When the Russians Left California


Russian stamp showing Fort Ross

In 1841 the Russian-American Fur Company decided to leave California. They sold their holdings — lock, stock, and barrel — to John Sutter. The contract was signed in December, 1841, not long after John Bidwell arrived at Sutter’s Fort.

Sutter promptly hired Bidwell and after a few weeks of recuperation and learning Spanish, he sent him to the coast to oversee the dismantlement and acquisition of everything left by the Russians. It was a considerable amount of property and it took Bidwell over a year to deal with it.

Exactly what did John Sutter acquire in this deal? We know what was included from the Bill of Sale, which still exists in the John Augustus Sutter papers, housed in the Bancroft Library. A copy of the Bill of Sale, translated from French into English, has been posted online by the Fort Ross Conservancy.

For the price of $30,000 he got “the structures and chattels,” plus for an additional $3,868.16 he got “various merchandise, provisions, and goods.” The idea was that Sutter would pay in shipments of wheat to the Russian outpost at Sitka, Alaska. Sutter made a down payment of a mere $400 and then took years to pay off the balance of the debt.

What did Sutter get? Here is a list of the buildings at Fort Ross:

  • The old house for the commandant, two stories, built of beams. There are 6 rooms and a kitchen
  • The new house for the commandant… There are 6 rooms and vestibule
  • The house for Company employees, which has ten rooms and 2 vestibules
  • The barracks with 8 rooms and 2 vestibules
  • The old warehouse, two stories, with an open gallery and pillars
  • The granary, built of planks
  • A kitchen
  • A storehouse for provisions
  • An attached jailhouse
  • The chapel with a cupola
  • A well, 2 1/2 sazhens deep (a sazhen is about 7 feet)

Most of these buildings were demolished and shipped to Sutter’s Fort. That lumber was valuable. Outside the fort there were more buildings: various sheds, shops, kitchens, storehouses, and corrals. Furnishings included beds and bedding, tables, chairs, armoires, and cushions.

The Russians also had property at Bodega Bay and at three ranches, which had their own buildings and (as Bidwell wrote):

Even large circular threshing-floors (eras) in which the Russians were in the habit of tramping out their grain with bands of wild horses. These floors were made in the most substantial manner–the floors being made of hewn plank–six inches thick and perfectly matched together so tight that they would even hold water. The sides were planked about 8 feet high, with 4 1/2 in redwood lumber also hewn, for there was no such thing as sawmills there.

What a lot of hand labor went into those buildings and threshing floors!

Sutter got 1700 head of cattle, 940 horses and mules, and 900 head of sheep. These were either sold locally or herded overland to Sutter’s rancho. Most of the rest of the items were shipped by sea, for the sale included several boats:

  • a copper covered small boat, well suited for navigating all along the coast of California. 25 tons.
  • Two hide covered launches, one has 16 oars, the other, 18
  • A baidarka (a two or three-man kayak)
  • A long boat


And then there was the agricultural equipment:

  • 27 ox drawn plows
  • 24 horse drawn plows
  • 26 pairs of plowshares
  • 21 harrows
  • 24 harnesses
  • 30 horse harnesses
  • 21 bridles
  • 29 saddles
  • 8 bridles bits
  • 20 shadracks (I don’t know what a “shadrack” is)
  • 16 saddle blankets
  • 5 4-wheeled carts
  • 10 2-wheeled carts

All very useful and very desirable to a man trying to get an agricultural empire off the ground. And once John Sutter had all this loot, he took his own sweet time paying his debt to the Russians.

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 When the Russians Left California

  1. P. Browne says:

    Is it possible that the 20 “shadracks” are actually shad racks, for drying shad? I ask because the usual manner of spelling is “shadrach” when speaking of the biblical character, and shad are caught on the Sacramento river, with drying being one way of preserving it, traditionally.

    • nancyleek says:

      Possibly, but the 20 “shadracks” are listed with the saddles and bridles, making me think they were barn items. Thanks for making me check the link to the bill of sale — that’s been fixed. It has been shortened though, (as it says at the top) and no longer lists the shadracks. Must have baffled the Fort Ross people too. Sometime I might get to the Bancroft Library and have a look at it. However, it was written in French, which further complicates the matter of what a shadrack is.

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