Times Past

Romance and a broken heart in early California

Concepción Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov with a none-too-happy José Dario Argüello in a mural at the Presidio of San Francisco Post Interfaith Chapel.
Concepción Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov with a none-too-happy José Dario Argüello in a mural at the Presidio of San Francisco Post Interfaith Chapel.

A sad romance is necessary in telling the story of every high-spirited people.

The Californio version of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madam Butterfly” features just that: A liaison between a daughter of the Golden West and a Russian naval officer who is often referred to as “Prince.”

José Dario Argüello served as comandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio from 1807 to 1815. He served twice as governor of Spanish California and left his name on the rugged Point Argüello along the northern Santa Barbara coast south of Point Sal and the Santa Maria River.

Nearby are the jagged rocks at Honda Point where, on Sept. 8, 1923, one of the worst peacetime disasters in the history of the U.S. Navy occurred. In a matter of minutes, seven U.S. Navy destroyers plowed into the shore. The names Argüello and Honda will be forever linked to maritime tragedies.

But José Dario’s daughter, Concepción “Concha” Argüello far surpassed her father’s reputation as a well-known figure in California history.

In April 1806, Jose Dario Argüello was in Monterey, reporting to Gov. Jose Joaquin de Arrellaga. Argüello’s son, Luis, the future governor of Alta California, was left in charge of the Presidio at San Francisco.

Concepción was a teenager when the Russian ship Juno sailed into the Golden Gate. Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, a chamberlain to Tsar Alexander I, had come from Russian-American Company’s fur-trading settlement at Sitka, Alaska. Cold winters and short and dry summers had left the Russians in desperate need of supplies.

In the sitting room of the comandante’s house, Rezanov was introduced to Concepción. Famed naturalist George Langsdorf, Rezanov’s personal physician, wrote of her:

“She is distinguished by a majestic bearing, her features are beautiful and expressive, her eyes charm everybody. Moreover, she has a fine figure, superb natural curls, wonderful teeth and thousands of other extraordinary fascinations.”

Rezanov was a 41-year-old widower. Concepción wasn’t quite 15. They were from completely different cultures. The Russian nobleman was Russian Orthodox, Concepción a Roman Catholic. But such marriages were still possible and a betrothal was made. Rezanov, as a courtier of the Tsar, would have to seek royal permission at the court in St. Petersburg.

Rezanov left for Sitka in Russian Alaska. From there, he sailed to Siberia, where he died either of disease or a fall from his horse. Concepción may never have known of Rezanov’s fate. Luis, her brother, was informed some years later, but chose not to tell his sister. She waited for him, declining other offers of marriage. She became a Dominican nun in Monterey and died in Benicia in 1857.

The novelist, Gertrude Atherton made the romance of Concha and her “Prince,” titled “Rezanov,” arguably the “great romance” of California’s already much romanticized history. The novel, first published in 1893 has never been out of print.

The Russians built permanent settlements at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. The Russian American Company’s trade was vitally important to the wealth of Mission San Luis Obispo between 1812 and 1830.

The Russian Pacific Fleet wintered in San Francisco Bay and the voices of singing groups composed of sailors amazed audiences at the nearby missions, presidios and pueblos.

This Russian influence at California’s missions continues to this day.

The St. Petersburg Men’s Ensemble, the renowned professional vocal quartet from Russia, will present an a cappella concert on Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at Mission San Miguel, 775 Mission St., in San Miguel. “Masterpieces of Russian Choral Music” will feature Russian Orthodox liturgical hymns and Russian classical romances by such beloved composers as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Mikhail Glinka. A goodwill offering of $15 will be greatly appreciated. CDs and Russian handicrafts will be available for purchase.

For information, please contact Olga Howe at 543-2261 or olgahowe@gmail.com.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.