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The People from the Top of the Land

Andrew Trlica Correspondent Andrew Trlica poses before entering the brambles
Fighting through blackberry brambles, looking for the ghost of a Russian farm

FORT ROSS, CA – I wiped the sweat from my brow with my forearm, noticing for the first time the deep red scratches that the blackberry brambles had carved over my dirty fingers. I laid the machete down with a dull clunk. Hands shaking, I pulled my water bottle from my backpack, took a long, deep swig of lukewarm tap water, and stopped to ponder for a moment how it was that the ever-moving river of life had brought me, somehow, to this moment.

Somewhere in the distance, a bird screamed. We had been hacking away at vengeful tangles of willow and thicket for almost half an hour. With a yellow-green light filtering through the canopy overhead, it felt like we were questing for some forbidden idol in a long-forgotten Colombian temple ruin. In fact, my crew is seeking the site of a now-lost Russian farm — the Kostromitinov Ranch — as part of ongoing archaeological efforts in and around the Fort Ross colony area. Nearly a week of searching and we still have no conclusive sign of our quarry.

By Week Three here at Archy Camp, my melodramatic side has begun to emerge, so please forgive the lurid descriptions. The fact is, we're all having a great big fat adventure up here, trying to do our part to expand the archaeological understanding of the Fort Ross area and its Kashaya indigenous peoples while getting valuable fieldwork experience. The hardships — and they are not inconsiderable — only heighten our sense of achievement, that what we're working towards is worth our meager sufferings. Plus they give us something to talk about around the campfire every night.

I spent a reasonable portion of today with the rest of our crew surveying a small creek bottom just south of here, and the going was rough enough to demand full-scale machete-chopping and trailblazing on occasion. As of yet, we haven't found anything that conclusively says we have located the Kostromitinov Ranch, but we think we're probably in the right neck of the woods — and woods they are. Much of the difficulty in locating the site is almost certainly due to the dense vegetation that has grown up in the long decades since the ranch was abandoned, or possibly dismantled.

The Kostromitinov Ranch was one of three ranches set up around the periphery of the Fort Ross colony in the early 1830s, following the sharp decline of the sea otter population that was being harvested in the surrounding area (Russian and native Alaskan hunters had overexploited the otters trying to turn a profit for their bosses back home). The goal of the ranches was to produce much-coveted grain, like wheat and barley, for the starving colonists of the Russian-American Company's colonies in the Pacific Rim, which had chronic supply problems.

With the damp and cool local weather conditions, and the resistance of the local Kashaya and Miwok peoples who had been shanghaied into toiling on them, the three ranches delivered lackluster results. The whole fort/settlement, along with the ranches, folded in 1841. According to historical documents, the colony was sold to John Sutter, who may have dismantled some of the properties, including the ranches.

Today there's no obvious sign that two of the three ranches ever existed. Kostromitinov disappeared altogether; it's our job to find it again. Using bills of sale and other records (including an old French map of the region), a likely location was pinpointed and our teams began moving in, scanning the dense thickets and redwood stands for traces of a wheat ranch. Anything — a lonely fence-post, an odd rock alignment, a strangely placed hole in the ground — might be suggestive, but as it stands now, we've got nothing but hunches.

This is why, in between interminable thwacks of the machete, I was picking blackberry thorns out of my thumb with my teeth this afternoon. We had to check this creek bottom for any sign of the ghost of Kostromitinov. Then, we found what may have been a stock pond, now barely visible on the hillside. And as I stopped to eat a big handful of ripe blackberries off a nearby bush, admiring the long view down the yellow-gold valley floor as I stood under the warm June sun, I briefly forgave those blackberries for mangling my hands earlier on that day.

— Andrew

Andrew Trlica is a fourth-year Integrated Biology and Anthropology major.