Even though you may have never heard of the love story between Nikolai Rezanov and Conchita Argüello, it is the real-life, historical, Russian Роме́о и Джулье́тта (Romeo and Juliet). It’s not a long story and, like all of the greatest love stories we’ve looked at, it doesn’t have a “happily ever after” ending.
I’m going to find one of those -- somewhere, someday -- but I’m willing to bet it will be a literary work. Perhaps “happily ever after” endings only occur in fiction where an author has control over the timing of the end of the story and the outcome. Ladies and Gentlemen, that is where we who write romances come in, always with a H.E.A. or the promise of one.
But what events brought these two people together, unlikely as it might seem?
Rezanov was born in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg on March 28, 1764. His father was a Russian civil servant who had served for many years in Irkurstk, the capital of eastern Siberia.
After eight years, he returned to Saint Petersburg to work for the private secretary to Empress Catherine the Great. He quickly caught the attention of Platon Zubov, one of the lovers of the Empress and her most powerful advisor, who was interested in the Siberian fur trade. Before long, he was working as a go between between Zubov and Grigory Shelikov, an important merchant in Irkustk.
▼ Rezanov's portrait courtesy of
The State Historical Museum of Russia
Rezanov felt marginalized and proceeded to request permission of Empress Catherine to start a competing company in the region and to expand that company to Russian Alaska. The empress approved Rezanov’s charter but when she died, Rezanov had to convince her son Tsar Paul I. The Tsar also allowed Shelikov’s company to reorganize as the Russian American Company, but made Rezanov his official royal liaison and gave him a royal charter, which effectively put him in charge. His wife Anna died in childbirth in 1801.
His initial action to establish Russian American Company control of trade was to move trading and military vessels from northwestern Russia to Alaska. Rezanov was one of the leaders on what was called the First Russian Circumnavigation, a three-year ocean voyage from the Baltic Sea around the tip of South America, across the Pacific to Hawaii and then Japan and eventually back to Alaska.
All in all, he was an interesting and brilliant business and statesman and, among other things, was appointed Russian ambassador to Japan. In 1806, at his fur-trading post of New Archangel (Sitka, Alaska), Rezanov and his men barely survived the brutal winter. Out of food and supplies, he set sail on his ship, The Juno, for the New Spain province of Alta California, hoping to secure a trade agreement and establish a barter system with the Spanish in order to secure provisions for Sitka and other Russian colonies in what is now Alaska.
In April of 1806, Rezanov dropped anchor at Yerba Buena (San Francisco). He was received with politeness and reserve and was advised Spanish law strictly prohibited her colonies from trading with foreign powers. The language barrier was broken by Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, the Juno's doctor, and the Presidio's Franciscan Father Uria, who were able to converse in Latin.
MARIA DE LA CONCEPCION MARCELA ARGÜELLO Y MORAGA
Concepcion (called Conchita by her friends and family) was born on February 19, 1791, at the Spanish Persidio in San Francisco where her father, Don Jose Dario Argüello was the Spanish Governor of Alta California and Comandante of the Persidio.
Concepcion, described as beautiful, intelligent, and fair skinned, was only fifteen when the Russian ship Juno arrived in the San Francisco Bay in April 1806.
Maria De La Concepcion Marcela Arguello
▼Drawing found in various sources
Doctor von Langsdorff wrote of Concepcion's beauty in his journal: "She was distinguished for her vivacity and cheerfulness, her love-inspiring and brilliant eyes and exceedingly beautiful teeth, her expressive and pleasing features, shapeliness of figure, and for a thousand other charms besides an artless natural demeanor." Von Langsdorff went on to detail Rezanov's interest in Concepcion: "The bright sparkling eyes of Doña Concepcion had made upon him a deep impression, and pierced his inmost soul."
LOVE OR POLITICS?
Historians credit Rezanov’s initial interest in Concepcion as prompted by more political and economic considerations, primarily because the Spanish Crown didn’t permit the Governor to assist the Russians and he saw his relationship with Conchita having significant political advantages.
Conchita, in an article by Dave Kieffer (Sitka News, August 1, 2016), is portrayed as “a self-aware young woman who most likely saw Rezanov as her ticket out of the provincial, barely settled, backwaters of Alta California.”
Whatever their initial motivations, by the end of Rezanov’s six-week stay at the Persidio, they were truly in love, and she had agreed to marry him. Eventually her parents agreed, but the couple needed the consent from the Tzar of Russia and the King of Spain to marry, and a dispensation from the Pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church for a “religiously mixed marriage.” It’s complicated.
Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov ▼
. Mural in the Post Interfaith Chapel. San Francisco Persidio. https://www.nps.gov/prsf/learn/historyculture/love-story.htm
THE SAD ENDING
Rezanov sailed back to Sitka, dropped off the supplies, then sailed to Siberia, apparently quite serious about his desire to marry to Conchita. He then set off to make the overland journey back to St. Petersburg. On the way he caught pneumonia three times. His urgency was such that each time he failed to heal before resuming the trip. During his third relapse, on March 1, 1807, he fell off his horse and died near Krasnoyarsk, where he was buried. Today there is a monument in Krasnoyarsk commemorating him.
Meanwhile, Conchita waited for him to return. And waited. There are several versions of her story, the “traditional” being that she never found out what had happened to him but rejected all suitors and continued to wait for him to return for her entire life.
Other sources claim she waited for him for thirty-six years before finding out. The most “humane” ending is that she waited for five years until one of his officers came to San Francisco and told her. “He is dead … His last words were of you.” The officer returned the locket she had given to Rezanov before he departed in 1806.
After his death, Conchita devoted her life to charity and the care of others although her family encouraged to accept one of her many suitors. Instead, she dedicated herself to God and later in life became a Dominican nun at Santa Catalina Monastery and Academy. Her religious name was Sister Mary Dominica, O.P. This community later became the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael and moved to Benicia, California, where she remained until her death in 1857.
Grave of Conchita, Mary Dominica
Photo by: findagrave.com Statue of Rezanov in Krasnoyarsk
http://beniciaheraldonline.com ▼ ▼https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Rezanov
The story of Nikolai and Conchita was the source for heroic poems and other written works in both Russia and Spain. American author Bret Harte wrote “Concepcion De Argüello” in 1870 and the first biography of Rezanov was published in 1906 on the anniversary of Rezanov’s meeting Conchita. The Russian rock opera “Juno and Avos” was written in the 1970s based loosely on the story and is still popular. Theirs is one of the most famous Russian love stories.□
Russia’s Hawaiian Adventure by Richard Pierce (1965)
Lost Empire: The Life of Nikolai Rezanov by Hector Chevigny