This two-volume book is a documentary history of Russia's
19th-century settlement in California. It contains 492 documents
(letters, reports, travel descriptions, censuses, ethnographic and
geographical information), mostly translated from the Russian for
the first time, very fully annotated, and with an extensive
historical introduction, maps, and illustrations, many in colour.
This broad range of primary sources provides a comprehensive and
detailed history of the Russian Empire's most distant and most
exotic outpost, one whose liquidation in 1841 presaged St
Petersburg's abandonment of all of Russian America in 1867. Russia
from the sixteenth century onwards had steadily expanded eastwards
in search of profitable resources. This expansion was rapid, eased
not only by the absence of foreign opposition and disunity of the
native peoples but also by Siberia's river network and the North
Pacific's convenient causeway of the Aleutian chain leading to
Alaska. It was paid for largely by the 'soft gold' of Siberian
sables and Pacific sea otters. By the end of the 1700s, however, on
the Northwest Coast of North America the Russians met increasing
opposition from the indigenous people (Tlingits) and foreign rivals
(American and English fur-trading vessels). This combination soon
depleted the coast of sea otters, and at the same time the Russians
were finding it ever more expensive to obtain supplies from Europe
by overland transport across Siberia or round-the-world voyages, so
under the aegis of the monopolistic Russian-American Company (1799)
they leapfrogged southward to the frontera del norte of the Spanish
viceroyalty of New Spain. Here, in 1812, they founded Russian
California (officially, Ross Counter) as a base for hunting the
Californian sea otter, growing grain and rearing stock, and trading
with the Spanish missions. Eventually the exclave comprised a fort
(Ross), a port (Bodega), five farms, and a hunting and birding
station on the Farallon Islands, as well as a shipyard, a tannery,
and a brickworks. The successes and failures of these enterprises,
the perils of navigation, experiments in agriculture, the personal,
political and economic problems of the colony, and Russian
engagement with the indigenous population all come to life in these
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