Russian Silver in Mexican California

Vallejo's Silver
Russian Silver in Mexican California
E. Breck Parkman 
Senior State Archaeologist  California State Parks
September 23, 2006

General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo
General Mariano Gudalupe Vallejo


In 2005, three silver tablespoons were donated to California State Parks by a descendent of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the former commandant of Mexico’s Northern Frontier and the founder of the City of Sonoma  (Above: Figure 1: General Vallejo)

According to the donor, the spoons were once part of Vallejo’s personal property (Fig. 2A). Especially striking are the Russian silver hallmarks borne by each of the matching spoons (Fig. 2B). Because Vallejo enjoyed a unique and historically important relationship with the Russian enclave at nearby Fort Ross, the finding of Russian items in his household is especially interesting.

Figure 2. Vallejo's Russian Silver Spoons
Figure 2. Vallejo's Russian Silver Spoons

The Spoons

The art of the silversmith in Russia can be traced to the time of Vladimir, c. 956-1015 (Wyler 1937:121). Mandatory hallmarking was introduced in 1700 which greatly benefited the industry, especially in the main silver production centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russian silversmiths divided their weight measure for silver into standard lots known as “zolotniks” (Belden and Snodin 1976:10). Pure silver consisted of 96 zolotniks. The “84” that is stamped on the three spoons means that their silver content is 875/1000 (i.e., 84/96).

Vallejo’s spoons reflect the Europeanization of Russian art that had been brought about by the reforms of Peter the Great during the second half of the 17th century (Gilodo 1994:10). By 1834, when Vallejo’s spoons were manufactured, Russia had become an integral part of European culture. Soon thereafter, Russian artists would embark on a quest for a national style. During the second half of the 19th century, Russian art embraced Romantic aesthetics while rejecting the Classicism that had characterized the art of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Figure 2C  Vallejo's Russian Silver Spoons

Vallejo’s spoons are more or less identical although they do have very slight variations in their measurements. The first spoon (#243-468-50) has an overall length of 8 11/16” and it is 1 ¾” wide at the bowl. The second spoon (#243-468-51) is 8 7/8” long and 1 ¾” wide. The third spoon (#243-468-52) is 8 ¾” long and 1 11/16 wide. All three spoons have downturned fiddle-ends with pointed shoulders and tapering pointed drops. The handles are stamped with a complicated cornucopia design. Each spoon has a shield-shaped cartouche near the terminal on which are found seemingly-identical rubbed and undecipherable monograms (Above: Fig. 2C).  The bowls of all three spoons are dented, indicative of relatively-heavy use.

The spoons bear identical hallmarks. These marks consist of the standard Russian silver marks known as the Maker’s Mark, Assayer’s Marks, Silver Standard Mark, and the City Hallmark. The hallmarks are represented by the letters “E.C.,” which represent the initials of the silversmith; the letters “M.K.,” which stand for M. Karpinsky, the official assayer in St. Petersburg from 1825-1838, and the year “1834,” which is the assay date; the numerals “84,” which indicates the Russian silver standard of 875/1000; and the “Anchor & Pick” symbol, the city mark for St. Petersburg. Thus, the hallmarks inform us that the three spoons are made of silver and they were made by silversmith E.C. and assayed by M. Karpinsky in 1834 in the city of St. Petersburg. I did not find E.C. listed in Paulson (1976) but this silversmith should be listed in Postnikova-Loseva (2003), the main reference for Russian silver.


Aleksander Gavrilovich Rotchev was the last Commandant (Manager) of Fort Ross. He first arrived at Fort Ross in mid-1836 and then returned to Alaska later that year. Rotchev returned to Fort Ross as its Commandant in 1838 and he remained there to the end of 1841. Rotchev was perhaps the most cultured of the Commandants who had served at Colony Ross:

“Rotchev, a talented and energetic man, arrived at Fort Ross in 1836 and within a short time had given a new tone to life at the settlement. A resourceful and effective administrator, he was also a man of enlightenment, who wrote well and was conversant in several languages” (Spencer-Hancock: 1978:20).

Vallejo's Russian Silver Figure 3.

Rotchev would have had various opportunities to present gifts to Vallejo, both as a company representative and as a neighbor (cf. Bancroft 1886:163, FN 13). Such an exchange is said to have occurred in 1841, when Rotchev and his wife, the Princess Elena, presented a silver chest to Vallejo (Bry 1978).  According to legend, the gift was presented to Vallejo in appreciation of his efforts to “save” Elena Rotchev from the advances of Vallejo’s main Indian ally, Chief Solano (cf. Older 1940). The silver service contained all the utensils necessary for setting an elegant table (Fig. 3).  (Above: Figure 3. Vallejo's Russian Silver)

Vallejo’s initials and the date, 1834, are monogrammed on some of the larger utensils. While the chest may have indeed been a gift from Rotchev to Vallejo, it is doubtful whether it had anything to do with Chief Solano. The story about Solano and Elena is at best an exaggeration and most likely pure myth.                                                   

In his discussion of the silver chest, Bry (1978) presents what he believes to be four plausible explanations for how Vallejo came to own it:

1. The gift may very well have been given at the time of the general’s initial visit to Fort Ross in 1833 in order to  foster harmonious relations with the representative of the Mexican government.

2. Secondly, he may have received it shortly after his original visit to the Russian establishment. Since several of the pieces are monogrammed “MGV 1834,” perhaps it was given in recognition of the grant of Rancho Petaluma which Vallejo received in 1834. It is also possible that he had received the silver set in 1833 or later, and had the monogram engraved to commemorate the grant of 44,000 acres of land comprising Rancho Petaluma.

3. A third explanation of the original gift is that it was presented at the time of the Russian withdrawal from California in 1841 for “courtesies received.”

4. The final explanation, of course, is that the romantic incident involving Chief Solano and Princess Helena actually occurred during her stay in California (Bry 1978:5, 8).

Spoons Figure 2B

Bry (1978:8) comes to the conclusion that the silver chest was most likely presented to Vallejo in 1841 for “courtesies received.” I agree with that assessment. The monogram bearing the date 1834 which is found on certain of the larger items in the chest could have been engraved on the items at any time by Vallejo. Therefore, this date has a very different meaning than the 1834 assay date that appears as a hallmark on the three spoons (Above: Fig. 2b). The latter means that the spoons were made in 1834. The former does not.

In addition to Rotchev, there are several other Russian dignitaries who either visited Fort Ross or were stationed there after 1834 who might themselves have presented the three spoons to Vallejo. For example, Peter Kostromitinov was commandant of Fort Ross from 1830-1838 and is a leading candidate for the gift giver, especially if the exchange was in 1835 or early 1836. Other visitors to Fort Ross after 1834 include Father Ioann Veniaminov (St. Innocent) in 1836, the agronomist Yegor Chernykh in 1837 (stayed to 1841), and artist Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesensky in 1840 (stayed to 1841). It is unlikely that one of these three presented the spoons to Vallejo. Instead, the spoons were most likely a personal gift from Rotchev to Vallejo, perhaps given in 1836 when Rotchev first visited the Ross settlement, or, more likely, in 1838, when he returned to Colony Ross to assume the role of Commandant.  The spoons might also have been official gifts from either the Russian government or the Russian American Company (rather than Rotchev’s personal gifts) presented to Vallejo via Rotchev. Since spoons made in St. Petersburg in 1834 would have taken at least a year to arrive at Fort Ross, an exchange date of 1836-1838 is plausible.  The Russian American Company in Alaska resumed its trade with California after the Gold Rush and the coming of the Americans, but it is highly unlikely that Vallejo’s spoons entered the state at that late date (Tikhmenev 1978:335-337).

There was a steady and ongoing exchange between the Californios and the Russians at Fort Ross. In 1833, 25-year old Captain Mariano Vallejo, then the Commandant of the San Francisco Presidio, visited Fort Ross on the behalf of Governor José Figueroa (Vallejo 2000). Vallejo was treated with great respect by Manager Peter Kostromitinov. While there, Vallejo purchased books, clothing, saddles, guns, and cutlasses (Hunter 1992:18). Vallejo’s purchase of books at Fort Ross is especially noteworthy given the Church’s efforts to restrict the spread of books in California prior to the 1830s. During the Mexican Republic era, however, there was an influx of books into the communities of the Californios (Weber 1982:231). This helped to create an upper class society that would have appreciated such fineries as Vallejo’s silver spoons.

Vallejo also obtained gunpowder and uniforms from the Russians, suggesting that neither party perceived the other as hostile to its own interests (Watrous 1998:15). As an example of the unique relationship that existed between Californio and Russian, Vallejo entered into a treaty in 1836 with the Satiyomi Chief Succara that allowed Indians to return kidnapped Indians and stolen horses to either Sonoma or Fort Ross where they would be given a reward (Farris 1989a). The specific references to the Russians in certain of the treaty’s provisions serve as evidence of Vallejo’s good relations with the inhabitants of Fort Ross:

Article 4. As a guarantee of the good faith of the Satiyomi nation, the Great Chief Succara will send to reside in Sonoma his brother, Cali-vengo (Loma brava) and his sons, Ipuy Succara and Calpela Succara who will be housed in the house of the Commandant General, during which time if they comport themselves well will be treated as if they were Russian officials.

Article 9. The chiefs of the Satiyomis promise to deliver within the space of one moon in the valley of Sonoma or at Fort Ross all the children of the Cainamero and Suison tribes that they have taken prisoner in the course of the last three years.

Article 10. The Comandante-General, Mariano Vallejo, will give orders to his overseer at the Petaluma rancho that for each prisoner turned over by Succara or his subalterns in the Plaza of Sonoma or at Fort Ross, he will give Succara “un caballo de falsa rienda” (a horse not trained to the bit but led by a hackamore)” (Farris 1989b:486).

Vallejo (1890:187) recalled that the Russians purchased a lot of goods from the missions. For example, Camillo Ynitia, a Coast Miwok tribal chief and close ally of Vallejo’s, traded wheat to the Russians as had the mission padres before him (Carlson and Parkman 1986:239). On the other hand, Sutter recalled that Californios often visited Fort Ross in order to purchase needed goods (Gibson 1976:188, citing Sutter n.d.:24). Apparently, the trade that occurred at Fort Ross was crucial to the existence of both the Californios and Russians (Gibson: 1976:174-198). It is clear that the two communities needed each other as trading partners to make ends meet. For example, the years 1835-1836 were especially difficult for the Russians as they experienced the almost complete failure of their crops in both years, and were thus forced to purchase most of their grain from the Californios (Tikhmenev 1978:226).

It seems unlikely that Russian-made spoons like those from Vallejo’s estate would have been transported from Russia to Fort Ross for the purpose of trade. As Glenn Farris has pointed out, Russia-made artifacts are rare at Fort Ross:

There is a certain level of frustration and disappointment when excavating on a “Russian” site in California. It stems from the dearth of clearly Russian artifacts. For the most part, the Russian-American Company relied on the importation of goods through American and British merchants who plied the west coast of America. Ceramics, glass, gunflints, and, of course, many perishable goods such as cloth, all came from the same suppliers who visited the other ports of the Pacific coast (Farris 1989b:492).

There is a certain level of frustration and disappointment when excavating on a “Russian” site in California. It stems from the dearth of clearly Russian artifacts. For the most part, the Russian-American Company relied on the importation of goods through American and British merchants who plied the west coast of America. Ceramics, glass, gunflints, and, of course, many perishable goods such as cloth, all came from the same suppliers who visited the other ports of the Pacific coast (Farris 1989b:492).

Figure 2A Vallejo's Three Silver Spoons

Pots and pans were among the numerous items that Californios purchased at Fort Ross (Gibson 1976:188). Limited amounts of flatware may have also been traded. However, even if flatware was imported to be sold at Fort Ross, it seems unlikely that silver implements would have been among the imports destined for the general market. It is more likely that limited amounts of inexpensive flatware made of non-silver alloys (such as Sheffield Plate and German Silver) would have been imported from Britain. Pure silver implements such as Vallejo’s three spoons only make sense as special gift items or as special purchases by the elite and not as everyday trade ware.

Between 1821-1846, social and cultural changes resulted in an upper class of Californios who’s “growing affluence and access to material goods began to grind away the rough edges of frontier life” (Weber 1982:207). A fine silver service, including tablespoons like the three discussed herein, would have added greatly to Vallejo’s prestige as a man of culture and sophistication. Others of Vallejo’s socio-economic rank are known to have used silver flatware (Weber 1982:223). For example, Edwin Bryant (1985:270) noted that when he ate dinner with John Sutter in 1847, “The first course consisted of good soup, served to each guest in a china bowl with silver spoons.” And regarding Andrés Pico, J.E. Pleasants (quoted in Robinson 1961) noted that

He [Andrés Pico] lived in a luxurious style and had a large household of trained servants, chiefly Indians. Like the grandee that he was, he entertained lavishly. His silver and china table-service made a brilliant display.

On the other hand, working people had no access to and little need for silver spoons. José del Carmel Lugo (2001) described the serving bowls and spoons that were used by all but the richest of the Californios:

Those who had plates, who were few in number, ate on them. Those who did not have then used flat clay bowls, which had the same shape as the ordinary plate. Knives, forks, and spoons such as used today on the table, were possessed by only a few people. With the poorer class, which was the greater part of the population, the general thing was to use forks and spoons of horn. Those who did not have even this, made a spoon for every mouthful by loading the meat, or beans, or whatever they had, on a piece of tortilla, and all went together in the stomach. Their knives were the ones they used for all work.

Indeed, during the archaeological investigation of Vallejo’s Rancho Petaluma, only seven items of cutlery and flatware were recovered from the worker’s residential area (Silliman 2004:119-120). All but one of these items were bits and pieces of knife blades and handles. A single fragment of a “white-metal spoon” (a less expensive and much more common form of metalware than silver) was found on the surface of the midden (Silliman 2000:Fig. 8.20f).  It is somewhat surprising that any flatware was found on the Native Californian residential site at Rancho Petaluma. For comparison, flatware specimens have yet to be found on the residential sites of the Native Californian and Native Alaskan workers at Fort Ross (Ballard 1995; Lightfoot et al. 1997). But whereas inexpensive silver plated flatware might occasionally be found on such sites, I would not expect to find in such a context examples of pure silver flatware like Mariano Vallejo’s three Russian spoons.  These spoons are exceptionally valuable and prestigious and they would not likely have ever entered the archaeological record other than in very unique and limited circumstances.


Vallejo’s Russian spoons most likely represent the remnants of a long-forgotten gift exchange between an official at Fort Ross and Vallejo. Since the spoons were assayed in 1834, and it took about a year for goods to travel from St. Petersburg to California, the exchange would have happened no earlier than 1835 and probably no later than 1841, when the Russians departed California.

I suspect that the gift giver was Aleksander Rotchev, who was resident at Fort Ross in 1836 and again from 1838-1841. The spoons may have been presented to Vallejo during Rotchev’s brief stay at Fort Ross in 1836. However, it is more likely that the spoons were given to Vallejo after Rotchev returned to Fort Ross to assume the position of Commandant in 1838. As the new Commandant of Fort Ross, Rotchev would have had more reason and occasion to entertain Vallejo. As has been pointed out elsewhere,

Vallejo appears to have had a particular friendship with Alexander Rotchev, the last commandant of Fort Ross, and his wife, the former Princess Elena Pavlovna (néé Gagarin). In the collection of the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco is a magnificent silver tea service and traveling set which the Rotchevs gave the Vallejos. And Vallejo, equally munificent in his gifts, in one instance sent the Rotchevs a new carriage. Several letters between Rotchev and Vallejo detail how routine and necessary trade between Sonoma and Fort Ross continued to be, even in those last days (Pritchard 1992:30).

Finally, it should be noted that it is highly unlikely that the spoons were derived from the silver chest that the Rotchevs are said to have presented to Vallejo in 1841, supposedly in gratitude of Mariano’s fabled and perhaps greatly exaggerated rescue of Elena from Chief Solano (Bry 1978; Older 1940).  While it is likely that the chest was a gift from the Rotchevs, it is most unlikely that the gift had anything to do with Solano. Additionally, the chest may have been presented to Vallejo (or purchased by him) before 1841. Regardless of when the chest was presented to (or purchased by) Vallejo, it seems clear to me that the three spoons predate Vallejo’s ownership of the chest and thus they represent a gift (or purchase) quite unique from it.

References Cited

Ballard, Hannah S.
1995 Searching for Metini: Synthesis and Analysis of Unreported Archaeological Collections from Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. B.A. honors thesis, University of California, Berkeley.

Bancroft, Hubert Howe
1886 History of California, Vol. IV, 1840-1845. San Francisco: The History Company, Publishers.

Belden, Gail and Michael Snodin
1996 Spoons. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company.

Benté, Vance G.
1976 “…Well,…A Borrow Pit and Six Privies.” In The Changing Face of Main Street: Ventura Mission Plaza Archaeological Project, Roberta S. Greenwood, ed., pp. 299-350.

Bry, Stanleigh
1978 The Vallejo Silver. San Francisco: Society of California Pioneers.

Bryant, Edwin
1985 What I Saw in California. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press [First published in 1848]

Farris, Glenn J.
1987 Archaeology of the Old “Magasin” at Ross Counter, California. Paper presented at the Second International Conference on Russian America, Sitka, Alaska, August 22.

1989a A Peace Treaty between Mariano Vallejo and Satiyomi Chief Succara.
Paper presented at the 5th California Indian Conference, Arcata, California.

1989b The Russian Imprint on the Colonization of California. In Columbian Consequences, Volume 1, David Hurst Thomas, editor, pp. 481-497. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Gibson, James R.
1976 Imperial Russia in Frontier America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gilodo, Andrei
1994 Russian Silver. Moscow: Beresta.

Hunter, Alexander
1992 Vallejo: A California Legend. Sonoma, California: Sonoma State Historic Park Association.

Lightfoot, Kent G., Ann M. Schiff, and Thomas A. Wake, Editors
1997 The Native Alaskan Neighborhood: A Multiethnic Community at Colony Ross. The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Fort Ross, California, Volume 2. Contributions of the University of California Archaeological Research Facility Number 55. Berkeley.

Lugo, José del Carmel
2001 Life of a Rancher. [Quoted in Picturing Mexican California, 1821-1846.
Vol. II, Women’s Work: Kitchen – Home. Mary A. Helmich, ed. 2001. Sacramento: California State Parks, Interpretive and Education Division.]

Newland, Michael D. and Michael D. Meyer
2003 Archaeological Excavations of the Old and New Russian Magazins, Fort Ross State Historic Park, Sonoma County, California. Report on file at California State Parks, Sacramento.

Older, Cora Miranda Baggerly
1940 Love Stories of Old California. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Paulson, Paul L.
1976 Guide to Russian Silver Hallmarks. Privately printed.

Postnikova-Loseva, Marina Mikhailovna
2003 Gold and silver in XV-XX Century Russia.  Saint Petersburg, Russia: Kometa-2 Printing-House.

Pritchard, Diane Spencer
1992 Joint Tenants of the Frontier: Russian/Hispanic Interactions in Alta California, 1812-1841.
The Californians 9(5):19-31.

Robinson, W.W.
1961 The Story of San Fernando Valley. Los Angeles: Title Insurance and Trust Company.

Silliman, Stephen W.
2000 Colonial Worlds, Indigenous Practices: The Archaeology of Labor on a 19th-Century California Rancho. PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

2004 Lost Laborers in Colonial California: Native Americans and the Archaeology of Rancho Petaluma.
Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Spencer-Hancock, Dianne
1978 Fort Ross. Jenner, California: Fort Ross Interpretive Association.

Sutter, John A.
n.d. Personal Reminiscences. Manuscript on file at Bancroft Library, Berkeley.

Tikhmenev, P.A.
1978 A History of the Russian-American Company. Translated and edited by Richard A. Pierce and Alton S. Donnelly. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Vallejo, Mariano
1890 Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California. Century Magazine, pp. 183-192.

2000 Report of a Visit to Fort Ross and Bodega Bay in April 1833. Glenn Farris and Rose-Marie Beebe, Translators. California Mission Studies Association Occasional Paper #4.

Watrous, Stephen
1998 Fort Ross: The Russian Colony in California. In Fort Ross, Lyn Kalani, Lynn Rudy, and John Sperry (eds.), pp. 11-20. Jenner, California: Fort Ross Interpretive Association.

Weber, David J.
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Wyler, Seymour B.
1937 The Book of Old Silver. New York: Crown Publishers.

 1. It is conceivable (albeit unlikely) that the monograms represent Vallejo’s initials (“MGV”). The feint condition of the engraved letters makes it impossible to rule out this possibility.
2. Regrettably, I did not have access to a copy of Postnikova-Loseva in order to search for this hallmark.

3. It is not clear to me if the items in the silver chest were made in Russia or perhaps imported from elsewhere (e.g., England). An examination of the hallmarks found on the utensils would easily clarify the origin of their manufacture.

4.The silver chest and its contents are the property of the Society of California Pioneers, and are curated at the Society’s headquarters located at 300 Fourth Street in San Francisco.

5. It is conceivable, albeit unlikely, that Vallejo purchased the spoons from Rotchev or someone else at Fort Ross following the April 15, 1839 proclamation by the Russian emperor to” abandon Colony Ross after first selling off all of its provisions” (Tikhmenev 1978:232).

6. The spoons would have either traveled overland from St. Petersburg going east to Okhotsk or another of Russia’s Pacific ports, and then by ship to Alaska and on to California, or, more likely, by ship from St. Petersburg around the world to California. Either way, the trip was grueling and over a year in duration (Gibson 1976:73-89; Tikhmenev 1978:18-19).
7. As might be expected, previous archaeological investigations of the Russian “magazin” (warehouse) at Fort Ross failed to recover any specimens of flatware (Farris 1987; Newland and Meyer 2003).
8. The spoon is not pure silver but either Sheffield Plate (a metalware of copper that was silver plated by fusion, first created c. 1742) or, more likely, German Silver (an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper which came into common use c. 1835). It may also be Electro-Plated Nickel Silver (electroplating was invented in 1840 and proved to be a less expensive method of silver plating metalware objects).

9. For example, in 1975, I helped excavate an historic refuse deposit (Feature 8) at the site of Mission Buenaventura (CA-VEN-87/H) that dated to c. 1825 and contained, “…1 silver plated fork with 4 tines and the handle from a silver plated fork or spoon, each of which was too badly deteriorated for identification, and 4 metal shank handles with riveted bone scales from forks or knives” (Benté 1976:329).
10. Such as in the case of interment in graves as elite burial goods or perhaps in the remnants of a burned structure that had contained such artifacts.

11. I have not had the opportunity to inspect any of the silver pieces in the silver chest, and thus I do not know if those pieces bear the same hallmarks as the three spoons. However, I have studied detailed photographs depicting the contents of the chest. From my inspection of the photographs of the silver chest, I do not believe that the three spoons were ever part of its contents. The three spoons with the 1834 hallmarks are quite different from the spoons pictured in the chest. The spoons in the chest are fiddle-handled but with no shoulders, and they lack the stamped cornucopia design with the shield-shaped cartouche.