I left bright and early with my rental car to head up north. The goal was to hit up something like five different sites all around Sonoma and Marin Counties... but the reality turned out that it takes a lot of time and energy just to drive to one of those places, and so I ended up only really visiting two sites on my northern road trip.
First stop: Fort Ross.
Fort Ross was founded in 1812 by the Russian American Company (RAC)—which itself was founded in 1799, I believe, in Sitka, in what is now Southeastern Alaska. The purpose of Fort Ross was twofold: one, to be closer to the sites of successful sea otter hunting in an era when much of the sea otter habitat further north, in Russian North America, had been cleared out by overzealous hunters; two, to create an agricultural hinterland for feeding icy Russian North America's colonists. In the early nineteenth century the RAC continued to operate out of Sitka even as their sea otter hunting moved down along the North American coast into Spanish American territory. Conflicts occurred in San Francisco Bay as Aleut hunters, employed by RAC, hunted for sea otters illegally behind the Spanish Empire's back. Aleut hunters even hunted as far south as Baja California in this period. Notably, Euro-Americans were also engaged in the sea otter hunt along California's coast, sometimes employing Hawaiian labor. So it was here, at this clash between expanding Spanish and Russian empires in the early nineteenth century, where Aleut and Hawaiian migrant workers intermixed, that the story of Fort Ross unfolded. In 1841 the fort was sold to John Sutter, a Swiss-Mexican citizen who himself employed Hawaiian labor in the interior of the Alta California territory.
All this is to say that Fort Ross is an important site. It kind of marks the boundary between Russian and Spanish empires in California, and marks the meeting ground of imperial agents, indigenous workers, and all other kinds of people who moved in and out of this site. Here were Russians, Aleuts, Russian-Aleut creoles, indigenous Pomo, and other California native peoples, and, at times, even a few Hawaiians.
Outside of re-created Fort Ross, showing the Southeast Blockhouse which faces the ocean.
Walking through dimly-lit corridors inside a re-created Fort Ross structure.
This 1836[?] building is the only remaining structure at Fort Ross from the Russian imperial era.
View from the northwest blockhouse looking into the fort and towards the Chapel.
Inside the re-created Russian chapel.
View of the bay outside Fort Ross. The bay was too shallow to accommodate Russian ships, so the RAC ships from Sitka anchored almost twenty miles to the south and then Aleuts in baidarkas (kayaks) ferried cargo between that place and this place.
Unfortunately, but as usual, I could not find any information at Fort Ross, now a State Historic Park, about the Hawaiian presence there. I have read in at least one source that a Fort Ross census recorded a handful of Hawaiians here in the period between 1812 and 1841. The site did a much better job giving a sense of Aleut and Native Alaskan life at Fort Ross, however, which is itself an interesting story.
Site of the Native Alaskan "village" just outside the fort, between the stockade and the sea. Here the majority of Fort Ross' labor—Native Alaskan peoples, mostly Aleuts—lived. So why did/does the Historic Park make such an effort to re-create the imperial buildings, but not the indigenous ones? (And by "indigenous" here, of course, I am referring to all indigenous peoples on the move. Pomo and Aleut and Hawaiian and others. Where are their stories?)
My visit to Fort Ross really got me thinking about indigenous versus imperial narratives. We think of Fort Ross as an imperial story—a Russian imperial one—but it is also a story about imperial Spain, and it is also a story about Mexico, and it is also a story of indigenous labor: Pomo, Aleut, Hawaiian, and otherwise. And post-1846 it is also an American story of empire. The question is: which stories do we tell? Which built environments do we re-create and which do we leave to the inevitable erasure of time and memory? Whose story is Fort Ross' story? Maybe it is, above all, the sea otters' story! Why not? The only reason you had so many different peoples coming to this site in the 1810s, 20s, and 30s was to hunt sea otter—and also to raise plants and animals.
What it's all about: "The Lure of Fur." Seen here are: a map of the Northern Pacific Ocean; a scene of street life in Kyakhta, the Qing-Russian imperial borderland-marketplace where Russian-obtained furs were traded for Chinese tea; a picture of a sea otter; et cetera.
From Fort Ross, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, I began to head back south in search of lunch. Driving down Route 1, the highway that hugs the Pacific coast, some fifty to sixty miles later I arrived at Point Reyes Station, formerly a rail hub for tourists from the city heading north to explore the Point Reyes seashore, but now just a cute and quirky little town along Route 1.
In Point Reyes Station, I had a lovely lunch of fish and chips at the Pine Cone Diner.
Pine Cone Diner, Point Reyes Station
Then it was off to Stop Two: Point Reyes National Seashore.
Point Reyes National Seashore is huge. When I arrived at the Visitor's Center just a mile or two from Point Reyes Station, I picked up a map of the protected seashore area and realized that is covers tens of thousands of acres of coast, marsh, estuaries, forests, hills, and mountains, stretching for miles up and down the Pacific coast.
But the first hike I took was no more than a mile in distance round trip. I hiked to Kule Loklo, a re-creation of a coastal Miwok village.
Re-created Miwok structures, made of redwood bark[?].
It is interesting that scores of people were at Fort Ross when they opened right at 10am to "experience" Russian empire on the Pacific coast, but I was the only one for a good thirty minutes exploring Kule Loklo at Point Reyes National Seashore later that afternoon, except for a dad and his kids who ran around inside the structures even though signs specifically said not to go inside the structures! This, too, made me continue to wonder about imperial versus indigenous narratives and re-creations, and the ways that everyday American relate perhaps differently to one type of narrative over the other. I think we are actually more comfortable with empire than with indigeneity.
But the imperial histories were not yet over! My next stop was Drake's Bay. Drake who? Sir Francis Drake, of course, the first Englishman to "discover" California, way back in the late sixteenth century. And even though this territory was nominally New Spain (although the Spanish would not really get to Alta California until two centuries later), when Drake pulled into this harbor he left behind a little bit of British imperial history here, too—and something that we teleologically-thinking Americans, who tend to believe that all of America was British before it was American[!], can relate to!
Most people probably know Drake's Bay also as the site of a controversial oyster farm that locals seem to want to keep open but pesky environmentalists want closed because oyster farming is inconsistent with "wilderness" values. Work versus environment: read some environmental history and you'll see that this is one of the most common narratives in the history of the United States.
Anyway, I drove twenty minutes from the Visitor's Center to Limantour Beach on the coast.
The view looking one way along Drake's Bay
The view the other way around Drake's Bay
It was then around 3pm, with only two hours of sunlight left in the day. Yes, it is November, and what was I doing at the beach? Well, it was very sunny and beautiful, but also cold and windy. Nevertheless, I took off my socks and shoes and walked in the cold sand, even in the wet sand next to the waves.
Leave only footprints.
The mark of my foot in the cold, wet sand. Sir Francis Drake may have placed his boot here over four hundred years ago. Coastal Miwok peoples placed their feet here again and again and again for thousands of years. The high tide will wipe my mark away forever, and people in the future will have to decide once again what stories to tell about which people who placed their feet here upon this beach.
I placed my backpack down and laid my head on it as I buried my feet into the sand to try, ultimately in vain, to keep warm. Then I closed my eyes and listened to the waves. Now and then I opened my eyes, peered through my binoculars, and watched the birds living out their lives. I kept thinking: what are they going to do after 5pm when the sun sets? I think these birds have a lot of courage facing the darkness of a November night. I would be afraid to spend that much time in total darkness. I really have a lot of respect for them.
Plover or piper? I don't know. But look at them go! Gobbling up little morsels of food out of the sand with every receding wave.
Sun, waves, and soon-to-be-forgotten footprints
I love the way this scene stacked up: sky, land, ocean, incoming wave, receding wave, shore.
I tried to lay out there as long as I could. But it was getting really cold! I wanted to watch the sunset. However, I had to eventually get up and start hiking around behind the dunes to warm myself up.
View of the Estero de Limantour (Limantour Estuary) behind the dunes. I love the horizontality of the estuary's many little streams in this sunset.
A close-up view of the estuary at sunset. Look! A crane, or some other type of large bird.
When the sun set, I got back in my car and headed east, in the dark, along the back roads of Marin County. Finally, and somehow, I made it to the eastern edge of the county and onto a highway that took me back to the East Bay. I drove on past Berkeley and into Oakland, arriving at 6:45pm at a friend's house for a delicious dinner and some amusing and heartfelt conversation.
A perfect day in California. :)