Russians on the California Channel Islands

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Russians founded their first permanent base in North America on Kodiak Island, Alaska in 1783, drawn to the Pacific Ocean for the sea otter trade. Russian otter hunting in Spanish California was very successful. Russian colonists advanced into California where they settled at Fort Ross, engaging in otter hunting. This Russian outpost was active from 1812 until 1841 when John A. Sutter purchased the property at the fort, and the Russian settlement in Mexican California dissolved.

Santa Cruz Island Company records also mention Russians hired to work on the island.

» Ogden, Adele The California Sea Otter Trade, 1784-1848 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941

» Franklin, Robert R. Playing the Odds Against the Solid Men of Boston: The Gamble of Russian America in Hohonu, University of Hawaii at Hilo 10:34-47, 2010

In the News~

November 11, 1889 [VV]: “Nineteen days on San Nicolas Island… According to Captain Nidever of Santa Barbara, and other reliable authorities, the Russians were in the habit of bringing Alaska Indians to the island and leaving them there to hunt sea otters. They were supplied with fire arms and amused themselves by murdering the defenseless inhabitants… [Steven Bowers]”

January 5, 1910 [SBMP]: “From what history tells of the frequent invasions of the Santa Barbara Channel by the Russians during the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century., there is reason to believe that they were attracted not so much by the spoilation of the Indian villages that then worked those islands, as by the possibility of depredations upon the seal rookeries with which the island coast was lined. In view of the well established fact that prior to the visitations of the Russians and seal hunters of other nationalities, the waters surrounding the Channel Islands swarmed with fur seal, otter and sea lions…”

January 1, 1917 [Oregon Daily Journal]: “Launch Reported Lost is Safe. Santa Monica, Cal., Jan. 1.—After being given up for lost, the launch Kaste, with a crew of four men, is back in port today. Alexis Budinoff, captain, reported that the Kaste was driven ashore on one of the uninhabited Santa Cruz islands and that for two days the men had nothing to eat but two wild sheep.”

January 1, 1917 [LAT: “Missing Boat Lands In Port. Thrilling Experience of Russian Fishing Crew. Storm Breaks Upon Them Near Santa Cruz Island. Nearly Starved on Lonely Island in Pacific. Santa Monica, Dec. 31.—Telling a thrilling story of privations and suffering because of lack of provisions and fresh water, Capt. Alexis Budinoff and his crew of three men put into port this morning at the Japanese fishing village, having first been sighted early in the morning and towed in by a rescue party. His hands clasped to the wheel of the little twenty-horse-power launch, the captain had his eyes riveted on Long Wharf, but when the rescue launch drew alongside and threw him a rope, he was unable to grasp it because his hands had become so benumbed by the extreme cold and exposure to a heavy sea and storm. Two of the men were lying in the bottom of the boat, so numbed and one man was vainly trying to assist the captain. The crew left the Japanese village nine days ago, planning on returning in time for Christmas. When they reached one of the islands of the Santa Cruz group, the storm of last Saturday and Christmas Eve broke. They put in at a spot slightly protected from the wind and camped on the beach. One man happened to have a gun, and when the provisions ran low, was able to get sufficient food for the four by killing game. When the supply of fresh water ran out it was necessary for them to drink a brackish tasting water which, they said, did not quench their thirst but nearly drove them demented. Friday the captain and the crew realized that it was a case of weathering a rising storm and making a run for the calmer waters of Santa Monica Bay, or to stay on the little island and starve. At the same time preparations were made to start a rescue party in a larger launch from the Japanese village. This party was to have started out this morning when the little launch hove into sight on the horizon and three boats put out. On account of the benumbed condition of the crew, it was necessary for the other launch to draw alongside and for another fisherman drop into the smaller boat and take the wheel. The boat was then towed in and when the beach was reach, the men's wife and children, who had practically given them up for lost greeted them affectionately. The men were all Russians. When the rescuers made ready to leave this morning, there was little hope expressed that they would find the missing fishermen.”

August. 21, 1918 [SCICo]: “If you can have a price on the picking of grapes at an early date believe we can get a colony of 20 Russians to do the work. This outfit is made up of women and children and will want to board themselves.”

September 18, 1918 [SCICo]: “Vintage is progressing very satisfactorily. The sixth tank of Zinfandel is fermenting. We have 10 additional pickers, these being Russians—2 of them women. They are picking at $2.50 per ton and board. If we find it necessary we can get 15 or 20 more as they seem to be anxious to work.”

October 3, 1918 [SCICo]: “Four of the Russians have left us. They have been unable to make wages of $2.50 per ton. The number of the Russians and our own men has been about equal, but the Russians have picked nearly 66% of all the grapes picked, so their failure to make anything has not been due to lack of industry on their part. We were told in Santa Barbara that the price being paid in Sonoma and Mendocino counties ranges from $4.00 to $4.50 per ton, both with and without board. From the amount of grapes that have been picked, we believe, that we can well afford to raise the price to $3.00 per ton if necessary.”

October 12, 1918 [SCICo]: “We have raised the price of grape picking to $3.00 per ton and now have 9 Russians at work on this basis. The 32d tank of Zinfandel is fermenting. Practically the only grapes that have been at the Church Dist. and about one-half of the Burgundy Dist. A good many of the grapes have been lost because of the wet weather.”

October 31, 1918 [SCICo]: “The dry grapes we have been fermenting with second crop grapes as we can get acidity as well as moisture in this way. This was the procedure we followed last year. These dry first crop grapes have all been picked and all hands are working on second crop. Five of our Russians left us, and in order to hold the remaining 6 we guaranteed them $2.25 per day, this being done before the receipt of your letter. We don’t know what the relation is between the first and second crop, but from the grapes that have come in from both our own men and the Russians, we would be obliged to pay in excess of $9.00 per ton to make the equivalent of $2.25 per day, on second grapes... As soon as the grapes are picked we are going to put the Russians to picking walnuts so that we can use our own men for some of the necessary work that must be done before winter. On the Mainland they are paying from $27 to $30 per ton for picking according to whether the weights are field weights or warehouse weights. We believe that we can get the work done for $24 and board.”

November 11, 1918 [SCICo]: “Grape picking was finished last Thursday. The 51st tank is fermenting. We have 6 Russians picking walnuts. Creek work below the garden is being done. Work on the septic tank and sewer for are toilets is being finished.”

November 28, 1918 [SCICo]: “Walnut picking has been completed and the Russians have left.”

March 21, 1964 [Weekly Magazine of Ventura County]: “Santa Cruz Island's Russian Killers. A few years ago, bulldozers working along the tiny creek that emptied into Prisoner's Cove on Santa Cruz Island uncovered a grisly reminder of the first time Americans tangled with the Russians along the west coast. A pile of bones told a tale of avarice and treachery almost unequaled in the history of California. It was the story of the savagery and cunning of one of the first Russian fur hunters who plied his trade among the Channel Islands of Ventura's coastline during the first part of the eighteenth century. The final chapter of this bloody tale must have formed in the mind of the Russian ship captain when he returned to find his warehouse in Prisoner's Cove burned to the ground. Inside the warehouse had been thousands of dollars worth of sea otter pelts, awaiting shipment to China where there was a booming market in fur and seal whiskers which the mandarins mounted in gold handles and used for toothpicks. The Russian ship captain with his crew of Aleut Indian hunters had descended on the Channel Islands to slaughter the huge herds of sea otters, California fur seals and other sea animals who lived in the hundreds of sea-worn caves on San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, Anacapa, and Santa Cruz Islands. Neither the Russians nor the Aleuts regarded the Canalino Indians who lived on the island as much more than animals. They took the wives of Indian men and slaughtered those who protested... The huge stack of bones left from this Russian's savagery of more than 200 years ago can still be found at the little creek, mute testimony that furs were more important to an eighteenth century Russian sea captain than the lives of 6,000 fellow human beings.”