In 1803, Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov set sail from St. Petersburg on a three year long voyage from his home country headed to the west coast of Alaska. As the appointed Minister Plenipotentiary, his mission was to establish fur trade relations along the way and get a handle on the dwindling profits of the Russian-American fur trading company in Alaska. The voyage took him from Russia to Brazil and on to Hawaii where he learned of the native attacks on Redoubt St. Michael in Alaska. A second ship on Rezanov’s expedition was sent north to Alaska to assist the settlers while Rezanov headed to Japan to establish trade agreements with the Tokugawa Shogunate. That attempt ended in embarrassment when the Shogun refused his offer. The Japanese viewed him as proud and condescending. Leaving Japan he headed back to Russia, porting at Petropavlovsk. There he was appointed as Imperial Inspector and ordered to head for Alaska and remedy the financial woes of the fur trading company and check on the condition of the settlements. Upon his arrival at Sitka in 1806, he found the colonists in a desperate situation. They were dying of starvation and scurvy had set in the population. Rezanov made his rounds of the other colonies, taking what immediate measures he could to address the fur trade issues and better the situation of the settlers; however, their need for food and supplies was desperate. Rezanov gathered his crew and set sail south to Nuevo California in hopes of purchasing goods from the Spanish, their chief rival on the west coast. When the ship arrived in San Francisco on February 27th, the Imperial Inspector and his crew were suffering from the same miseries as the settlers in Alaska. Considering the desperate situation of the Russians, Don José Darío Argüello, the Spanish comandante of San Francisco, overlooked their differences and supplied the men with grain, tallow, salt and other goods. During their six week stay in Alta California, Rezanov began a romance with the comandante’s daughter Concepción Argüello. In addition to he being 27 years her senior, their engagement was condemned due to their religious and national differences. Nikolai and Concepción would not marry. Upon his return to Russia, he died on March 8, 1807 from fever and exhaustion. However, their engagement began treaty negotiations between Russia and Spain, opening the door for Russian settlement on the west coast of what would become the United States and the founding of the Eastern Orthodox church in California.
Rezanov’s emergency foray to the California coast was not first Russian expedition to Nuevo California. As early as 1803, the Russians has been approached by American fur traders to support joint expeditions along the west coast to hunt sea otters. The Russian-American Company, hearing favorable reports, considered establishing settlements north of San Francisco. Rezanov also promoted the idea to Catherine the Great, Tsar Paul, and Aleksander I. During his mission to procure supplies in 1806, his ship captain explored and charted the coast north of San Francisco. When they returned to Alaska, Rezanov advocated to the Tsar that a settlement be established on the California coast. It would take five years before his suggestion became a reality. Alexander Baranov, overseer of the Russian-American Company’s interests in Alaska sent two ships south with instructions to find a suitable location for a settlement and bury possession plaques marking the spot. The mission arrived at Bodega Bay in 1809, laid their claim, and returned north with otter pelts and beaver skins. Three years later, the Russians sailed back to the bay and named it the Gulf of Rumyantsev and, what we know today as the Russian River was given the name Slavyanka. About fifteen miles to the north a place was selected for the settlement which would be named Fortress Ross. The fort that is now a state historic landmark was then the hub of the larger Fortress Ross which spanned a larger area from Tomales Bay to Point Arena, a sealing station on the Farallon Islands, and three settlements – one near today’s Graton, another a mile north of the town of Bodega, and the third on the Russian River. The main goal of the settlement was to produce agricultural goods to supply the northern Russian settlements in Alaska while carrying on the fur trade in California. Construction of the fort was finished on September 10, 1812. Its completion was celebrated with an Eastern Orthodox ceremony despite the lack of clergy at the settlement. The first decade at Fortress Ross turned into a financial nightmare for the Russian-American Company requiring huge investments of cash for its maintenance. In addition, the fur business was not as lucrative as projected. Two decades of hunting in the area by American, British, and Spanish fur traders had nearly decimated the sea otter population. The settlements outside of the fort did most of the work producing goods needed in the north while trading with the Spanish and Mexicans along the California coast. The settlers at Fortress Ross were a mixture of Russians, Native Aleuts, and Creoles, most of which were Christians. According to a Russian Orthodox Church survey completed in the 1970s, the first chapel built at Fortress Ross was completed in 1812 and dedicated to St. Helen. My research did not reveal any additional information about this chapel. It could be that it was dedicated to Helen of Anjou who was the Queen consort of the Serbian Kingdom from 1245 to 1276 as wife of King Stefan Uroš I. It is not known if the chapel that is now standing at Fort Ross is a replica of the St. Helen Chapel or another that was built in 1825, which incorporated elements of the earlier chapel, or if an entirely new chapel was built. What is known is that around 1825, the devout settlers at Fortress Ross talked of building a chapel in which to worship. They would supply the funds for construction and dedicate it to St. Nicholas, or Nicholas the Wonderworker, the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and others (our Santa Claus is inspired from the secret gift giving habits of Nicholas the Wonderworker). In the end, the settlers were assisted with the construction of the chapel by the crew and captains of three Russian naval ships and it was completed in 1825 but never consecrated. Nor was a permanent priest assigned to minister to the faithful at Fort Ross. However, priests from the north did visit the settlement. Fr. John Veniaminov, who would become St. Innocent of Alaska and Metropolitan of Moscow visited the fort in 1836. During his stay of three months he prepared a report which stated that approximately 15 percent of the local native population had been baptized as Orthodox Christians. The chapel was used for religious readings and weddings and also as a warehouse and stable. By the time Fr. Veniaminov visited Fort Ross, life along the west coast had improved. However, the experiment of the Fort Ross settlement providing food to the Alaskan settlements had proved unsuccessful and thus the economic viability of the Ross Colony diminished. Within three years of his visit the Russian-American Company made the decision to abandon the fort. In 1841 it was purchased by John Sutter and those settlers still remaining departed for Sitka, Alaska on January 1, 1842.
The little chapel that served the Fort Ross community, as well as the other buildings at the fort was bought and sold numerous times until 1903 when the property was purchased by the California Historic Landmarks Commission who turned it over to the State of California. The state undertook the task of restoring and preserving the fort. The little chapel that was built in 1825 collapsed during the 1906 earthquake; however, the roof and the towers were yet intact. A decade later it was reconstructed but it was later discovered that several mistakes had been made during the rebuilding. In the mid-1950s the state fixed the mistakes and in 1969 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. Sadly, the following year it was destroyed by fire and lost its landmark designation. The St. Nicholas Holy Trinity Chapel that now stands at the fort, built in 1973, is an exact replica of the original 1825 building that brought Eastern Orthodoxy to California.