The Forgotten History of Russia’s California Colony

Orthodox Holy Trinity St. Nicholas Chapel at Fort Ross, California.
Orthodox Holy Trinity St. Nicholas Chapel at Fort Ross, California.
Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

From Sacramento to Los Angeles, Spain’s colonial fingerprints are plain to see throughout present-day California. But did you know that in the 18th century, Tsarist Russia carved out her own slice of this future state?

Grigory Shelikhov (1747-1795) has been ignored by countless history textbooks. In 1784, this adventurous fur merchant established the Three Saints Bay Colony, Russia's first permanent North American settlement, on Alaska's Kodiak Island. Back then, Russia held high hopes for eastward expansion, seeing Three Saints Bay Colony as the first step toward converting the Pacific Ocean into their empire’s personal “Inland Sea.” With this spirit in mind, the powerful Russian-American Company was established 15 years later and rapidly began asserting a monopoly over Alaskan trade. The Russian-American Company wouldn’t relinquish this authority until Alaska was purchased by the U.S. in 1867.

Three Saints Bay on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, Alaska.Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Otter pelts were easily the area’s most profitable commodity. However, after a few decades’ worth of over-hunting by the Russian-American Company, the animals began to grow scarce. At the same time, Russian settlers had difficulty adapting their traditional farming practices to Alaska’s unforgiving terrain and shortened growing season. As a result, it became difficult to supply the colonists with enough food. Something had to be done.

California dreaming

That’s when Russia set her sights on California. At first, the Alaskan colonies were merely interested in acquiring more food by trading with their Cali-based Spanish counterparts. But California’s abundance proved tantalizing. Soon enough, the Russians started making plans to stake their own claim on its sunny, otter-rich coastline.

Located 60 miles north of modern-day San Francisco, Fort Ross is the largest lingering trace of this effort. A historical landmark today, this wooden settlement was formally founded on February 2, 1812, after it was acquired from the local Native Americans for “three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads.”

Fort Ross California State Landmark plaque.DMDelja, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ross, which got its name from a phonetic abbreviation for Russia, housed occupants from the motherland for the next 29 years. Unfortunately, despite the settlers' best efforts, this California experiment could neither adequately solve Alaska’s food crisis nor produce enough otter furs to become profitable. Also, Russia’s presence there wasn’t exactly met with warmth by the Spanish (more on that below). Finally, in 1841, the Fort Ross territory was sold to an American pioneer named John Sutter (1803-1880), this time for the agreed-upon sum of $30,000, which he never actually paid. 

The birth of San Francisco

On a semi-related note, Colonial Russia can be partially credited with prompting the creation of one of America’s most famous documents: the Monroe Doctrine. In 1821, Tsar Alexander I, whose subjects now reigned supreme over everything from Alaska to Oregon (not to mention that tiny slice of California real estate), released an imperial edict which forbade foreign vessels from coming within 100 miles of “his” Pacific Northwest. 

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams swiftly informed Russia’s ambassadors that the U.S. government would “contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new colonial establishments.” Two years later, this argument would be echoed in President James Monroe’s anti-colonialist manifesto.

San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood, circa 1858.Robert N. Dennis Collection, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, San Francisco owes its existence to Russia’s North American presence. On October 28, 1776—the day Yankee and British forces collided in the Battle of White Plains more than 2500 miles away—San Francisco was established by the Spanish, who hoped this new settlement would discourage incoming Tsarist fur traders from moving further southward.

More evidence of Russia's impact on California is found in the naming of San Francisco's “Russian Hill” neighborhood. During California’s gold rush, a handful of Cyrillic-labeled tombstones (which probably belonged to visiting Russian merchants) were discovered there, providing yet another trace of the Golden State’s deeply-rooted connection to this long-gone empire.  

11 Lively Gifts for Plant Parents

Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market
Blue Q/Amazon/Picnic Time/World Market

Many folks have been showing off their green thumbs this year thanks to the pandemic, so why not encourage their hobbies? There's a special gift for every kind of plant parent out there—think starter grow kits to gardening tools to cute cartoon socks. If the Christmas tree in the living room isn't enough greenery for your gift recipient's taste this festive season, we have some great gift options below.

1. Back To The Roots Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit; $25

Back to the Roots/World Market

Herb gardens are compact, useful, and easy to maintain. If your giftee lives in an apartment and doesn't have outdoor space for a large garden, Back To The Roots's Garden In A Can Herb Growing Kit—a three-pack of basil, cilantro, and mint—is a great place for them to start their indoor horticultural journey.

Buy it: World Market

2. Plants Rock Cactus Growing Kit; $13

Plants Rock/World Market

Another option for small spaces is cacti, which do not require much water or attention. This kit makes it easy to start growing cacti in your gift recient's home. The tools are all included, so all your giftee has to do is plant the seeds and set the ceramic pot in a sunny spot.

Buy it: World Market

3. Picnic Time Folding Garden Stool With Tools; $69

Picnic Time/World Market

For more experienced gardeners, tools are essential for helping plants thrive. This stool with tools might solve the problem of sore knees and backs from kneeling in dirt. Not only is the seat portable and lightweight, but it also includes a storage tote and five pockets for tools like the included trowels and garden forks.

Buy it: World Market

4. Green and Pink Ribbed-Glass Plant Misters; $26

World Market

Indoor plants need as much care and attention as their outdoor cousins, but lugging around a watering can may cause a mess in your giftee's home. Using this set of two plant misters is an easy way to keep moisture-loving plants like orchids and Boston ferns nice and dewy.

Buy it: World Market

5. Cotton Macramé Plant Hanger; $18

World Market

Macramé plant hangers were all the rage back in the '70s. They've made a comeback this year as people have become craftier at home. This plant hanger is great for showing off plants that grow long, curtain-like tendrils and helpful when your giftee lives in a small space. With the roof as the limit, they can pack in as many plants as they want.

Buy it: World Market

6. Can't Kill Me 2021 Calendar; $8

TF Publishing/World Market

If your gift recipient loves plants but can't keep real ones alive, give them this mini wall calendar. It features, well, plant arrangements they can't kill, like succulents, bonsai trees, and snake plants. This calendar will surely add a dose of green to their home office.

Buy it: World Market

7. The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House-Plant Family; $17

Harry N. Abrams/Amazon

All gardeners want one simple thing: to know more about keeping their plants alive and thriving. This book has all the essentials for cultivating houseplants. It's full of tips and tricks for repotting a plant, taking care of certain types of plants, and adjusting light for your plant baby's survival.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Homenote Bamboo Plant Labels; $14

HOMENOTE/Amazon

Plant labels are a great way for your giftee to remember where they planted their rosemary versus their parsley before they sprout. This 60 label set comes with a pen, so the labeling process is a breeze.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Blue Q Proud Plant Mom Socks; $13

Blue Q/Amazon

Proud plant moms want to show off their love for their greenery any way they can. That's why these crew socks will be a hit with any of your green-thumbed friends. Blue Q also donates 1 percent of its sales revenue to Doctors Without Borders.

Buy it: Amazon

10. EuroGraphics 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle; $20

EuroGraphics Toys/Amazon

This 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle will occupy your gift recipients from the fall harvest to the spring planting season. The challenging design of multiple succulents features each plant's common and scientific name.

Buy it: Amazon

11. AeroGarden Indoor Hydroponic Garden; $124

AeroGarden/Amazon

If seasons don't matter to your giftee and they want to start their herb garden right now, then the AeroGarden is going to be their best friend. They'll be able to grow herbs like dill, thyme, and mint indoors in the middle of winter. Thanks to the LED grow lights, there is no need to worry about plants getting enough sunlight. They can grow up to six plants at a time, all year round.

Buy it: Amazon

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How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.

“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”

As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.

“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.