Feature Articles

November Issue 2000

Legendary Love & Russian-American History at Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC

Count Nikolai Rezanov's passion for Russia, adventure, business and Dona Maria Concepcion de Arguello nearly changed the course of Russian, Spanish and American history. Instead, his untimely death in 1807 left in its wake a legendary California love story.

The tale of Rezanov and Conchita is one of the fascinating human dramas to be found in the exhibition Unseen Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New World at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Art through Dec. 31, 2000.

Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov was born in St. Petersburg in a politically active family. The young nobleman served as a military officer in the Guard and as a civil servant in the court of Catherine the Great. His father-in-law, Grigorii Shelikhov, recognized his true penchant for business, cultivating Rezanov to become chief executive of the Shelekhov-Golikov Fur Company, one of several trade companies with outposts in the Alaskan territory.

As Rezanov's political influence grew in his role as Procurator of the Russian Senate and eventually Imperial Chamberlain, so did the fortunes of the Shelkhov-Golikov Fur Company. In 1799, Rezanov persuaded Tsar Paul I to charter the Russian-American Company and to grant it a trade monopoly for 20 years on the northwestern coast of North America. This trust was a great source of profit for Rezanov and the other stockholders, including members of the imperial family who extended monopoly right another 50 years.

Grief-stricken following the death of his wife, Anna, Rezanov left the Imperial court to promote the first Russian circumnavigation of the earth (1803-1806). Nikolai sailed westward around the treacherous Cape Horn with the expedition commanded by Adam Ivan Krusenstern. When he arrived at Kamchatka on Siberia's eastern coast, he was asked by Tsar Alexander I to serve as his ambassador on an unsuccessful mission to Japan in 1804. The fortunes of the Russian American Company faltered with Rezanov away, so the Tsar ordered him to remain in the north Pacific on an inspection tour of the Company's North American colonies in 1805.

Finding the sparse Kodiak Island settlements to be poorly administered and in bad repair, he instituted immediate reforms. Upon arriving at the principal trading post of Sitka, he found it in a perilous state, beset by hostile Indians and debilitated by scurvy. Finding food supplies soon was critical to the survival of the colony.

Needing goods to barter for food, Rezanov purchased an American ship in port, the Juno, and set sail for New Spain's principal port of San Francisco with a cargo of cloth, tools, muskets and finery. As the northern outpost for New Spain, San Francisco was off limits to all foreign shipping. Sailing into the bay with Spanish cannons at the ready to fire, Rezanov and his desperate crew fabricated a state visit to Monterey, pre-approved by the Spanish government, but necessarily delayed by storm damage. The ruse gained a six-week stay in which time Rezanov won the support of Franciscan padres in influencing Governor Don Jose Auillaga to a trade agreement between New Spain and Russian America.

Rezanov's California trip produced two unforseen opportunities. California's lush vegetation and New Spain's inability to exert control of land north of San Francisco led Rezanov to plot California settlements with Russian Minister of Commerce Nicholas Rumiantsev. Immediately upon returning to Sitka, Rezanov convinced RAC manager Alexander Baranov to send an advance party to establish a settlement at Ft. Ross.

The second opportunity caught everyone by surprise. The 42 year-old widower encountered, courted and won the hand of New Spain's most desirable señorita, the Commandante's beautiful 16 year-old daughter, Concepcion de Arguella. Conchita's parents gave consent for marriage on condition of the Pope's approval. Rezanov needed the time to return to Sitka before reporting to St. Petersburg with the proposed treaty.

Driven by grand expansion plans and the promise of new love, Rezanov pressed thousands of miles across the Siberian winter wasteland. Exhausted and stricken by fever, he fell from his horse. Unable to continue, he died on Mar. 1, 1807 in Krasnoyarsk. With him died the plans for extending Russian sovereignty on the American continent.

Conchita spurned other suitors in waiting for her betrothed to return. Legend has it that Conchita did not learn his fate until 40 years later. More likely her decision two years later to enter the Dominican Sisterhood followed news of his death. Her love for the dashing Russian count was immortalized in the poem "Forgotten Dreams" by Bret Harte on the occasion of a banquet 40 years later when visiting British statesman Sir George Simpson inquired of her fate, not knowing she was in the audience. The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky also wrote of her unrelenting love. His poem became the basis of the musical Juno and Avos.

Research and writing contributions to this feature were made by University of Florida intern Kristin Campbell and University of North Carolina at Charlotte intern Elizabeth Ratcliff.

Unseen Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New World presents the story of Russia's 126 year period of exploration and colonization of the North American continent through over 300 historic artifacts and works of art from the Russian State Historical Museum and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The exhibit, sponsored by Wachovia and Wachovia companies Offitbank and Barry, Evans, Josephs & Snipes, will be on display at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art through Dec. 31, 2000.

For additional information check our NC Institutional Gallery listings or call the Mint Museum of Art at 704/337-2000 or on the web at (http://www.mintmuseum.org).

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