A colony from ancient Greece may have once occupied the site of the city. Numerous monuments of antiquity confirm links between this territory and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages these lands were a part of the Kievan Rus, Galich and Volyn Principality, the Golden Horde, the Great Lithuanian Principality, the Crimean Khanate and the Osman Empire. In the course of Turkish-Russian wars these lands were captured by Russia at the end of the 18th century. Catherine the Great founded Odessa in 1794. In 1764 Catherine the Great formed the territories newly acquired in the southwest other empire into a province called New Russia. During the Russian-Turkish war of 1787-1791, Don Josef de Ribas, a soldier of fortune born in Naples of Spanish and Irish stock and one of many adventures in Catherine's service, stormed the fortress of Yeny-Dunai at Khadzhibei. De Ribas and his close collaborator, a Dutch engineer named Franz de Volan, recommended Khadzhibei as the site for the region's principal port.
Its harbor was deep and nearly ice-free. Breakwaters, on the model of those found at Naples, Livorno and Ancona, could be cheaply constructed and would render the harbor safe even for large fleets. The Governor General of New Russia, Prince Platon Zubov one of Catherine's favorites gave decisive support to the latter proposal. In 1794, Catherine gave it her approval. She immediately sent twenty-six thousand rubles to de Ribas and de Volan to build a harbor. This new settlement was given the name Odessa.
The city's name came about as a result of an error. It was meant to be named after the ancient Greek city of Odessos or Ordissos, which was believed to have been founded in the vicinity. Actually, it was somewhere near the present day town of Varna in Bulgaria. But Catherine the Great liked "Adessa" as the Russians and Ukrainians pronounce it.
The free port was a guarantee of Odessa's financial security, a breakthrough into the civilized world, a dress rehearsal for the development of an open economy in the Russian Empire. Prominent administrators experienced and cultured governor-generals of the New Russia region put the transformation of Odessa into an advanced European city forward
The Crimean War (1853-1856) revealed the bankruptcy of the closed economy in feudal Russia compared to the developed capitalistic economies of the Great Britain and France. The war prompted the reforms of the 1860's. With new trade regulations, the free port regime in Odessa was out of date, and was eventually abolished.
By its hundredth anniversary (1894), Odessa occupied the 4th place in the Russian Empire in size and economic power - after St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw.