The tragic voyage of Nicolai Rezanov

Nicolai Rezanov was born in St. Petersburg in 1764. He mastered five languages by the age of 14 and joined the Russian army, rising to captain when he was 21. At 26 he became the private secretary to the Empress Catherine the Great. Here was a man destined for greatness.

The Russians had established a beachhead and trading post at Sitka in southern Alaska in 1799. By 1804 the locals got sideways with the Russians and ass was kicked on both sides in the Battle of Sitka. At the time Rezanov was making the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe and he heard about the dustup in Alaska when he was in Hawaii. His first order of business was to open the closed nation of Japan. This attempt failed, so he hightailed it to Sitka to reinforce the fort and give the natives a taste of his sabre.

Rezanov was in charge of the Russian American Company, and with the backing of the Russian Emperor, laid a vague claim to the entire west coast of North America in a public/private partnership. The ‘America’ in the name meant the land, not the government in Washington, which was completely uninterested in what he was up to. Why should they? It was all Spanish as far as San Francisco and even they didn’t want the lands to the north. Eventually the Russians settled as far south as Fort Ross in Mendocino County. Around this time Lewis and Clark came west, but the Louisiana Purchase didn’t reach beyond Montana.

When Rezanov arrived in Sitka in 1806 the Russians were cold and half starved off. They were hunters, not fishermen. The Indians were no help, what with the recent war and all. So with two ships Rezanov resolved to sail to the Spanish presidio at the entrance of San Francisco Bay to barter for food.

As the ships arrived the comandante of San Francisco, Don Jose Argüello, was alarmed to see a warship in front of his alluvial mud fort. But as far as he knew relations with Russia were peaceful and protocol required him to fire his cannons in a welcoming salute. Since the fort’s powder had long been ruined by the fog, he directed his men to row out to the ship to beg for powder and the act was completed. Six of these cannons dating back to the early 1600s are still at the Presidio.

The Russian delegation came ashore and it was immediately clear that no one spoke the other’s language. So they sent for the priest from the mission four miles away so the ship’s chaplain and the priest could communicate in Latin.

Rezanov cut a dramatic figure in his elegant uniform and his horseback skills impressed the equally able Spanish riders. He and the comandante hit it off grandly and they took a week’s journey down the Peninsula as far as San Jose. On their return a fandango was prepared, and it was at this party that Don Argüello’s 15-year-old daughter caught the eye of the refined and handsome Russian. María de la Concepción Marcela Argüello y Moraga, referred to simply as ‘Conchita’ was considered the fairest damsel in all the land. A real ‘hot tamale’ as they said in the 1930s.

From accounts of the time it was love—immediate. We’re talking five—ten minutes. The astonished Argüello gave his blessing to a union though there was the sticky fact that they were of two different religions, but Russia and Spain were a long way away.

After a few weeks of romancing Rezanov realized he needed to return with the promised supplies to Sitka before everyone’s teeth fell out and eyes turned black from scurvy. He vowed to return in a few weeks, two months at most, and they would be wed.

The Spaniards were sorry to see the Russians go, but they were excited about the wedding and they began to make plans. Conchita walked to the bluff every evening waiting for the ship. The weeks passed and then the months and eventually years. It came to pass that once Rezanov arrived in Sitka there was word from Emperor Paul that he was to return to Russia. The Emperor’s letter took an entire year to arrive and Rezanov’s round trip would take two more years. The voyage involved sailing to Kamchatka, crossing Russia and waiting for a weather window to return. Rezanov was midway across Russia headed for St. Petersburg when his horse fell into a ravine and that was the end for him.

It was years later that Conchita found out what became of her betrothed. She eventually retired to a convent in Monterey and took a vow of silence. She died in 1857, 50 years after her handsome commander

This story is not well known in America but is famous in Russia.

In fact, in 1987 a rock opera called Juno and Alvos (the name of Rezanov’s ships) opened to wild acclaim in Russia. I’ve seen it and it isn’t Tommy exactly but it isn’t bad. 

Easter egg for those who make it this far:

More than one person will wince at the mention of a woman as a ‘hot tamale’ It means ‘nice looking’ and has been tossed out with a lot of other language now. Well, heck, by all accounts Conchita was attractive. But a deeper dive into Hot Tamleness uncovered this gem from 1930. It’s a very early talkie and is a ripoff of Disney and features two mice in love. It is for both kids and fans of the weird. Afterall, it was at the height of the surrealism. I think it’s pretty fine work as you can feel the hand of the artists at work.

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  • Pat McG says:

    I got a girl, say she long and tall / She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall
    Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale
    –Robert Johnson

  • ollie stevenson says:

    thank you always fir the wonderful distraction from crazy

    it is wonderful

  • George Moore says:

    Loved, “Since the fort’s powder had long been ruined by the fog, he directed his men to row out to the ship to beg for powder and the act was completed.”
    Amazing the length we will sometimes go for protocol. Just ask Mitch McConnell. Another great story!

  • Tyler MacNiven says:

    Wasn’t Juno & Alvos the SF Opera that you starred in?!

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