“Yours for Equal Justice”

Susan_B_Anthony.tif“Yours for Equal Justice” was Susan B. Anthony’s signature line, and this year it is the theme of the Bidwell Mansion Association’s Annual Meeting.

Please join us next Sunday, Jan. 26 to celebrate women’s suffrage and to mark the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, State Parks Seasonal Park Aide Sondra Murphy will present a program on Annie Bidwell and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

John and Annie Bidwell were both supporters of women’s suffrage and the mansion served to host leaders of the movement. The Bidwells’ trend-setting relationship is examined in Sondra’s presentation, “Yours for Equal Justice.” Learn who Annie’s influences and John’s contemporaries were in this special presentation celebrating the many voices in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment.

Come to Bidwell Mansion’s Visitors Center  at 5:30 p.m. for light refreshments, a short business meeting, and a fascinating program.

Click on the link to see a flyer for the event.

bma annual meeting 2020

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Nikolai and Conchita in Literature

Any romance novelists out there reading this? It is high time that Conchita Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov were brought to life on the pages of a romantic novel. Such a great love story deserves a new treatment. No happy ending of reunited lovers, unfortunately, but all the passion and longing you could possibly want.

rezanov.jpgSurely someone has done it already?

Yes, but it could do with an update. Gertrude Atherton, a popular turn-of-the-century California novelist, wrote Rezanov and Doña Concha: A True Romance of Old California in 1907. A few (very few) libraries still have the book, but it is forgotten and out of print these many years.

If you want to read it though, you can find it on Google Books.

Bret Harte wrote a poem based on the story, called Concepcion de Arguello. You can find it at the Poemhunter website. The poem tells the story of “Count von Resanoff, the Russian, envoy of the mighty Czar” and how

He from grave provincial magnates oft had turned to talk apart
With the Commandante’s daughter on the questions of the heart.

The lovers part, and forty years later an English baronet comes to Monterey. At a dinner given in his honor someone speaks of Conchita’s Russian lover:

Quickly then cried Sir George Simpson: ‘Speak no ill of him, I pray!
He is dead. He died, poor fellow, forty years ago this day,–

‘Died while speeding home to Russia, falling from a fractious horse.
Left a sweetheart, too, they tell me. Married, I suppose, of course!

‘Lives she yet?’ A deathlike silence fell on banquet, guests, and hall,
And a trembling figure rising fixed the awestruck gaze of all.

Two black eyes in darkened orbits gleamed beneath the nun’s white hood;
Black serge hid the wasted figure, bowed and stricken where it stood.

‘Lives she yet?’ Sir George repeated. All were hushed as Concha drew
Closer yet her nun’s attire. ‘Senor, pardon, she died, too!’



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Nikolai and Conchita: The Opera

I was just thinking that a revival in popular culture of the love story of Conchita Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov was long overdue, when I found out from my lovely daughter-in-law that the Russians have already taken care of the matter.

JunoAndAvosThe newest incarnation of Nikolai and Conchita is not in a book, but in an opera: a Russian-language rock-opera. The opera’s title, Juno and Avos, comes from the names of the two Russian ships that sailed from Alaska to California. (Juno was the Roman goddess of marriage and wife of Jupiter, Avos is a Russian expression of hope or trusting in luck.)

Juno and Avos is a rock opera with music by Alexey Rybnikov and poetry by Andrei Voznesensky. It was first performed in 1981 in Moscow and has been performed a few times in the West. Here is the final duet, a beautiful lament by the separated lovers.

I must say, nobody knows how to write beautiful, heart-felt music like the Russians.

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Nikolai and Conchita Separated

Nikolai Rezanov left San Francisco Bay on May 11, 1806. By June 7 the Juno was back at Sitka, where he found the colony about to go under from a combination of starvation and the threat of an attack by Tlingit warriors. The provisions and reinforcements he brought from California were the salvation of the Russian colony in Alaska.

Rezanov spent the next month or so in Alaska, supervising the revival of the colony and writing lengthy dispatches to the directors of the Russian-American Company and the Tsar. In his dispatches he revealed his intention to marry Conchita, but couched the news in terms of business and politics to make it palatable to his superiors.

At the end of July he set sail for Okhotsk, on the eastern shore of Russia. Arriving in late August, he started off on the trip across Siberia. He fell ill at Irkutsk (by Lake Baikal) and spent three months there, then resumed his travels, only to relapse again at the trading post of Krasnoyarsk, halfway to Moscow. He would never leave it. He died of fever and exhaustion in Krasnoyarsk on March 8, 1807.


The tomb of Nikolai Rezanov in Krasnoyarsk, destroyed by Bolsheviks in 1932.

Conchita waited, and it was not until 1808 that she heard rumors, brought by Russian otter hunters, that Rezanov had died on his way to St. Petersburg. Still she hoped, but as the years went by she must have known that he would never return. She moved with her family to Santa Barbara, and later to Monterey, when her father became governor of California in 1814. By 1818, 10 years after she first heard rumors of her fiance’s death, she was living in Mexico. As a young woman of good family and renowned beauty, she received many offers of marriage, but she refused them all.

Without exception, the men who sought my hand were worthy and honorable. After much deliberation and prayer I concluded that I could not and would not be joined in marriage to one whom I did not love . . . I felt that a certain lasting loyalty was demanded of me by a Higher Power–a loyalty to Nikolai and myself.

After the death of her parents, Conchita returned to California in 1829 and became a Franciscan lay sister. When a Dominican convent was established in Monterey in 1851, Conchita joined as a novice, and as Sister Maria Dominga, became California’s first native-born nun. She befriended a 13-year-old novice, and it was to this young friend, Sister Vincentia, that she confided the story of her romance with the courtly Russian. Decades later Sister Vincentia related the story to a priest, who wrote down her recollections of Conchita.

Although she never doubted as to his (Nikolai’s) deep loyalty and intense sincerity in her regard, she told me that from the evening he sailed away out through the Golden Gate she had somehow a deep, hidden, eerie feeling that stayed with her night and day.


The tombstone of Conchita in the nuns’ cemetery in Benicia.

Maria de Concepcion Arguello died at the convent in Benicia on December 23, 1854.

The legend of Nikolai and Conchita, a compound of Spanish gaiety and passion and Russian melancholy and ardor, lives on in novels, poetry, and opera.

Next: The Love Story in Music and on the Stage

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Nikolai and Conchita


N.P. Rezanov

Nikolai Rezanov must have looked quite impressive in his dress uniform, with the diamond Order of St. Anne on his breast and a laced bicorne hat under his arm. He went out of his way to be charming and courteous, distributing presents to one and all. He was aware of the need to “hide from the Spaniards our distress and needfulness,” so no mention was made of just how bad conditions were at the Russian colony in Alaska, or the real reason that they had come to California. He assured the Spaniards that Russia had no interest in extending their colonies southward.

Conchita was smitten with this courtly, handsome gentleman, resplendent in his uniform. She had never met anyone like him; he was an emissary from another world, the world of glittering courts and grand balls. He danced with her; together they explored the wooded hills of Yerba Buena; he told her stories of his travels in Europe, Asia, and the isles of the Pacific. She had never been farther from home than Monterey, and here was a man who had sailed around the world. In spite of her position as the daughter of the comandante of the presidio, she was leading a humdrum life in a small town in a cultural backwater. She was eager for a new life and Rezanov was the only chance she was ever likely to meet to change her fortune.


Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov as depicted on a mural in the Presidio Interfaith Chapel.

After only two weeks in California, Nikolai made a proposal of marriage to Conchita, and she accepted. Conchita began to dream of travel to Europe, of wearing beautiful dresses and meeting the noble and great. But what would her parents think?

Her parents were shocked and appalled. How could their daughter think of marrying a foreigner? He wasn’t even a Roman Catholic. It was impossible.

But Rezanov was not an expert diplomat for nothing, and a mere difference in religion was not going to stop him. If the marriage required a dispensation from the Pope, then he would see to it. He assured Conchita’s parents that once he was back in St. Petersburg, the Tsar would appoint him ambassador to Spain. He would make every necessary arrangement to bring about the marriage and return via Mexico to claim his bride. He was willing to make another trip around the world for love. And so her parents consented to a betrothal.

Many years later, Conchita told a friend how “Nikolai Rezanov came bounding into her life. How she loved him and how they planned for a life of love and happiness in far-off Russia.” Such were her dreams.


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A California Romance

My visit to Fort Ross reminded me about a story I have told previously, one of the great love stories from California history: the romance of Nikolai and Conchita. Over the next few posts I will reprise this tale for your enjoyment.


N.P. Rezanov

In 1805-06 Nikolai Rezanov spent a miserable winter in the Russian outpost at Sitka. Life in the Russian colony was beyond wretched: the log cabins were cold and damp, the food stores were dwindling, the clothing was infested with vermin, the men suffered from scurvy, and there was no work to keep  them occupied—nothing to do but drink, brood, and fight.

In desperation, and in spite of winter storms, Rezanov put to sea and headed south to California. On March 28, 1806 the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay. They were welcomed by the Spanish, who had been expecting a Russian exploratory expedition to arrive. Rezanov was not that expedition, but he didn’t mention that. He told the comandante that he had been entrusted by his emperor with command over all his American territories (i.e., Alaska), and had come to California on orders to confer with the governor of the neighboring territory. This was not precisely true, but it was better than admitting that he and his men were starving.


Artist’s conception of Maria de Concepcion Arguello.

The commander of the Presidio was Don Jose Dario Arguello. At dinner Rezanov met his gracious wife and eleven of the Arguello’s thirteen children. The eldest daughter was Maria de Concepcion, known to her family as Conchita. Fifteen years old, she was considered “the beauty of the two Californias.” She was tall and slender, with clear fair skin and sparkling brown eyes.

After a stinking, starving winter in Sitka, it’s not hard to see why Nikolai Rezanov fell for Conchita. She was not only beautiful; she was lively, charming, and kind. But what did Conchita see in the 42-year-old emaciated widower from Alaska?

Stay tuned for more of the story of Nikolai and Conchita.

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The Trees of Bidwell Park

9781935807476I went to ABC Books (on Mangrove Ave. in Chico) yesterday and bought a copy of The Trees of Bidwell Park, written by Roger J. Lederer and illustrated in color by Carol E. Burt.

(I encourage you to buy local whenever you can. ABC Books is an excellent used book store that also features new books by local authors.)

It’s a handy little book, only 96 pages, but describes over one hundred trees commonly found in Bidwell Park, around Chico, and probably in most of Northern California. Want to differentiate between the many kinds of oak trees found here? This book shows the way.

Color illustrations of the trees and their leaves and seeds, along with identification information, will help you name the trees as you walk through the park of around town.

The book is dedicated to “all those who work to maintain Chico’s reputation as a City of Trees,” but it is especially dedicated to Walt Dempsey, “botanist extraordinaire,” who for many decades led tree tours in Chico. (I took his tour once and now I know where the dawn redwood is on the Chico State campus.)

The authors also pay tribute to John and Annie Bidwell, who planted many trees in Chico, including some exotic varieties which at the time were new introductions to the United States. They also preserved Bidwell Park for us; Annie donated it to the city in 1905. Bidwell Park and our “City of Trees” are a precious legacy. This book is your guide to exploring the riches of Chico.


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