California through Russian Eyes

California Through Russian EyesAnyone interested in the Russian presence in early California can do no better than to read California through Russian Eyes, 1806-1848, compiled translated, and edited by James R. Gibson (Arthur H. Clark Company, 2013), the second volume in a series entitled Early California Commentaries. It consists of 32 documents–letters, reports, and journal entries–by Russians who visited and lived in Alta California, from the earliest explorers to the last manager of Fort Ross. (I checked the book out from the Butte County Library.)

The Russians were careful and curious observers of life in California. Dmitry Irinarkhovich Zavalishin was a 20-year-old midshipman in 1824 when he spent several months in California purchasing provisions, learning Spanish, and conversing with various Californios.  Many years later, after the Gold Rush had made California famous, he recounted his experiences for Russian readers. Here he is reporting on the native population:

Compared with other Indians of North America glorified in the novels of Cooper and other writers, California’s Indians were a meek lot. Of course they were sometimes driven to ferocity by brutal treatment,and then they committed atrocities on Californios who fell into their hands . . . Undoubtedly with good treatment and proper upbringing they were capable if development; this was proven by numerous examples in the missions. Even in the wild state they displayed remarkable abilities in many respects. They made many artistic and very durable articles. Their root baskets and hats were waterproof and combined unusual lightness and durability with resilience; head ornaments, belts, the outsides of baskets, and other articles, which were minutely decorated with the different and multicolored feathers of local birds, were splendid examples of art and patience.

Regarding weapons, their bow, strung with sinew, was usually so taut that the strongest among us could not pull it without practice and skill. Their arrows were made from rushes with stone heads daubed with poison; wounds from them, regardless of the poison, were very dangerous, for they had a rough finish and a jagged edge.

A typical European, perhaps, but one who was open to appreciating the people he observed. He was positive that the Russians could get along better with the California Indians than the Spaniards and Mexicans did.

In conclusion, with regards to the Indians I will say a few words about their relations with the Russians. Whoever has studied the Russian national character knows very well that Russians, if they have not been aroused by some special external circumstance, are very good-natured and well-disposed toward everyone, despite differences in religion, nationality, and social status. A Russian disdains neither a savage nor a heterodox . . .  No wonder that the Indians liked the good-natured Russian sailors, especially the generous and affectionate officers.


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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2 Responses to California through Russian Eyes

  1. JanKarol says:

    This is a must read for me as I’m in the revision process of a novel set in the time of the Russian occupation of Alta California. Thanks for your review.

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