THE SAD ROMANCE OF OLD FORT ROSS
Being the Love Story of Concepcion de Arguello and Nikolai Petrovich Rezanof; Also the History of Californias Oldest and Most Interesting Russian Settlement.
ABOUT six hours journey from San Francisco to the north are the remains of a place, which, though desolate and forlorn, is a lasting monument to a man's ambition and a woman's devotion and love. This is Fort Ross, the only visible result of a dream which had for its subject Russian domination of the Pacific Coast. For years the place has been almost forgotten, until a recent attempt on the part of Russia to open negotiations with the United States for its purchase. In order that the church and graveyard might be restored, recalled the pathetic story, which must always be connected with the place, and which really was the reason for its ever existing.
In the autumn of 1805, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanof, Imperial Chamberlain to the Czar and a devoted son of Russia, was sent by his royal master to inspect the Russian colonies of Alaska, which had long been entreating the home Government for some manner of aid. He found them in a most deplorable condition. Their resources long since exhausted, the colonists were leading a miserable existence, waging a bitter war against disease and semi-starvation. There was only one way to alleviate their condition and that was to establish a trade with the California provinces, then in the flush of their halcyon days. This, however, was a most difficult thing to accomplish. Spain, always jealous of her treasure, had forbidden her colonies to trade with any foreign power, and the ease-loving Californians had no desire to enter into any controversy with their rulers. To Rezanof, however, nothing seemed impossible, and after thoughtfully considering the matter he determined to make an effort to bring his plans to pass. With this in view, he called, in the early spring, for the south to open negotiations with the Spaniards.
He anchored in San Francisco Bay and was received by General de Arguello, the Comandante at the Presidio, with the most lavish hospitality, and every courtesy was paid him as a guest of rank and distinction. But to his propositions the Spaniard would give but one answer. Foreign trade was forbidden by his country and that was enough for the soldier. The key of the Californias had been entrusted to him and he was there to guard the doors with his life if need be. The ships of the Russian could enter the Golden Gate only as his guests. Anything else was impossible.
During the days of feasting which followed Governor Arellago came up from Monterey to meet the distinguished stranger, and the Russian tried him with flattery and bribes, only to meet with the same stern refusal. Disheartened by these repeated failures, Rezanof had nearly given up his project in despair when an unexpected turn of events changed the aspect of things and brought him a valuable ally in the shape of General de Arguello's daughter.
At the age of seventeen the Senorita Dona Concepcion de Arguello was conceded to be one of the most beautiful women in all of New Spain. She possessed the lustrous black hair and languid eyes of her race; a skin of palest olive, which even the California sun could not harm, and a matchless figure. These charms which had formed the theme of many a serenade, united to a remarkably sweet and tender disposition, made her a favorite with all who knew her. During the first few weeks of the Russian's visit in her father's house she had kept somewhat aloof, but pity for his inability to speak her language made her listen to his entreaties that she would teach him Spanish, and the lessons were begun.
Rezanof, although along in middle age, and a widower, was a handsome man, of strong personality, well versed in the manners of the court, and skilled in affairs of the heart. Many women had loved him, and as he sat with Concepcion day after day, under the cloudless blue of the California skies, repeating after her the liquid words of her native tongue, and finding it so often necessary to use the language of the eyes alone, it was small wonder that he won her love. At the same time, ambition, always his most dominant passion, was evolving a scheme, which, though selfish, was none the less a brilliant one.
Concepcion was her father's darling, and he could refuse her nothing. Through her Rezanof could obtain great influence with the General, who, in turn, was Governor Arellago's most trusted friend and counselor. Through a marriage with Concepcion he saw the consummation of his hopes. The much desired trade might be established. Russian colonies would spring up alone the coast, and in time California itself, with all its wealth of treasure, might belong to the Czar and then who should reap the reward, if not the man who had brought it all about? There were the dreams of an ambitious man, but Rezanof had been a successful diplomat and foresaw a brilliant future for himself. Accordingly he made a formal proposition for the hand of Dona Concepcion.
Had the bomb of a Nihilist exploded in the hitherto peaceful household of Don Jose, it would hardly have caused more consternation than this request. Rezanof was a heretic and as such ineligible. The church hurried to the protection of Dona Concepcion and threw its arms about her. The idea of his daughter being transplanted to the snows of Russia filled the general with horror. All the pressure possible was brought to bear upon the girl to induce her to give her lover up. But in vain. She loved with the ardor of a Spanish woman, and she would have Rezanof or none. The wilds of Siberia or the loss of paradise were one to her, so long, as he shared them with her. Her tears and entreaties finally won the fathers consent, and having yielded he celebrated the betrothal in a state which was long remembered by those who shared the festivities. Rezanof lingered for a while after the gayeties were over, and found that he had not been wrong in his surmise. As he wrote to a friend, he "managed this part of his Catholic Majesty as he pleased after the betrothal."
Trade was begun between Californian and Alaskan ports, and having obtained his object Rezanof sailed for the north again, planning to return to Russia by the way of Siberia and in two years time come back to claim his bride.
Concepcion stood between the brazen cannon that guarded the blue waters and watched the ship that bore her lover sail out of the bay until it was last from sight beyond the Golden Gate. Then she turned away to dream through the time which must elapse before she became his wife.
But, alas, two years, five, ten, went by, and no tidings. Day after day the girl would sit by the cannons, straining her eyes over the lonely waste of the Pacific, watching for a sail that never came. Her patience was exhaustless, her confidence unfailing. As Don Jose watched his daughter's face, he swore a mighty oath of vengeance against the man who had brought the anxious lines there. But even he dared speak no word of blame to her of the apparently faithless one. In spite of her beauty and the many suitors who would gladly have consoled her, she remained true to the man who had won her first love.
She led a gentle and holy life, caring for the poor of the settlement. The sick and the dying saw in her their joy of earth and hope of heaven, and the children whom she taught adored her. For thirty-one years she hoped against hope, then entered the Dominican Convent of St. Catharine, at Benicia.
About five years later an American traveler, happening to pass through the place, heard the story of Concepcion, and by a peculiar coincidence it was through him that she learned the details of Rezanofs death. He had perished miserably in a Yakut hut, in Siberia, of a fatal illness while on his way home. The American had been travelling for a short distance in his company, and after his death had gone on and carried the news and a few of his personal effects to the dead mans family in Russia. He had almost forgotten the circumstances, until hearing the story of Concepcion de Arguello brought it back to his memory. And so, in this roundabout way, the faithful woman at last knew the truth. Notwithstanding the long years of trial which stretched between her and her youth, this news proved to be her deathblow. Almost immediately after hearing it she began to fail, and a few years later pasted quietly away.
The Governor of Alaska had been the confidant of Rezanofs plans, and attempted to carry them out. The colony of Fort Ross was started, but for many reasons proved a failure. With Rezanof had died the energy necessary to perfect the project, and it can be easily understood that General de Arguello was not careful to fulfill his part of the bargain. All that remains now of the brilliant schemes of the ambitious Russian is a ruined church, a few dilapidated houses, a graveyard in which repose the bones of the colonists and the sweet memory of Concepcion de Arguello, whose pathetic story awakens a thrill of pity and interest in the heart of even the most careless listener and forms one of the many romances which are all that is now left of the picturesque life which once graced the shores of the Pacific Slope.
BEATRIZ BELLIDO DE LUNA.
The Sunday Call, March 11, 1900, p. 8