History of the Russian River

I often get asked about the Russian River and its history. As the water rises from our “once in a decade” rain fall, I wanted to provide a little information.

The Russian River is approximately 110 miles long. The watershed area is roughly 1500 square miles, with large dams at Lake Mendocino in Ukiah and Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg. The River springs from the Laughlin Range about 5 mi. east of Willits in Mendocino County. It flows generally southward to Redwood Valley, to join the East Fork Russian River just below Lake Mendocino. From there, the River flows south, past Ukiah and Hopland and crosses into Sonoma County just north of Cloverdale. It then descends into the Alexander Valley, flowing south past Cloverdale, Asti and Geyserville.

East of Healdsburg, the River makes a series of sweeping bends and receives water from Lake Sonoma. It then turns westward and passes Rio Nido and Guerneville. From there it flows into the Pacific Ocean between Jenner and Goat Rock.

The first inhabitants in the Russian River area were the Kashaya Indians. At that time the River was known as Ashokawna, “East water place” or “water to the East.” Indian were drawn to the River because of its bountiful fish populations and abundance of basket making materials. At the turn of the 19th Century, however, Russian fur trappers from Sitka, Alaska settled in the coastal area. They founded Fort Ross just North of Jenner in 1811 and erected buildings at Bodega Bay. The Russians had come to collect sea otter pelts and to grow food for their Alaskan colony. The river gets its current name from the Russians of the Russian American Company who settled in Fort Ross.

The Russian trappers followed the paths of the Indians from the Pacific Ocean and came inland far enough to settle Sebastopol. During that time, however, railroads were run into the redwood forests for lumbering, which brought a large influx of European immigrants. In 1841, in the face of the mass migration of Americans drawn to the plentiful redwoods and with mills and railroads sprouting up to cut and transport centuries old redwood to the San Francisco Bay Area to construct buildings and ships, the Russians gave up their settlement and returned to Russia. They sold their land holdings around Fort Ross to John Sutter, the adventurer who, a few years later, was to discover gold at his lumber mill in the Sierra Foothills, an event that led to the Gold Rush of 1849 and the arrival of California on the international scene.

Winegrowing in the Russian River Valley began with the Russian colonists. Vineyards were among the first cultivated fields in what is now the Russian River Valley appellation. It is believed that the Russian immigrants planted grapes in this area as early as 1817, a full six years before Padre Jose Altimira - who traditionally has been credited with planting the first grapes in Sonoma County - planted grapes in the town of Sonoma. In 1836, a Russian agronomist named Yegor Chernykh was sent by a Russian-American Company to develop food supplies for the Alaskan settlements. Chernykh established a farm just west of what is now Graton and, as part of his crops, he planted grapes. While there is no record of how productive the vines at Chernykh farm were, evidence indicates that wine was produced for sacramental purposes.

While the Russians planted the first grapevines, much of the growth in the rest of the 1800s was a result of the Italian immigrants, many of who were drawn to California by the Gold Rush. Grape plantings grew throughout the second half of the century, reaching their peak in the 1890s, the so-called “glory years” of the Russian River Valley. By then, there were nearly 250 growers farming some 6,000 acres of grapes and producing more than a million gallons of wine – a third of the county’s output.

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