- 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
Rezanov, in a confidential report to his government, also conceded that the romance was “not begun in hot passion.” Yet he added that he was also influenced by “remnants of feelings that in the past were a source of happiness in my life”—his wife had not been much older than Concepcion. Certainly the Chamberlain could have made a much more brilliant match in Europe than with the daughter of a petty Spanish official. Yet there can be no doubt that he fully intended to go through with the affair and to behave with honor toward the girl.
For her part—whatever the depth of Rezanov’s feelings—Concha fell deeply in love with him. “At length,” Rezanov wrote with remarkable frankness in his report, “I imperceptibly created in her an impatient desire to hear something more explicit from me.” He proposed, and was accepted.
Her parents were dumbfounded. Not only were they horrified by the prospect of her marriage to a non-Catholic, but they dreaded a separation from her which might turn out to be permanent. They sought the advice of the padres. Concha faced down all objections. Finally the priests decided to refer the matter to Rome, partly because they did not feel qualified to resolve the difficult theological problem involved, and also because it would delay the wedding for several years.
To the staunchly Greek Orthodox Rezanov the religious objection seemed “fanatical.” But he, too, was not a free agent. He needed permission from the Czar. He was compelled to be satisfied with a written agreement of betrothal, subject to approval by the Pope. Celebrations followed, during which neither the ship nor the two Spanish forts spared their gunpowder.
Thereafter Rezanov became virtually a member of the Arguello family. In his report he said that he “managed this [port] of His Catholic Majesty” as his interests demanded. Despite the prohibition on trade, the hold of the Juno was filled with food for Sitka in return for her much-needed cargo. But Arrillaga and Arguello granted the Russians no permanent trading agreement, and the future remained open. Much might happen before Rezanov would return to California. First he must proceed to St. Petersburg; then, if the Czar were willing he would come back to San Francisco via Madrid and Mexico. Probably the journey would take two or three years. Concha was willing to wait.
On May 21, after six weeks in port, the Juno sailed at six in the afternoon. As she passed through the Golden Gate, Concha, her family, the governor, and virtually all the rest of the small community stood on the battlements of the fort, waving farewell with their hats and kerchiefs.
During the voyage north Rezanov set down his thoughts in an official report. He foresaw the day when “all this country could be made a corporal part of the Russian Empire”: an immense province devoted to agriculture and cattle-raising, and worked by Chinese labor—Rezanov seems to have been the first to hit upon the idea of importing coolies from Canton. Russia’s trade in the New World, he thought, “would make notable and even gigantic strides.” He was aware that such “far-reaching plans” might cause laughter in St. Petersburg. Yet—and here he was writing for the ages rather than to the Czar and Rumiantsev—“All great plans appear visionary on paper, but … their execution compels admiration.”
After a brief stop at Sitka, Rezanov sailed to Kamchatka and from there set out with a Cossack escort across the Siberian wastes. Although suffering from a fever, he pushed on rashly. On a wind-swept steppe he fell from his horse, and suffered a brain concussion. The Cossacks carried him to the town of Krasnoyarsk, where he died on March 1, 1807. His grave was marked with a large stone, fashioned in the shape of an altar, without any inscription.
Concha survived him by fifty years, and lived to see California pass from Spanish and Mexican to American rule. She never married. Several years passed before she first heard of Rezanov’s death, and not until 1842 did she learn the exact circumstances in which he died. By then she had already assumed the habit of a nun, without taking formal vows. When California’s first convent and seminary for women was founded in 1851, she became a novice. Six years later she died in the convent at Benicia.
Rezanov’s report reached the Czar, who seriously considered its proposals; but he was too deeply engaged in the Napoleonic Wars to undertake so sweeping a program of expansion in the Pacific. At distant Sitka, however, another Alexander—the Commandant Baranov—was bent on carrying out Rezanov’s plans with the slender means at his disposal. Without giving him much material encouragement, the Czar and Count Rumiantsev let him go ahead.