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Priest Sergei Sveshnikoff - The Spiritual Significance of Fort Ross

What we have, we protect not, and, losing it, we weep. 

A great deal has been written and said about the possible closing to the public of Fort Ross, on the Pacific Coast of California, and the cultural and historical significance of this southernmost Russian 19th-century settlement on the North American continent. Indeed, Fort Ross was and remains a symbol of the Russian presence on the West Coast of North America, and played a key role in the history of the Russian acquisition of Alaska and the Pacific coast of Oregon and northern California. But for an Orthodox Christian, the history of Fort Ross is first of all tied to the history of the dissemination of Orthodoxy in the country which for us living in the United States has become a second home.

Fort Ross was settled by Russian Orthodox entrepreneurs and natives of Alaska who were illuminated by the light of the faith of Christ through the efforts of the Valaam missionaries. Among them was St Herman, whose memory we celebrate on December 25 (civil calendar). Some 90 Orthodox parishes attest to the efforts of the holy missionaries and to God’s blessings, and some twenty thousand parishioners, almost all of them natives of Alaska.

St Herman never visited the Ross settlement, but his spiritual children did, who endearingly called him apa, that is, “grandfather.” Kayakers and hunters departed from Alaska to the south along the Pacific coast of Canada, Oregon, and California. Martyr Peter the Aleut took one of these kayaks to the Ross settlement in 1815. [1]  We have no direct evidence that St Peter was at the Ross settlement, but we would be hard pressed to believe that a kayak expedition of the Russian-American Company did not stop at a settlement owned by that company, near which this expedition hunted, and not far from where the members of this expedition were seized by Spanish soldiers [2]. In the iconography of St Peter, there are even depictions of the saint with Fort Ross in the background [3]. The site of the martyrdom and burial of St Peter the Aleut is, by some accounts, Mission Dolores in San Francisco [4], but one of his fellow travelers who was able to escape returned to Fort Ross, and from there went back to Alaska, where he divulged what had happened [5]

The Ross settlement was at first a supply depot for Russian-American merchants, but a few years after it was established, the colonists decided to build a chapel on their own funds, which was completed in 1825 and consecrated in the name of St Nicholas the Miracle-worker [6]. There was never a permanent priest for the chapel, and readers’ services were performed by the colonists themselves, despite all the hardships they endured, they wished to pray together, and found the time to do so. With time, an Orthodox cemetery was formed near the settlement, where even today, prayers are made for the peace and salvation of the first Orthodox Christian Californians. 

In 1836, Fr John Veniaminov, the future Metropolitan Innokenty of Moscow, spent three months at Fort Ross, overseeing the life of the colonists, and noticed the spirit of true Christian love and mutual help among the Russians, Alaskans and local Kashaya Indians, some of whom had already converted to Orthodox Christianity [7].  Fr John did not only conduct divine services during his time at Ross, but also blessed the waters of the nearby stream [8].  

In 1841, the Russian-American Company abandoned Fort Ross and sold off its movable property. For a time, the connection between Ross and Russia was severed, but the living bond between Orthodoxy in America and the Russian Orthodox Church was not. Even our Russian Patriarch-Confessor Tikhon (Bellavin) was a citizen of the United States—he adopted citizenship as Archbishop of New York and North America (1901-1907). Traveling between San Francisco and Alaska, the hierarch sailed past Fort Ross more than once, and in 1905, the future Russian Patriarch visited Fort Ross and served a pannikhida for its founders [9]. It was during Archbishop Tikhon’s rule on American soil in 1903, that Ross was purchased from private ownership and given to the State of California as a historical monument. Although that very year, an earthquake seriously damaged the structures, by 1916, it was restored, and since 1925, Divine Liturgy is celebrated there every year [10]

Over the course of several decades, Russian Orthodox hierarchs, clergymen and laypersons living in the United States as well as Americans who converted to Orthodox Christianity make pilgrimages to Fort Ross to celebrate Divine Liturgy and pray over the graves of the first Russian Orthodox Californians. Among the hierarchs who prayed in the wooden chapel of this historic site were the blessed peace-makers His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II and His Eminence Metropolitan Laurus.

One would hope that the national monument Fort Ross will survive California’s budget crisis and will once again be renovated by the government, which has already done this more than once in the past, and will be open to visitors. But Fort Ross is not only a monument to “their” history, but to our own spiritual legacy. That is why we must always strive to preserve monuments, as well as the memories of our holy martyrs, saints, hierarchs and righteous Christians, by whose prayers and labors the holy Orthodox Faith established itself and spread throughout North America.  

[1] Actually, Peter was not an Aleut by birth, but he is known as such because the Russian traders, from whose reports we know about him, distinguished little between the ethnic groups of Alaska.

[2] For details, see the report on Emperor Alexander I by Dmytryshyn, Basil, et al. The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989. 3:332-4.

[3] The image of Martyr Peter the Aleut by Ina Hecker.

[4] See Tikhmenv, Petr. A History of the Russian-American Company. Trans. R. A. Pierce and A. S. Donnelly. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978, p. 138. Also Duncan, Alexis. “The Glorification of St. John of San Francisco.” The Orthodox Christian Page. 04 December 2009 <http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/news/St.John.3.html>.  According to other sources, St Peter was martyred in the Jesuit Mission of San Pedro in Southern California—see the section on Emperor Alexander I in Dmytryshyn, Basil, et al.The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989, t. 3 p. 332-4.

[5] See the report by the Director of the Russian-American colonies, Semyon Ivanovich Ivanovsk dated February 15, 1820, in Pierce, Richard A., ed.  The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837: with Materials Concerning the Life and Works of the Monk German, and Ethnographic Notes by the Hieromonk Gedeon. Kingston, Ontario: Limestone, 1978, p. 177.

[6] Watrous, Stephen. “Outpost of an Empire: Russian Expansion to America.” Fort Ross State Historic Park. Sonoma County Historical Society. 04 December 2009 <http://www.fortrossstatepark.org/Russian%20American%20Company.htm>. This chapel is now know by the Orthodox Church in America as Holy Trinity Chapel.

[7] See Veniaminov, Protopriest Ioann, Sostojanije Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi v Rossijskoj Amerike [The State of the Orthodox Church in Russian America], Jurnal ministerstva narodnogo prosveshchenija [Journal of the Ministery of the People’s Education], St Petersburg: Imperatorskaja akademija nauk 5 [Imperial Academy of Sciences 5] (1840):17-44.

[8] American—Fort Ross Creek.

[9] Petrov, Viktor. Fort Ross I ego kul’turnoje nasledije [Fort Ross and Its Cultural Legacy]. Los Angeles: Published by Obshchestvo Druzei Forta Ross [Society of the Friends of Fort Ross], 1977, p. 30.

[10] Due to a fire in 1970, the settlement was closed until it was restored in 1974.