Times Past

Russian traders frequented Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Fort Ross (Fort Rossiya) in 1828 by August Bernard Duhaut-Cilly.
Fort Ross (Fort Rossiya) in 1828 by August Bernard Duhaut-Cilly.

The Apollon, Ladoga and Kreiser, all Russian naval ships, wintered in San Francisco Bay during the early 1820s.

Tsar Alexander I issued a mandate to limit the number of American and English poachers from entering the waters of Russian America, the area from Alaska to Bodega Bay in California.

The well-known visit of Nikolai Rezanov to San Francisco's presidio and mission in 1806 opened California to encounters with a large number of Russian ships, both from the Sitka, Alaska-based Russian American Company and from the Russian Navy.

These visits, dating between 1806 and the sale of Fort Ross north of the Russian River to Capt. John Sutter in 1841, numbered in the hundreds. Recent research in the Russian Naval Archive at St. Petersburg reveals that sometimes as many as 30 Russian naval vessels wintered in San Francisco Bay.

The officers and crews of these ships have left us an invaluable legacy of commercial records, artistic renderings and, more recently under the guidance of UC Berkeley's Kent Lightfoot, archaeological evidence.

The Russian sphere of influence extended the length of the Pacific Coast from the Aleutian Islands south as far as Santa Barbara, San Pedro and San Diego. But the Russian American Company had a special friend at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Father Luis Antonio Martinez carried on a vigorous trade with the Russians, recorded in the journals of Kiriil Khlebnikov, one of the leading authorities of his day on Russian America.

Khlebnikov was connected to the Russian American Company throughout his life, rising from an ordinary agent to director of the main office. He traveled; collected a wide range of material on the geography, history, and ethnography of Russian America; assembled a good library; read a great deal; learned Spanish and English; and corresponded with and met many voyagers and scholars.

Khlebnikov reports that the Russian America Company merchant ship Cleopatra purchased 300 fanegas (or 1.58 U.S. bushels) of wheat at Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo missions for three piasters (equivalent of one dollar at the time and as much as $120 today) cash per fanega in 1819.

In August 1820, Khlebnikov personally negotiated with the man he called “Padre Luis, the wealthy monk from San Luis Mission, and Mr. Noriega, commandant at Santa Barbara" over purchasing the ship Buldakov in exchange for grain.

The Russians valued the ship and its crew at 12,000 fanegas of grain. This was apparently too rich for Father Martinez and Don José Noriega who said that "they wished to purchase a ship in the near future for 4,000 to 5,000 fanegas of wheat."

Father Martinez and Noriega were considering the greater profits if they could engage in their own coastal trade. As it was, the Russian American Company kept Father Martinez supplied with beeswax candles and French Napoleon brandy. The Russian trade also supplied him with money to purchase five bells cast by Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru in 1818. A Russian samovar or tea-making kettle sits in Father Martinez's recreated parlor in the mission museum.

Olga Howe, who has guided San Luis Obispans to St. Petersburg and along the course of the Kama, Volga and Muscova Rivers, has once again brought the incredible voices of Russia to our region.

The St. Petersburg Men's Ensemble, a renowned vocal quartet from Russia, will present an a cappella concert of Russian Orthodox sacred music and Russian folk songs at 7 p.m. Friday at Mission San Miguel Arcángel, 775 Mission Street, in San Miguel.

Here's your chance to enjoy an evening of inspiring vocal music enriched by the incomparable acoustics of Mission San Miguel, much as Russian sailors might have been heard in the 1820's. There is a suggested goodwill offering: $15. For further information call Olga at (805) 543-2261.