The Russian River area has a long and rich history.
The coast was originally populated by the Kashia band of Pomo Indians, who called the inland area "Ceola" which means "shady place," in reference to the cool and dark environment redwoods provide. The Kashia lived on the coast, but, in the heat of the summer, the Kashia would camp along the river, which they called "Shabaiki," or "south water place."
In 1811, Russia established Fort Ross, along with a second group of buildings in Bodega Bay which served as a seaport and warehousing center for the sea otter pelts they collected and the food they grew for their Alaskan colonies. The Russians hired the Kashia for manual labor, and the two communities lived together peaceably, which led to many Russian-Kashia marriages and families.
The Russians left in the fall and winter of 1841-1842, selling their possessions to John Sutter, who moved everything moveable to Sacramento. Mexican and American settlers began moving into the area, encroaching on the Kashia food-gathering territory, forcing the natives to work for wages. Landowners often had small Indian rancherias attached.
Around 1870, the Kashia began to concentrate at the Haupt ("hop") Ranch, owned by Charlie Haupt, who had married a Kashia woman; two villages on his land, Potol and Abaloneville, which became chief Kashia settlements.
In 1914, California bought a small plot as a Kashia reservation, and, by 1919, most of the Kashia had moved there, but, water supplies ran out every summer and life was hard. In 1916, and again in 1939, the Indian Bureau offered to buy agricultural land in the Russian River valley, but their spiritual leader, Annie Jarvis, encouraged isolation and turned down the offer. World War II brought war jobs to other parts of the area, leading to temporary abandonment of the reservation. Today, only about a third of the Kashia population lives there year-round.
At the same time that Europeans were making their first voyages to the New World, Russia was making similar forays into America's northwest coast, and, in 1741, claimed the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. By the early 1800's, a strong fur trade had been established, and, in 1808, the Russian-American Company (a joint stock company similar to the Dutch East India Company) established its headquarters on the island of Sitka.
From there, they established relations with the Spanish and, in, 1811, established Fort Ross, just a few miles north of the mouth of the Russian River, as an agricultural supply post. By the late 1830's, however, the sea otter population had been depleted and the Company's other efforts proved profitless. By 1842, the Russian-American Company had sold its assets to Captain John Sutter and left the area.
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish built 21 missions along El Camino Real ("The Royal Road') which began in San Diego and ended with the Mission San Francisco Solano in present-day Sonoma, established in 1823.
Land grants followed and, in 1833, Mariano Vallejo constructed California's first power-operated commercial sawmill.
The Gold Rush of 1849 brought a wave of immigration to the area, as well as an eruption of new industry, and, in 1854, Samuel and Alexander Duncan built a lumber mill at Salt Point. In 1860, they moved the mill to Bridge Haven on the Russian River. In 1877, they relocated again to the present location of Duncan Mills (with the mill and other town buildings sent up river by raft!).
In 1856, S.H. Torrance built a cabin across the Russian River from Big Bottom, the redwood grove once located in present-day downtown Guerneville. In 1860, he put up the first sawmill in the Big Bottom area - about 400 yards upstream from the present Guerneville Bridge. Soon, loggers swarmed the area, felling so many ancient trees that the area soon earned the nickname of "Stumptown."
In 1867, Swiss immigrant George E. Guerne arrived, building a mill of his own, developing the area known as Guernewood Park, and lending his name to the current town of Guerneville.
In 1891, Colonel J.B. Armstrong had his Guerneville mill torn down after discovering that his trees were unsuitable for lumber. A year later, he set aside 640 acres for a botanical park, present-day Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
Eventually, with the building boom the arose in the wake of the Gold Rush fading, and the supply of trees quickly diminishing, the logging industry came to a halt. Logging companies sold off land in parcels subdivided into the neighborhoods of Rio Nido (Eagle's Nest), Guernewood Park and Villa Grande.
The Wine Makers
In 1872, three brothers from Bohemia, Francisc, Anton and Joseph Korbel, bought timber land east of Guerneville. There, they built a saw mill. As the lumber business declined, the brothers consulted experts at U.C. Davis, who analyzed their soil and advised them that conditions would be perfect for growing grapes. In 1880, the Korbel brothers planted their first vineyard, and, in 1894, began producing wine in the Methode Champenoise style.
In the 1920s, getting to the Russian River area had been made easy through a system of trains and ferries that serviced the area. A popular "triangle trip" included a ferry trip from Sausalito to Tomales, followed by a series of train rides that took you through Occidental, Monte Rio, Santa Rosa and then back down to Sausalito. The River had now become a popular recreational destination.
Resorts along the river were booming with casinos, dance pavilions and bands came up from San Francisco and played all summer long. At that time, a water taxi ran from Guerneville Beach to Rio Nido, stopping along the way at the string of resorts in between.
The area suffered through the Depression like the rest of the country, but by the 1930s, Prohibition had ended and big bands were playing in Rio Nido again and cars had become such a popular form of transportation that the railroad pulled out of the area completely.
During World War II, the area was jumping with casinos and military personnel from San Francisco would visit on leave. After the war, as with many other areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, returning veterans remembered the beauty of the area and chose the Russian River for their homes.
Throughout the 1950s, the bands, the dancing, the popularity of road trips and the baby boom all added up to a thriving summer resort area and people from all around the Bay Area began building their summer homes there.
In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution came to the River and, honestly, has yet to leave. When you visit west Sonoma County, you should expect to be embraced by the attitudes and surrounded by the symbols of that era.
In the 1970s, the Russian River became a popular destination for gay men, with many of them buying and restoring homes and businesses, pumping money into the area. It remains a very gay-friendly place with many of the biggest businesses LGBT-owned and gay-themed festivals year-round, including the world-famous annual Lazy Bear Weekend.
Since then, in addition to remaining a popular spot for summer homes, with some families keeping cabins in the family for many generations, the area has also developed into a bedroom community of Santa Rosa.