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.
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.
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