A number of locations in the area north of San Francisco are tied to Russia by virtue of their names, although many of their origins are unclear and actually may not be connected to Russia at all.

Four Russian scholars stand by a sign on a bridge crossing the Russian River in Sonoma Country. Photo courtesy of Glenn Farris.

Russian influence is easy to spot in northern California, where place names derived from Russian words are interspersed with those of Spanish origin. Alta California, the area between San Diego and San Francisco, was settled by the Spanish starting in 1769 in part because of the Spanish government’s anxiety over the presence of Russians in the North Pacific.

The Russian-American Company put its first claim on land in California with the 1809 expedition led by Ivan Kuskov to Bodega Bay with the intention of establishing a settlement on the California coast. The Russians cleverly referred to the territory north of San Francisco Bay as “Nova Albion,” a name first used by the English buccaneer Sir Francis Drake in 1579 when he claimed the entire area of North America above Mexico for England, thus suggesting that the area was not necessarily Spanish land. Eventually the port at Bodega Bay was renamed Port Rumyantsev after Russian Foreign Minister Nikolai Rumyantsev. Even after the establishment of Fort Ross 18 miles to the north, Port Rumyantsev was the only viable landing place for ships coming to Russian California.

In addition to Fort Ross, there are a number of places in today’s Sonoma and Marin counties whose names have Russian roots. Along with Fort Ross, there is the Russian River (initially called the Slavyanka River) and a place in between that carries the name Russian Gulch. There is a state park some 50 miles north of Fort Ross on the Mendocino Coast that is also called Russian Gulch. How this place came to have the name is less certain, but it has been suggested that it came from a Russian who stayed behind when the colony at Fort Ross was disbanded in 1841.

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There are towns in Sonoma County named Sebastopol and Moscow. Sebastopol was named in the mid-1850s during the Crimean War. The story was that a man named Hibbs got into a fight with a man named Jeff Stevens and barricaded himself in a store in the little town of Pine Cove. Someone jokingly stated that this was like the siege of Sebastopol (September 1854– September 1855), and people started calling the town “Hibb’s Sebastopol.” Subsequently the town was renamed Sebastopol.

It is not clear when or why the lumber mill town of Moscow got its name, although it appears on an atlas of Sonoma County dated 1877. An article in 1904 in the publication Overland Monthly suggested that the name was the Americanization of a local Indian word, mescua. Today, there is only a Moscow Road leading from the Russian River to note this connection.

The Russians established three farms or ranchos in the area: the Kostromitinov Rancho on the lower Russian River, the (Vasilii) Khlebnikov Rancho near the current town of Bodega Corners and the Chernykh Rancho, named for agronomist Egor Chernykh, in a valley near Freestone, Calif. None of these survive to the present day and only the site of the Khlebnikov Rancho is known for sure.

Near the Napa Valley is a mountain called St. Helena. It was named by a group of Russians including the naturalist Ilya Voznesensky and the manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev, for the patron saint of Rotchev’s wife, Elena Gagarina.

On a late 19th century map of the area near Sacramento, California is the place name “Russian Embarcadero,” which was located on a bend in the Sacramento River just downstream from the city of Sacramento. Following the sale of Fort Ross to Swiss immigrant John Sutter, the Russian-American Company ships traveled up the Sacramento River to take on wheat as partial payment of Sutter’s debt. Presumably the Russian Embarcadero got its name from these visits, which continued until at least 1845.

A very enigmatic place name, Rio Ojotska, appeared on a land grant map of California dated 1833. This river is now called the “American River,” which meets the Sacramento River at the city of Sacramento. The origins of this name are unclear, but it may be based on the Russian place name, Okhotsk. It may have been named for a Russian brig called the Okhotsk, which visited the California coast in 1826, again in 1827-1828 and finally in 1828-1829. Further research may shed additional light on this puzzle.

The article was initially published in Russia Direct’s special project “U.S.-Russia Shared Frontiers."