- Historic Sites
Russians In California
An Imperial colony on our West Coast was their aim; Fort Ross was their military outpost; and the stakes—higher than they realized
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
A Yankee vessel provided the answer. The Juno, a fast, copper-bottomed schooner out of Bristol, Rhode Island, lay in Sitka’s harbor. Her captain, John de Wolf, sold the vessel with her cargo and provisions to the Russians, Rezanov paying him in a bill of exchange on St. Petersburg. Sitka was momentarily saved by Rezanov’s bold stroke. Substantial foodstuffs from the Juno allayed the famine, and her cargo of excellent New England cloth and other goods could be bartered for additional food elsewhere. Hawaii might have proved more suitable than California for this purpose, Dr. Langsdorff wrote later, “but political reasons led to the choice of San Francisco.”
Grand strategy, magnificent in both its aims and audacity, was developing in Rezanov’s mind. The Juno set sail early in March. Storms wracked the ship. Half the crew were ill and unfit for duty. One man died. “With pallid, deathlike faces,” about a month out of Sitka, they headed into San Francisco Bay.
Twenty horsemen galloped down from the presidio to confront the Russians. They made a gallant sight. Their black and scarlet uniforms, sombreros trimmed with silver, embroidered deerskin boots, and unusually large silver spurs, revealed the dash and charm that Spanish California could display whenever it was roused from provincial torpor. By calls and signs they requested that a boat be sent ashore.
Langsdorff and Lieutenant Gavriil Davydov were rowed to the beach. To their relief they found that orders had been received from Madrid “to render all necessary assistance” to Rezanov if he visited California. Unfortunately the commandant, Don José Dario Argüello, was temporarily at Monterey, but the handsome officer in charge during his absence was his twenty-one-year-old son, Luis Antonio, who warmly invited Rezanov and his staff to dine at the presidio.
The Chamberlain was moved by the graciousness of the welcome. He came ashore promptly; and since he knew a little Spanish, he was able to exchange friendly words with the Californians. Although he was ill and had lost considerable weight, Rezanov made a powerful impression in his uniform of green and gold. Never before had a foreigner, or for that matter even a Spanish official, of such high rank appeared in California.
The next ten days passed pleasantly. Don Luis reported the arrival of the Juno to Governor Arrillaga and to his father at Monterey. With the same messenger Rezanov sent word that, since repair of storm damage would keep the Juno in port for some time, he was prepared to travel overland to the capital in order to confer with the governor. Arrillaga replied, politely but firmly, that he himself would come to San Francisco. Rezanov correctly interpreted this as a sign of weakness, rather than of Latin courtesy. Arrillaga obviously did not wish him to see the undeveloped and defenseless interior of the country.
The governor and Commandant Argüello finally arrived, to nine-gun salutes from Fort San Joaquin and from another small fortress, hidden behind a point, which the Russians had not previously noticed. The white-haired Arrillaga was exhausted by the journey, but he nevertheless received Rezanov the next day. Arrillaga spoke French, so that for the first time Rezanov was able to converse easily with a CaIifornian. Both Arrillaga and Argüello were gracious, but their orders from Mexico were clear: no trade whatever was to be permitted.
Nevertheless the atmosphere remained friendly. The visitors were enchanted by the warmth and charm of the Argüellos. “Mutual esteem and harmony,” wrote Langsdortf, “glowed in … this kindly family, who knew scarcely any other diversions or pleasures than those resulting from family joys and domestic happiness.”
The naturalist himself was short and homely: as Bancroft remarked, he had “a singularly unprepossessing face.” But he loved to dance, and taught the smiling señoritas the latest English steps. And he was utterly smitten by the loveliest of the Arguello daughters, Dona Concepcion. Concha, as she was called, was the favorita of the province. She was two months past her fifteenth birthday.
Rezanov was also taken by her vitality and loveliness. As time passed, and his negotiations with the governor and her father remained unsuccessful, he formed “a plan”—to use Langsdorff’s words—“very different … from the original scheme for the establishment of commercial relations … He conceived the idea that through a marriage with the daughter of the Comandante … a close bond would be formed for future business intercourse between the Russian-American Company and the province of Nueva California.”