 145 years ago…always bear a crop of the very best apples grown anywhere.”98 In what was becoming a yearly ritual, papers in 1915 eagerly exclaimed the trees “still bear.”99 By 1920, a legend had taken root. Supposedly, when first planted, “the trees were blessed and an inhibition pronounced that they should never die, neither should the crop of apples fail at harvest time.”100 A myth of “eternal life” was reiterated throughout the 1920s (fig. 4).101

Figure 4.

A miniature Fort Ross chapel made of apples at the 1939 Gravenstein Apple Show. Courtesy of Western Sonoma County Historical Society.

Figure 4.

A miniature Fort Ross chapel made of apples at the 1939 Gravenstein Apple Show. Courtesy of Western Sonoma County Historical Society.

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To settlers, the undying Russian orchard represented colonial permanence.102 The orchard’s productivity wove it into a familiar colonial narrative that Atherton expressed through Concepcion—California's landscape was bountiful, but wild, and needed male colonizers to harness its potential. Once harnessed, the landscape was forever improved and unable to return to its prior disorder. Still, the orchard’s success was underwritten with Russian tragedy. These articles emphasized that while the garden survived, the Russians were gone. Why stress tragedy? One reason is that the intrigue of Russian nobility perishing in a remote North American outpost situated the United States in a long and fraught colonial endeavor. Fort Ross was a colonial project that Russians began but the United States completed. As such, their successes and losses were shared. White U.S. citizens could claim this story—and land—as their own, enabling what O’Brien terms a “replacement narrative” at Metini-Ross, one that promised new settlers both the future and the past, both comforting permanence and tantalizing tragedy. The orchard helped settlers tell stories that overlooked Indigenous sovereignty, and positioned Euro-Americans as righteous inheritors of Metini-Ross’s colonial past.103

If the orchard reflected how journalists considered Fort Ross a permanently colonized space, Atherton’s use of the dead furthered this project. As scholars Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush have observed, ghosts can provide “a spectral genealogy linking settlers to new places.”104 Ghosts appeared in Atherton’s first two stories about Fort Ross. In her 1893 article, Atherton wrote of the first U.S. settlers at Fort Ross, a young couple struggling to work the land. With growing debts, the couple’s outlook at Fort Ross was bleak until they were visited by a Russian ghost. “One night he and his wife suddenly and simultaneously awoke to behold a tall, gray, venerable Russian looming out of the dark. ‘Plant potatoes!’ cried the apparition in a loud voice. ‘Plant potatoes!’ and he vanished.”105 The couple made a fortune from potatoes. Atherton’s Russian ghost wanted the U.S. settlers to succeed and offered intimate knowledge of the land. The ghost in Atherton’s article provided U.S. colonists a supportive ancestor.

Haunting became an essential feature of the Fort Ross Story. In an 1893 profile of Fort Ross, one journalist claimed “there is even a ‘haunted chamber,’ where the ghosts walk at night.”106 Atherton wrote in 1893 that Fort Ross was “encouragement for the Occultists.” She claimed Fort Ross “was said to be haunted by several generations of ghosts,” including “apparitions of red-headed dwarfs,” and a dead lover who “in the moonlight, [would] let down her hair (golden) and moan loud and long.”107 Laura Call, born at Fort Ross in 1877, was afraid of nearby mines as a small child, as “I feared I might meet something very eerie, not of this world. I was sure there was a ghost or a witch or something of that sort there…I looked fearfully but kept tight hold of the posts on the porch so that if a witch came, it would have to take the whole house if it took me.” For Call, it was only after her fascination with “fairies and ghosts” that she learned of “the heretofore unreal existence of the ‘Russians’” and “that Fort Ross had a history.”108 Ghosts were a medium for engaging a Russian past in the U.S. present.

Ghosts were also a vehicle to erase Kashia and Miwok peoples from the past and present. Unlike many colonial ghost stories, Fort Ross stories lacked Indigenous ghosts. Haunting saturated Fort Ross with whiteness and implied the United States inherited an incomplete, but permanently white, colonial space from a failed Russian past. Haunting merged an imagined Russian past with a U.S. present to position Fort Ross as a singular colonial endeavor. This was a sleight of hand that sacrificed the triumphantly linear narratives of Spanish and Mexican Christianization to create a space temporally saturated with whiteness.

Haunting provided a connection to Russian history that allowed settlers to feel they belonged. In 1893, a journalist longingly claimed that at Fort Ross “all the people have stories to tell of the ancient days.” At Fort Ross, history marked the people, as “even the smallest toddler…will pick up one of the rusty hand-wrought spikes of curious shapes that are part of the soil in places, and tell you that ‘the ‘Ooshians [Russians] made that’.”109 This article suggested a “venerable” heritage at the site continued to manifest in a localized identity. As Laura Call wrote, after learning about Fort Ross’s history, “never again did I feel unimportant. How triumphant I felt. What a wonderful height I suddenly possessed.”110 She used Russian history, and imagined versions thereof, to feel exceptionally and uniquely at home.

Yet tragedy permeated the Fort Ross Story. Atherton repeatedly wrote of the Russian disappearance as a tragedy, perhaps most ominously illustrated in her concern with the Fort Ross cemetery. As she described it in 1893, “on a lonely knoll between the forest and the gray ponderous ocean, flanked on either side by wild beautiful gulches, are fifty or more graves of dead and gone Russians, with not a line to preserve the ego, once so mighty.”111 In The Doomswoman, Atherton placed the graveyard “on a knoll so bare and black and isolated that its destiny was surely taken into account at creation…The forest seemed blacker just behind it, the shadows thicker in the gorges that embraced it, the ocean grayer and more illimitable before it.” Referencing a fictional exiled princess, Atherton wrote, “Natalie Ivanhoff is there in her copper coffin, forgotten already.”112 The cemetery became a device to consider Russian tragedy (figs. 5 and 6).

Figure 5.

View of Fort Ross Cemetery in the early 1900s, presumably following the 1906 earthquake. Call Ranch and the fallen Russian chapel are visible in the background. Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library Photo Collection.

Figure 5.

View of Fort Ross Cemetery in the early 1900s, presumably following the 1906 earthquake. Call Ranch and the fallen Russian chapel are visible in the background. Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library Photo Collection.

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Figure 6.

View of the reconstructed fort complex from the cemetery. Source: Photo taken by author, 2019.

Figure 6.

View of the reconstructed fort complex from the cemetery. Source: Photo taken by author, 2019.

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Why did Atherton emphasize melancholic failure? And, to return to an earlier anecdote, why might Atherton rob a Russian grave? As scholars have shown, settlers have long used Indigenous burial sites to convince themselves of Indigenous peoples’ disappearance.113 Extinction myths allow settlers to claim a local identity that otherwise belongs to Indigenous people. But the Fort Ross Story added a unique angle to the extinction myth. Atherton framed the cemetery—where in actuality Russian, Alaska Native, Sakha, and potentially Pomo and Miwok people were buried—as thoroughly Russian.114 She mourned Russian disappearance, and by doing so portrayed the site’s Indigenous pasts and presents as so distant that they were unspeakable. To many settlers, the “ancient” people at this site were not Indigenous, but Russian. At Metini-Ross, writers hid forced removal beneath absent Russianness.

Eventually, the Fort Ross Story dominated the settler imaginary at Metini-Ross. Tragedy and romance became the primary emotions associated with the site. As Laura Call mourned in her old age, remembering her late nineteenth-century childhood at Fort Ross: “where did it all go, that romantic glamor, the wonderful sunsets from Sunset rock, the limitless sea whence the Russians had vanished?” Fort Ross, she wrote, was “never gone from my dreams and memories.”115 She ended her memoir with a melancholic poem she composed as a young woman in 1899. In it, she dreamed of the past, describing the landscape and the dead Russians beneath it:

…and pass the gulch, upon the steep
Where Russian warriors now sleep
a tall shaft doth its vigil keep
  At old Fort Ross
The watch towers crumbling with decay
Lean where their builders sailed away
With low-bowed head they seem to pray
  o’er soulfelt loss…
Symbolic of our hopes and fears
Of joys and sorrows, smiles and tears
The never ending lapse of years
  The wild waves toss
Wherever I may chance to roam
In crowded street, by ocean’s foam
My heart will still remember home
  and old Fort Ross…116

At Fort Ross, some two decades of physical and discursive construction dressed a Kashia and Miwok place as a settler home.

The year 2012 marked the bicentennial of Russian Fort Ross. In celebration, a private charitable organization, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, hosted the Fort Ross Bicentennial Gala at San Francisco’s City Hall. Considering the relative obscurity of Colony Ross within most U.S. histories, this was a strangely glamorous night. American and Russian gas, tech, and oil leaders rubbed shoulders, purchasing seats for $2,500. Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg, chairing the event, sat beside U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein.117 Perhaps most notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent statements to be read. These messages provided a window into the intrigue of Colony Ross for Russian and U.S. elites. Putin insisted that “the creation of the first Russian settlements on the coast of Northern California not only opened a direct route for development of the vast territories” but should “become a symbol of spiritual ties, friendship and trust between our two countries and peoples." He celebrated Fort Ross as “a milestone in our common history.”118 Earlier that year, Putin released a joint statement with U.S. President Barack Obama that celebrated the bicentennial. They claimed that Fort Ross “underscores the historic ties between our countries.”119

Which historic ties were they talking about? It seems that Obama and Putin were celebrating the fact that the United States and Russia colonized the same tract of Kashia land and, as Putin articulated, “opened a direct route for development of the vast territories.” This narrative shows how alive the Fort Ross Story remains. American preservationists reconstructed Fort Ross alongside a prolonged effort to claim California for white settlers. The site passed through many colonists’ hands before the California Historical Landmarks League purchased it, seeking to create romantic histories that connected them to the land. Today, the project of making California a settler space is ongoing and contested.

The Kashia have more than survived. Following their forced departure from Metini-Ross in the early 1870s, Haupt Ranch proved a center of Kashia life for the subsequent five decades. By 1914, leaders began requesting federal agents for a Kashia Rancheria, and throughout negotiations, under the guidance of spiritual leader Anne Jarvis, the Kashia insisted they remain on their ancestral territory.120 They soon acquired the forty-acre Stewarts Point Rancheria. Since then, Stewarts Point has served as a home to generations of Indigenous leaders, including Jarvis, Essie Parish, Annie Maruffo, and Richard Oakes. It has remained a dynamic site of culture, local land struggles, and broad decolonial action.121 Elder Herman James, when telling a Berkeley anthropologist in 1958 about the founding of Stewarts Point Rancheria, concluded his story by stating “we live on. Our mothers and mothers’ mothers instruct us…Today the Indians are still living there.”122

To this day the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians remain on their ancestral territory. In 2015, the band bought 700 acres of coastal land near its rancheria, officially reclaiming a sacred site. As Kashia chairman Reno Franklin wrote, “When we danced on that property for the first time, it was probably the most powerful moment that our tribe has experienced in the last 100 years—to have the sound of our clappers and our whistles, and hear the wind through the feathers of our dancers…That was the moment when the land was ours.”123 This resurgence has reached Fort Ross State Historic Park, where the Kashia have become influential partners, asserting their own understandings of what the place means. The band constructed a dance circle outside the stockade, hosts “Metini Day,” and is involved with numerous interpretive events and academic studies at the site. Since 2012, the Kashia and Coast Miwok dance group, the Su Nu Nu Shinal, have not only toured Russia but also brought their songs and dances back to Metini.124

The Kashia are not the only Indigenous peoples reshaping the site. In 2014, Unanga○ scholar and activist Lauren Peters helped organize Alaska Native Day at Metini-Ross. This annual grassroots-funded event celebrates Alaska Native communities and histories, while also illuminating the horrors of Russian and U.S. colonialism in Siberia, Alaska, and California. In 2015, attendees met Kashia tribal members on the beach outside Metini, requesting permission to enter Kashia land. Tribal Chairman Franklin invited them and, as Peters wrote, “Then we, Kashia and Alaskan, went up to the sea bluff and danced together for the first time in 200 years.”125 Past attendees to Alaska Native Day have included Unanga○, Supiaq, Dena’ina Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, Inupiaq, Yupik, Eyak, Tsimshian, and Sakha tribal members.126 In recent years, Tlingit cemetery caretaker Bob Sam has led ceremony and prayer blessings for Alaska Native ancestors buried in the Metini-Ross cemetery. The efforts of Peters, Sam, Franklin, and others to reclaim Metini-Ross have highlighted the possibilities of revisiting this historic site and made clear that turn-of-the-century heritage work failed to sever Indigenous relationships with the site.

The effects of the Fort Ross Story have been particularly stark for the Coast Miwok. With the California Rancheria Termination Act of 1958, Graton Rancheria, home of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples, was among the forty-one California Rancherias that the U.S. government terminated.127 It was not until the year 2000 that the federal government recognized the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok as a people, when years of organizing, led by Miwok-Pomo writer, scholar, and tribal chairman Greg Sarris, finally resulted in the establishment of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (a federation of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo groups).128 Recognition has provided access to a host of political rights essential to practicing tribal sovereignty.

Poet Deborah A. Miranda writes that “California is a story. California is many stories. As [Laguna Pueblo writer] Leslie Silko tells us, don’t be fooled by stories!”129 Stories have material consequences. Stories organize us. Stories tell us who belongs. At Metini-Ross, colonists made the Fort Ross Story in part to naturalize and conceal the dispossession at the heart of the California Genocide. They physically constructed their story on the Kashia homeland. But for all its influence, the Fort Ross Story has failed to extinguish Indigenous stories or territories. Recently, Pomo, Miwok, and Alaska Native communities have led efforts to reclaim their land and destabilize tales created by colonizers at the turn of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. These efforts, which began the moment colonists set foot on Metini, are expanding. Fort Ross State Historic Park will surely continue to be a key venue in broader decolonial struggles in California. Recognizing who reconstructed the park helps explain the mechanisms used to occupy Indigenous land, both in the past and present, and historicizes the uneven access and power relations that mark California parks and historic sites today.

The author wishes to thank Coll Thrush, who supervised this research, generously provided feedback, and mentorship both within and beyond the academy. The author wishes to thank their fellow academic workers across the UC system. In solidarity.


For a history of the Russian period at Metini-Ross, see Kent Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).


The visitor center and entrance to the reconstructed complex, which requires payment for entrance, received more than 31,000 visitors in 2018. Fort Ross State Historic Park: Visitor Center Interpretation Project Plan (California: California State Parks, 2014), 31; Sonoma County Economic Development Board: Visitor Report, 2018 (California: Sonoma County EDB, 2018), 23.


The first three decades of U.S. conquest were distinguished by organized vigilante, militia, and military campaigns that sought to eradicate Indigenous Californians. Although California Indians resisted and survived, U.S.-era settlers—with the support of state and federal institutions—intentionally eliminated 90 percent of the California Indian population in just thirty years. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 18461873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).


As scholar Audra Simpson writes of the Mohawks of Kahnawà: ke, colonialism “fails at what it is supposed to do: eliminate Indigenous people; take all their land; absorb them into a white, property-owning body politic.” Colonialism is incomplete. Settler heritage emerges from this incompleteness. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 7.


For literature on the Spanish Fantasy Past, see Carey McWilliams, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1946); Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Oakland: University of California Press, 2008); William F. Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004); Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, California Mission Landscapes: Race, Memory, and the Politics of Heritage (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).


Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 41.


This myth imagined that California Indians were overtaken by pre-modern Spaniards who gave way to rugged Anglo-American pioneers of what became a U.S. state.


For recent works examining the intersections of U.S. empire, mythmaking, and heritage work, see: Deborah A. Miranda, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Berkeley, Cal.: Heyday Books, 2013); Lisa Blee and Jean M. O’Brien, Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Boyd Cothran, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Cynthia Culver Prescott, Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019); Andrew Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest over Southern Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).


Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).


For histories of the Russian colony from Pomo and Miwok perspectives, see: Tsim D. Schneider, The Archaeology of Refuge and Recourse: Coast Miwok Resilience and Indigenous Hinterlands in Colonial California (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2022), 111–50; Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, We Are the Land: A History of Native California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022), 98–102.


Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants, 116.


E. Breck Parkman, “Fort and Settlement: Interpreting the Past at Fort Ross State Park,” California History 75, no. 4 (Winter, 1996): 354–69.


Schneider, Refuge and Recourse, 118, 119; Anne Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 18001860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 176.


Ivan Kuskov, A list of Russians, Kodiakers, and Others, Male and Female, at the Settlement and Fort of Ross, June 1820–September 1821, in Russian California, 18061860: A History in Documents, ed. James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2014) 1:428.


David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 164.


Kupreyanov, A Directive from Governor Kupreyanov to Manager Rotchev about an Agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company, January 16, 1840, in Russian California, 2:494; Etholen, A Report from Governor Etholen to Manager Kostromitinov of New Archangel about the Sale of Ross Counter to John Sutter, October 18, 1841, in Russian California, 2:537.


For works examining the ranch period, see Lyn Kalani, Lynn Rudy, and John Sperry, eds., Fort Ross (Jenner, Cal.: Fort Ross Interpretive Association, 1998); Kent Lightfoot, Thomas A. Wake, and Ann M. Schiff, The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Fort Ross, California (Berkeley: Archaeological Research Facility, University of California Berkeley, 1991); Sarah Gonzalez and Kent Lightfoot, Metini Village: An Archaeological Study of Sustained Colonialism in Northern California (Berkeley, Cal.: Escholarship, 2018).


G.M. Waseurtz af Sandels, A Sojourn in California by the King's Orphan (San Francisco: Grabhorn Press in arrangement with the Society of California Pioneers, 1945), 82.


These financial arrangments resulted in lengthy legal disputes. Initially appointed the overseer by John Sutter, William Benitz began leasing the land in 1845, only to have the Mexican government overturn Sutter’s deed and grant the land to Manuel Torres that same year. While Benitz continued to lease the land, it was not until 1849 that he officially purchased Muniz Ranchero for himself, and even after this, following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, his ownership was disputed in court until 1859. Lightfoot, Wake, and Schiff, Archaeology and Ethnohistory, 121.


“Presidio Ross, January the 8th, 1848, Liste of Indians at present time,” Vallejo Papers, Vol. 12, no. 326, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, Cal.; William Benitz to Anthony Benitz, May 6, 1852, Translated from original German, letter no. x–3, Benitz Family Letters, 1852–1863, Bancroft Library.


Kashia band chairman Reno Franklin has observed that their resistance saved the Kashia and is “a reminder of why we are still here.” It was likely two of the following four leaders who held off the raiders: Chief Tojon, Chief Noportegi, Chief Kolo-biscau, and Chief Cojoto. Reno Franklin quoted in Gonzalez and Lightfoot, Metini Village, xv.


Benitz, a German Catholic, claimed to fear for his own life when later testifying about property damages. William Benitz to Timothy Murphy, August 6, 1845, C-A 39 Tomo V, pp. 384–95, Bancroft Library. For court documents, see: “processo contra Atonio Castro y socios acusados de haber extraido a mano armada una porcion Indios Gentiles, 1845,” C-A 39 Tomo V, pages 384–95, Bancroft Library.


For a detailed account of this estimate see: Madley, American Genocide, 115–44.


California Legislature, 1850, “an act for the governance and protection of Indians,” in The Statues of California Passed at the First Session of the Legislature: Begun the 15th Day of Dec. 1849 And Ended the 22nd Day of April, 1850, at the City of Pueblo De San Jose, chapter 133, no. 2, 3, 6, 14, 16, 20. 408–10.


“Hanging of Indians,” Daily Alta California, September 19, 1857.


Brackets from the text. Herman James, “Tales of Fort Ross,” in Robert Oswalt, ed., Kashaya Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 278; Herman James, “A Lynching,” in Oswalt, ed., Kashaya Texts, 281.


Further, while the 1850 census marked 897 “improved” acres, versus 243,766 “unimproved”, by 1860 this changed dramatically, to 198,768 “improved” and 80,453 “unimproved.” J.D.B. Debow, 1850: The Seventh Census of the United States, California (Washington, D.C.: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853), 969; Joseph C.G. Kennedy, “Classified Population of the States and Territories, by Counties, on the First Day of June, 1860,” in Population of the United States in 1860: Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 28.


A Kashia dance house was built here in 1857—perhaps the first openly constructed in the colonial period. Gonzalez and Lightfoot, Metini Village, 140.


1859, Book of Deeds “9”, pages 431–32. Sonoma County Recorder’s Office, Santa Rosa, Cal. For a pdf, see: “Rancho de Muniz,” Sept. 14, 2020, (accessed July 20, 2022).


Gonzalez and Lightfoot, Metini Village, 18; F. Kaye Tomlin, “The Ranch Era,” working paper (May 17, 1991), 8.


J.H. McNabb & Samuel Cassiday, “Jottings by the Wayside,” The Petaluma Argus, July 30, 1861.


One Kashia oral history recalls requiring paper documentation of employment at Metini-Ross when traveling outside the ranch. Herman James, “When the End of the World was Forecasted,” in Kashia Texts, 283.


Gonzalez and Lightfoot, Metini Village, 103. While James Dixon lived at Fort Ross, the Fairfaxes lived at a Marin County estate until Charles died. After this, Ada moved to Fort Ross with her mother and niece and lived in Benitz’s old quarters. F. Kaye Tomlin, “Some Notes on Ada Benham Fairfax,” in Fort Ross Interpretive Association Newsletter, July–August, 1988.


“Letter from Duncan’s Mill,” Sonoma Democrat, February 22, 1873; “Duncan’s Mill,” Sonoma Democrat, March 22, 1873. This large-scale timber operation required significant infrastructure in roads, chutes, and worker housing. “Fort Ross,” Sonoma Democrat, September 6, 1873.


Mary Kennedy, “Culture, Contact and Acculturation of the Southwestern Pomo” (PhD Diss, University of California, Berkeley, 1955), 83.


Lightfoot, Wake, and Schiff, Archaeology and Ethnohistory, 122; E.W. Gifford, Ethnographic Notes on the Southwestern Pomo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 1.


May 31, 1873. Sonoma Democrat, “Sale of Fort Ross Ranch,” p. 5. Dixon sold this fraction of the property and its stock for $45,000.


F. Kaye Tomlin, “The Call Family,” in Laura Call, My Life at Fort Ross (Jenner, Cal.: Fort Ross Interpretive Association, 1987), 29.


Tomlin, “The Ranch Era,” 7–8. They converted the chapel, barns, sheds, and shops to support their various enterprises. Just outside the stockade, they built a store, post office, telegraph office, and school.


Schneider, Refuge and Recourse, 84. As Schneider has suggested, when we look “beyond the bounds of California’s colonies” we can see “persistent places of power, memory, protection, and recourse for Native people.”


The Argonaut, January 21, 1889. Hermia Suydam positioned Gertrude Atherton near the most radical end of “New Woman” writers: authors whose female characters’ sexual and social independence challenged nineteenth-century gender norms. Carolyn Forrey, “Gertrude Atherton and the New Woman,” California Historical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (Fall, 1976): 194–209.


Emily Wortis Leider, California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1991), 105. For more on Bret Harte, see Gary Scharnhorst, Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 39.


Gertude Atherton, Adventures of a Novelist (Oxford: Alden Press, 1932), 185. It is also likely that Atherton’s interest in Fort Ross stemmed partially from father-in-law, Faxon Dean Atherton, who visited Russian Fort Ross in 1838. Faxon Dean Atherton, The California Diary of Faxon Dean Atherton, edited by Doyce B. Nunis Jr. (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1964), Chapter X, “To Fort Ross.”


Call, My Life at Fort Ross, 20; Leider, California’s Daughter, 128.


Gertrude Atherton, “The Romance of Fort Ross,” California Illustrated Magazine 5, no.1 (December 1893): 57–62; Charles Greene, “Fort Ross and the Russians” The Overland Monthly 22, no. 127 (July, 1893), 14.


Greene, “Fort Ross,” 14. While some have disputed if Atherton actually dug up a body, archaeologists recently discovered a disturbed grave with “some bone fragments, some buttons and a religious medal.” This could be the grave Atherton purportedly robbed. Lynne Goldstein, “Decisions and Adaptations on the Frontier: The Russian Cemetery at Fort Ross, Northern California,” AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology, special volume 3 (2018): 47.


Harte’s 1872 poem, “Concepcion de Argüello,” was the first piece of fiction about Russians in California, though it focused on Spanish colonists. In 1885 Hubert Howe Bancroft discussed Russian America at length in his second volume of The History of California. Bancroft’s work contrasted Russian and Spanish colonialism with one another, a contrast later taken up by Atherton. Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XIX, History of California, Volume Two, 18011824 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1886) 53–83, 628–653; Harte, “Concepción de Argüello,” The Atlantic Monthly, volume xxix (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872), 603.


Leider, California’s Daughter, 6.


Gertrude Atherton, “The Doomswoman,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (September, 1892): 263–65; Gertrude Atheron, “Natalie Ivanhoff: A Memory of Fort Ross,” in Before the Gringo Came (New York: J. Selwin Tait & Sons, 1894), 263–78; Gertrude Atherton, Rezanov (New York: The Authors and Newspapers Association, 1906); Atherton, “Romance.” The Doomswoman was republished in 1893 with alterations, most significantly in the concluding events at Fort Ross. Atherton added a reference to Natalie Ivanhoff and the cemetery. This article refers to the 1893 edition. See, Atherton, The Doomswoman, (New York: Tait, Sons, & Company, 1893).


Peter Conmy, The Origins and Purposes of the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West (San Francisco, California: Dolores Press, 1956), 7.


Conmy, Origins and Purposes, 9.


Brenda Denise Frink, “Pioneers and Patriots: Race, Gender, and Historical Memory in California, 1875–1915” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University, 2010), 23.


McWilliams, Southern California Country, 176.


J.J. Owen, California, the Empire Beautiful: Her Great Bays, Harbors, Mines, Orchards, and Vineyards, Olive, Lemon and Orange Groves, Her Men and Women, a Prophecy of the Coming Race (San Francisco: Pacific Press Publishing Company, 1899), introduction.


Conmy, Origins and Purposes, 9.


Frank L. Coombs, “Our Heritage,” in California, the Empire Beautiful, 23.


Joseph Knowland raised the funds in conjunction with newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. The league quickly (in 1906) deeded the site to the Sutter’s Fort Board of Commissions, the predecessor to California’s State Parks Commission. Additional purchases in 1962, 1976, and 1990 expanded the park to its present size of nearly 4,000 acres. Kalani, Rudy, and Sperry, eds., Fort Ross, 50.


Joseph Knowland, California, A Landmark History (Oakland: Oakland Tribune Press, 1941), 101. Quote is from Knowland’s first sentence on “Fort Ross and the Russians,” referencing Atherton’s writings about Nikolai Rezanov.


Bancroft, History of California, 2: 628–53


Atherton, “Ivanhoff,” 277, 268.


These descriptions of the walls seem to have come from Bancroft, though greatly heightened. Bancroft, History of California, 2: 630.


Atherton, Doomswoman, 244.


Atherton, “Ivanhoff,” 268.


In one of Atherton’s stories, the Russian colonists left California in response to an imagined kidnapping plot. Atherton, “Romance,” 60. Solano’s name is borrowed from the actual Suisune leader Sam Yeto, also known as Chief Solano. Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families, 171.


Kalani, Rudy, and Sperry, Fort Ross, 30.


“An Historic Spot,” Healdsburg Tribune, September 1, 1898; Greene, “Fort Ross,” 18.


Greene, “Fort Ross,” 2. Greene also claims the fort had “two to four hundred men…all more or less trained as soldiers,” and that a “three inch cannon ball…was cut out from the inner wall of one of the bastions.”


“An Historic Spot,” Healdsburg Tribune, September 1, 1898.


“Legislative News,” Colusa Herald, April 24, 1917.


“Plans Rebuild Old Fort Ross,” Madera Tribune, January 28, 1925.


Kalani, Rudy, and Sperry, Fort Ross, 31.


Dwayne Donald, “Forts, Colonial Frontier Logics, and Aboriginal-Canadian Relations: Imagining Decolonizing Educational Philosophies in Canadian Contexts” in Decolonizing Philosophies in Education, ed. Ali A. Abdi (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012), 95.


Parkman, “Fort and Settlement,” 354–69.


This fascination with high culture seems to be drawn from Bancroft’s descriptions of the last governor of Fort Ross,


Atherton, “Ivanhoff,” 269.


Atherton, Rezanov, 9.


Atherton, “Romance,” 58.


Atherton, “Ivanhoff,” 267.


“Preserve the Fort,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa), April 29, 1903; Laura Powers, “Landmarks League Appeals to Californians to Lend a Hand,” San Francisco Call, April 15, 1904.


Atherton, “Romance,” 58.


Diane Spencer-Hancock and William Pritchard, “The Chapel at Fort Ross: Its History and Reconstruction” in California History, The Magazine of the California Historical Society (Spring, 1982).


“An Historic Spot,” Healdsburg Tribune, September 1, 1898.


“Help Needed to Save Old Fort Ross Chapel,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa), October 5, 1911.


“Bought Fort Ross,” Press Democrat, July 28, 1903.


“Another Boost for Old Chapel,” Press Democrat, October 6, 1911.


“Natives Visit Old Fort Ross,” Press Democrat, October 24, 1922.


For more on Russian émigré communities and Fort Ross, see Nina Bogdan, “Between Dreams and Reality: The Russian Diaspora in San Francisco, 1917–1957” (Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 2021), 354–439.


Atherton, “Romance,” 58.


Kryder-Reid, California Mission Landscapes, 133.


Atherton, Rezanov, 91, 95, 14.


For a history of Concepción Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov, see Maria Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 182080 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2009), chapter 3.


William Marion Reedy in Atherton, Rezanov, iv.


The Concepción-Rezanov myth fit within an emerging narrative that used stories of interethnic marriage to suggest that Spanish colonists desired conquest. As historian Maria Raquél Casas has shown, tales of Anglo men marrying Spanish “daughters of the land” became “false symbols of peaceful invasion and control by the United States.” For more on romance and colonial belonging, see Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land.


George Call claimed the trees were “very old and mossy, and are not very thrifty.” George Call, “Very Old Trees in a California Orchard, 1899,” The Pacific Bee, May 10, 1899. For histories of the orchard, see Lynda S. Stainbrook, Fort Ross Orchards: Historical Survey, Present Conditions, and Restoration Recommendations (California: Department of Parks and Recreation, Interpretive Planning Unit, June, 1979); Orchard Management Plan: Fort Ross Historic State Park (Sonoma County, Cal.: National Park Service, April, 2015), 40–77.


E.O. Bremner, “Apple Culture in Sonoma County,” Pacific Rural Press (San Francisco) July 4, 1914.


“Apples on the Coast of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties,” Pacific Rural Press, March 27, 1897.


“Visitors from Fort Ross,” Press Democrat, November 16, 1904.


“Ancient Fruit Trees,” Healdsburg Tribune, September 17, 1908; “Tree Bears Fruit at 145 Years Old,” Press Democrat, September 11, 1908.


“Apple and Cherry Trees 103 Years Old, Still Bear,” Geyserville Gazette, June 18, 1915.


“Trees 108 Years Old Still Bear,” Press Democrat, May 7, 1920.


“Fort Ross Apple Orchard, Planted by Russians 110 Years Ago, Is to Bear Again,” Press Democrat, June 17, 1922; “Trees Planted in 1812 Still Bear Apples,” Healdsburg Enterprise, May 21, 1925.


This is a trope in colonial preservation. In her analysis of gardens in California missions, Elizabeth Kryder-Reid argued that preservationists’ transformation of “mission landscapes into ornamental gardens…materialized settler colonial narratives and helped to naturalize the complex discourses of race and power.” Kryder-Reid, California Mission Landscapes, 72.


O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting. As Genevieve Carpio has shown in her analysis of mythmaking in California's “citrus belt,” seemingly benign stories about “flavor” can function as celebrations of colonization and capitalist agriculture. See Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads, 44.


Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush, “Introduction: Bringing Ghosts to Ground,” in Phantom Pasts, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History, eds. Colleen E. Boyd and Coll Thrush. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).


Atherton, “Romance,” 61.


Greene, “Fort Ross,” 1.


Atherton, “Romance,” 62.


Call, My Life, 8.


Greene, Fort Ross, 1.


Call, My Life, 19.


Atherton, “Romance,” 58.


Atherton, Doomswoman, 251.


O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting, xii. For a further examination of how settlers use graves to claim land, see Sarah Schneider Kavanagh, “Haunting Remains: Educating a New American Citizenry at Indian Hill Cemetery,” in Boyd and Thrush, Phantom Pasts, 151–78.


Lynne Goldstein and Robert A. Brinkmann, “The Context of the Cemetery at Fort Ross: Multiple Lines of Evidence, Multiple Research Questions,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Study Quarterly 39, no. 4 (May, 2008), 2–21.


Call, My Life, 23, 24.


Ibid, 24.


For information on the Renova Fort Ross Foundation’s investments at Fort Ross State Historic Park, see: “Renova Fort Ross Foundation,” Fort Ross Conservancy, (Last accessed August 16, 2022). For journalism on Vekselberg and Fort Ross, see: Christina Wilkie, “How a Russian Oligarch Linked to Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Turned a California State Park into a Mini Moscow,” CNBC Politics, last modified January 22, 2019, (accessed July 20, 2022); Jason Vest, “Russia’s Jamestown in America—and the Oligarch Who Has Helped Fund It,” The Washington Post, last modified April 12, 2022, accessed July 30, 2022, (accessed July 30, 2022); Stephanie Baker, Yuliya Fedorinova, and Irina Reznik, “Putin’s ‘American’ Oligarch Privately Boasted of Trump Ties. Then He Lost Billions,” Bloomberg, Last Modified January 4, 2019, (accessed July 30, 2022).


Vladimir Putin quoted in “California Dreaming? Putin Pushes Peace on Fort Ross Anniversary,” Russia Today, last modified October 19, 2012, (accessed July 30, 2022); Putin quoted in “Bicentennial of Russians in California,” Russia Today, last modified October 19, 2012, (accessed July 30, 2022).


Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, “Joint Statement by the President of the United States of America Barack Obama and the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin,” The White House: President Barack Obama (June 18, 2012.


June Nieze, “The Purchase of Kashaya Reservation,” Working Paper No. 7, Kashaya Pomo Language in Culture Project, Department of Anthropology, California State College, Sonoma, 1974.


Stewarts Point provided a key space for Kashaya Pomo and other Indigenous nations to organize in California. This history of cultural thriving and decolonial resistance includes the Bole Maru religion, cultural programs, the Pit River Rancheria struggle against Pacific Gas & Electric, the “Indians of All Tribes” occupation of Alcatraz, and battles against the California Highway Department expropriating Kashaya land at Stewarts Point. For a history of activism surrounding and emerging out of Stewarts Point Rancheria, see Akins and Bauer, We Are the Land, 270–96.


Herman James, “When the End of the World Was Forecasted,” in Oswalt, ed, Kashaya Texts, 287.


Reno Franklin quoted in Debora Utacia Krol, “How This Tribe Got Their Coastal California Lands Returned” in Yes Magazine Spring (April 2), 2018.


“Su Nu Nu Shinal,” Oakland Symphony, (accessed July 30, 2022).


Lauren Peters, “The Price of ‘Soft Gold’,” in Bay Nature (March 30, 2021), (accessed July 30, 2022).


Lauren Peters, August 4, 2019, email message to author.


United States Congress, Public Law 85–671 (72 Stat. 619, 621), August 18, 1958.


Akins and Bauer, We Are the Land, 317–20.


Miranda, Bad Indians, i.