On April 6, 1806, Nikolai Rezanov, the Russian Tsar’s chamberlain in Alaska, sailed into San Francisco Bay on the Juno, an 83-foot three-masted ship. Rezanov’s immediate and obvious mission was to save the Russian colony of Sitka from impending starvation by trading shipboard goods with the Spaniards in California for food.
Rezanov was also looking for a place on the California coast to establish a Russian colony that could produce its own grain and beef and solve the perennial Russian Alaskan food supply problem without having to deal with the Spanish. Such a colony would also give the Russians and their Alutiiq hunters access to the still-abundant California sea otters, animals that were rapidly being hunted in Alaska.
Rezanov had purchased the Juno at Sitka the previous October from a 24-year-old Rhode Island ship captain, John deWolf, who had sailed from New England in August 1804, rounded Cape Horn and arrived in Alaska in August 1805, loaded hardware, rum, tobacco, pearls, beef jerky, firearms and cotton fabrics.
The owners of Juno’s Rhode Island had instructed deWolf to trade the goods for sea otter pelts on the northwest coast, to sell them in Canton, China, for silk, Nankeen cotton cloth, painted china dishes and firecrackers, and to bring these luxuries back to New England, where they would be worth a fortune.
But when Rezanov saw the Juno sailing to Sitka, he realized the ship could provide the meanss to get to California. After tough negotiations with deWolf, Rezanov bought the ship and the last third of her cargo with a $54,000 draft on the Russian American Co., $13,000 worth of sea otter pelts, a fully rigged Russian brig, armed and provisioned, and a letter of safe passage for deWolf to St. Petersburg and thence home in New England.
The money, furs, and ship traded by Rezanov for the Juno were worth double what the ship and its cargo were worth in Rhode Island. deWolfe eventually made it to St. Petersburg, picked up the note, and returned to Rhode Island, where he gave up the sea, became a farmer, married one of Herman Melville’s aunts, and lived a long life. and prosper. He died in his bed in 1872 at the age of 93.
In San Francisco Bay, the Spanish were wary of Rezanov and the Russian presence in their lightly guarded California colony. Colonial authorities in Mexico had forbidden the Spanish in California to trade with the Russians, but the Juno needed repairs, which the Spanish allowed. And while the ship was laid up, the Russians injected a welcome dose of social sparkle into the small settlement of Yerba Buena, on the site of the future city of San
Francisco and Castillo San Joaquin, the nearby fort whose cannons guarded the entrance to the bay.
The Spanish commandant of Castillo San Joaquin was Don José Dario Arguello, who had a host of beautiful children, including a son and several daughters. The Arguellos were charming and friendly and led the local social hierarchy. The light of the family was 15-year-old Concepcion, who everyone called “Concha.” She was beautiful and lively and not particularly shy.
Dances, dinners and outings with the Russian officers ensued. Nikolai Rezanov, a veteran of the imperial court in St. Petersburg and looking for a way to open a commercial relationship with the Spaniards, was a big fish in the small social pond of Castillo San Joaquin. He could be intense and calculating, essential qualities for the czar’s man in America, but at 41 he was also handsome and tall and charming when he wanted to be.
By 1806, however, after a hard three-year journey from Mother Russia to Alaska and then to California, Rezanov was physically exhausted. He also still bore the emotional scars of losing his 21-year-old wife Anna in childbirth three years prior.
While Rezanov sincerely mourned his young wife, her death vested the Russian American Co. shares she had inherited as the daughter of Gregory Shelikof, one of the original company’s founders, in Rezanov. The wealth and power of these actions gave Rezanov access to the court and presumably led to his appointment as chamberlain to the Tsar and point man in California.
And then, as Rezanov negotiated with the Spanish authorities over a possible trade deal by day and dined and danced in local Spanish society by night, this sad, worldly older man and Commander Arguello’s daughter, Concha, grew closer. Maybe it was Rezanov’s physical and emotional vulnerability that caught Concha’s heart, or maybe he was just a dazzling, overwhelming presence for an inexperienced young girl, but despite it all, and perhaps inevitably, Concha fell deeply in love.
Rezanov’s feelings are more difficult to know. Although he was obviously attracted to Concha, perhaps he couldn’t even untangle her scarred emotional history, his feelings for Concha, and the goals of his government mission. In a secret report to St. Petersburg, Rezanov revealed that although his feelings for the girl were “not conceived with great passion”, he still felt “remnants of feelings which in the past were a source of happiness in my life”, apparently a side reference to Anna’s memories. Acting on what appeared to be these genuine feelings and intending to behave honorably towards Concha, he asked her to marry him.
And yet, Rezanov’s calculating nature was not absent from his affections for the girl, and in letters to St. Petersburg he revealed his intention to use the marriage to conclude a trade agreement with the Spaniards and cement a business relationship between the Russian American. Co. and the Spanish government in California. It was a complicated matter of the head and the heart, but as must have been obvious to everyone at Castillo San Joaquin, except perhaps Concha, strategic marriages like this – solidifying the relationships between families and kingdoms – have had a long and not always unfortunate history in the world.
Commander Arguello and his wife, however, were stunned at the thought of Rezanov marrying their daughter. Marrying a non-Catholic Orthodox Russian was a big deal for them, but also the thought of their Concha flying away, perhaps never to be seen again, when Rezanov finished his business in California.
For her part, Concha was adamant in her intention to marry Rezanov. The parents played for time by enlisting the priests to send a letter to Rome asking for advice, a strategy guaranteed to take several years. And despite Rezanov’s dismissal of religious difference as a relevant issue, he himself would need the Tsar’s approval to marry the daughter of a Spanish military officer. He contented himself with a written engagement agreement, subject to the approval of the Pope and the Tsar.
Over the next few weeks, Rezanov became an unofficial member of the Arguello family, while trying to broker a business deal with Spanish authorities. Good relations abounded, and the Spanish governor conceded a one-time deal to trade goods in the Juno’s hold for food for Alaska, but granted no long-term deal.
On May 21, six weeks after arriving in San Francisco Bay, the Juno set sail for Sitka.
Rezanov sailed with her, bound for St. Petersburg and an audience with the Tsar. Rezanov’s trip to Russia and back, and the Pope’s permission to marry, if it could be granted, would take two or three years.
Residents of Castillo San Joaquin waved from the shore. Concha swore to wait. On the trip to Kamchatka, Rezanov wrote a lengthy report outlining his grand vision for a Russian-American California, an empire of cattle, grain, timber and trade, fueled by Chinese labor and thousands of Russian immigrants. This vision, minus Russian immigrants but including Chinese workers, would come to fruition a few decades later, but it would be Americans, not Russians or Spaniards, who would make it happen. And of course, Rezanov knew nothing about the Sacramento River gold, the discovery of which would trigger a tsunami of Americans in 1848.
From Petropavlovsk, Rezanov rode across the Siberian deserts, escorted by Cossack horsemen. In March 1807, he fell from his horse and suffered a concussion. His riders took him to Krasnoyarsk, a nearby town, where he died shortly afterwards.
If Rezanov had lived, it is entirely possible that his energy and ability would have led to the creation of the Russian colonial empire he imagined on the west coast of America. The Spaniards were weak and the Americans were decades away from being able to do what they finally accomplished in California. Lacking other champions for such an endeavor in St. Petersburg, Rezanov’s vision died with him.
Concha, María de la Concepción Marcela Argüello y Moraga, reportedly learned of Rezanov’s death a year later in a letter from Alexander Baranov, writing from Sitka. Legend has it that she only learned all the details in 1843, when the British head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir George Simoson, passed through Yerba Buena. She rejected all suitors and never married and although she never took formal vows, she eventually lived the life of a nun. She died in the Dominican community of Benicia, California in 1857 at the age of 66.
In 2000, a memorial service was held in Krasnoyarsk for Rezanov and a white cross was placed on his grave. An inscription on one side read: “Nickolai Petrovich Rezanov 1764 –
1807. I will never forget you”, and on the other side — “Maria Concepcion de Arguello 1791 — 1857. I will never see you again.
In Russia, the story of Nikolai and Concha is well known – a tragic story that appeals to every synapse of Russian inclination for disastrous ends. The story has inspired novels, poems, a ballet and even a rock opera whose plot is not limited by facts. But the bones of the story need no embellishment to resonate in the hearts of anyone who has ever lost a love.
“The Russians in California”, Alan Temko, American Heritage Magazine, April 1960.
“The Voyage of Nor’west John”, George Howe, American Heritage Magazine, April 1959