Russian Molokan Immigrants Land at Angel Island

Editor’s note: The earliest group of Russian immigrants to arrive in San Francisco were Molokan peasants from the Kars region of the Transcaucaus in 1905. Religious dissenters from the Russian Orthodox Church, they were called “Molokane” or “milk drinker” by the Russian clergy because of their refusal to abstain from drinking milk or eating meat during the Orthodox fast days. The group called themselves “Spiritual Christian Holy Jumpers” and also refused to bear arms. They were persecuted and exiled into the wilds of the Transcaucasian region in 1820 and threatened with conscription into the military after 1887. Fearful of their future as religious dissenters and pacifists in a hostile land, approximately 3,000 Molokans embarked on a clandestine journey to America between 1904 and 1911. Traveling in large and small groups of families, most of them entered at the ports of New York, Montreal, and Galveston. At least 300 came via Panama and thus ended up at the port of San Francisco.

Though the Immigration Station on Angel Island did not open until January 21, 1910, the government ran a quarantine station in Ayala Cove from 1891 to 1946. Many of the Molokans settled in Los Angeles, the Central Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and in Arizona and Oregon.  For a time there was also a Russian Molokan colony in Baja California, near Ensenada. This is the story of Alex Babashoff’s journey to America. The Immigration Station had not yet been built, but he stayed in the quarantine station on Ayala Cove on Angel Island.

My grandfather Alexandr Ivanovich Babashoff, “Alex,” immigrated to America via Panama arriving in San Francisco in 1905, where he was quarantined for a time on Angel Island. His journey began at the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia, with a group of fellow Russian Molokans, a spiritual Christian sect that practiced their faith separately from the dominant Russian Orthodox Church.

Many Molokans originally lived in and around the city of Tambov, about 450 km southeast of Moscow. Count Leo Tolstoy, who lived nearby, took notice of and admired their pacifist and communal way of living. Because their beliefs were contrary to the state-supported religion and with a growing number of followers, government and church authorities considered Molokans a threat. In 1839 the Tsar ordered Molokans to resettle in southern regions of the Russian Empire beyond the Caucasus Mountains – present day Armenia, Georgia and Russian-occupied territory in the eastern part of Turkey. Once in this frontier area, the families were granted temporary exemptions from military service and were able to more freely practice their religion.

Following a prophecy within the greater Molokan community that foretold of a migration to a promised “land of milk and honey” where they could enjoy more religious freedom, a group of elders explored North America for a potential new homeland. Tolstoy encouraged them to pick Canada where he was instrumental in resettling another sectarian group called the Doukhobors, but they chose California.

Alex was born in one of the small agricultural villages surrounding Kars, Turkey, in the shadow of Mt. Ararat in 1886. In February 1905 he and my grandmother (“Babunya”) Masha welcomed their first child Tanya (“Aunt Jennie”).

In 1904 Russia went to war with Japan. By 1905 the Tsar was in need of more young men for his army, and the military service exemption granted to the Molokans expired. Alex was 19 years old and therefore a prime candidate to be conscripted. He knew it was time to follow the prophecy even if it meant leaving his new family behind. He was confident he could arrange for them to be reunited soon. So Alex joined a group of about 144 men, women and children that boarded the ship (name unknown) in Batumi in March of 1905 for the journey to a new home in America.

Port of Batumi

The first leg of the journey was across the Black Sea with a stop in the Ukrainian city of Odessa before passing through the Bosphorus Strait. Their next stop was Constantinople (now called Istanbul), Turkey, but they were not permitted to go ashore. The ship then passed through Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea before entering the Mediterranean. A few days later, the ship dropped anchor in Marseilles, France. From there some of the original group continued on to Ellis Island in New York while the majority was directed to the Panama Canal Zone.

The group observed Passover which occurred between April 5 and April 12 in 1905 during their Atlantic Ocean crossing.

After several days at sea, the ship arrived in Colon on the eastern Caribbean shore of Panama. Since the canal was still under construction, they had to cross the isthmus by train to Balboa on the Pacific side.

Train across Panama Canal Zone

The officials told the elders of the group that they needed to pay more money to book passage to California. Not everyone had enough money left, so they found construction jobs on the Panama Canal project.

It was hard work in the tropical climate. The weather was hot and humid, which reminded them of stepping into a banya (Russian steam bath). There were many disease-carrying insects. Many of the workers before them had caught malaria from the mosquitoes. A yellow fever epidemic had just been reported.

At first, the foreman refused to pay the Molokans for their labor.  Instead, he asked them to stay and work longer. The elders protested and told him they must join their brothers and sisters in Los Angeles.

For the last leg of the journey, the Molokan immigrants divided into three groups.  Each group sailed on ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line at different times. It took up to 23 days for the voyage from Panama to San Francisco, California.

The first group of forty-five immigrants departed Ancon, Panama, aboard the S.S. San Juan on May 12, 1905. The ship made a few port calls along the way including La Union, El Salvador, on May 19, San Jose, Guatemala, on May 21 and Mazatlan, Mexico, on May 28 before arriving in San Francisco on June 5. An article in the San Francisco Call newspaper the next day (June 5, 1905) included this description of the party: “The Slavs are of the peasant class, clean and healthy in appearance and not unintelligent. The party includes about a score of babies and young children.”

S.S. San Juan

The passenger manifest indicates that one baby boy was born at sea, one man died on June 5, and eleven Molokans were held in quarantine on Angel Island for observation or to be treated for various eye and skin afflictions, such as trachoma, impetigo, seborrhea and eczema.

The rest of the Molokans stayed together in Panama and worked for another couple of months. Eventually, they all earned enough money to leave. Of course, this was not without paying a price in human life and suffering. Some of the Molokan children died and were buried in Panama.

The second group also sailed on the San Juan, which left Ancon on July 18, 1905, with at least one stop in Acajutla, El Salvador, on July 22 before docking in San Francisco on August 3. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the immigrants were placed in quarantine at Ayala Cove on Angel Island. There they were only able to take cold water baths.  Twenty-eight people from the second group were initially rejected by immigration officials and not permitted to enter the United States. The San Francisco Call (August 1905, unknown date) described these passengers as “a detachment of the long-haired and bewhiskered agriculturists.” The article went on to say,

“The San Juan on account of the Russians was ordered to the quarantine station, where the ship, steerage passengers and their effects will be thoroughly fumigated. The ship was released late in the afternoon. The San Juan brought only a few cabin passengers, who were not detained in quarantine.”

The elders went to see officials at the Russian consulate in San Francisco and asked for assistance in sending a telegram to President Theodore Roosevelt. The elders explained that they were all healthy when they started the journey, but a few became sick while working for an American company in the Canal Zone. Eventually, the sick ones were granted exemptions, and everyone was permitted to enter the United States of America. However, one woman passed away on August 9 while still in quarantine. She was buried in San Francisco. Then the rest of the group took a train to Los Angeles.

Alex sailed with the last group of forty-seven Molokan immigrants to leave the Canal Zone aboard the S.S. Newport, which arrived in San Francisco on August 25, 1905, five months after beginning his journey. According to an article appearing in the San Diego Union the next day,

“All hands were sent to the quarantine station on Angel Island for examination. On the way up from Panama a 10-year-old child died of bronchitis and was buried at sea.”

S.S. Newport

Like the others in his group, Alex took the train to Los Angeles to begin a new life in America. As he had hoped, his wife Masha and baby daughter Tanya (Jennie) were able to immigrate the following year along with other members of the Babashoff family led by Alex’s grandparents. Their route took them overland to Bremen, Germany, where they boarded the S.S.Chemnitz of the North German Lloyd steamship line. Their ship crossed the Atlantic with a stop in Baltimore, Maryland, before disembarking the steerage passengers in Galveston, Texas, on May 26, 1906. From there, they took a train to Los Angeles.

Alex and Masha raised a family of three boys and six girls.

They lived on Soto Street in Boyle Heights and then Eagle Street in East Los Angeles. Alex held a variety of laborer jobs, including work at the Patten-Blinn Lumber Yard.

Alex died in 1938 at the age of 52 and Masha in 1968 at age 79. Their legacy so far includes nine children, eight grandchildren, including the author, sixteen great-grandchildren, twenty-one great-great grandchildren, and one great-great-great grandchild.    


Bill Aldacushion is a descendant of Russian Molokan immigrants who grew up in Southern California. He was educated at the University of Southern California earning an undergraduate degree in economics followed by an MBA. His professional career spanned 40 years as a manager with IBM with various positions in sales, marketing, consulting and solution development focused on the global government, education and health industry segments. Retired now, Bill resides in Virginia where he supports the music and arts through numerous volunteer activities in the Washington DC area. He has researched, written and informally published several genealogy and family history reports. He also maintains the web site which documents another aspect of his Russian ancestry.

Special thanks to Judy Yung for editing assistance.