Rotchev and Bidwell (not)

Rotchev House on the right.

Rotchev House on the right.

I was hoping that John Bidwell met Alexander Rotchev before the latter left California, but evidently not. Rotchev, having sold the assets of the Russian-American Company in California to John Sutter, departed for Sitka on January 1, 1842. Bidwell had arrived at Sutter’s New Helvetia settlement in November 1841. Sutter promptly hired him and he spent a few weeks learning Spanish and getting to know Sutter. Then Sutter assigned him to manage the dismantlement of Fort Ross.

Bidwell arrived at Bodega Bay, where the Russians also had holdings, in mid-January. He just missed meeting the Russians by a couple of weeks.

My first occupation in California was at Bodega and Fort Ross, taking charge with Robert T. Ridley, who preceded me there, of the Russian property still remaining at those points, and removing the same as fast as practicable to Sutter’s settlement in Sacramento, whither everything was eventually transferred.

Ridley was a former English sailor who also worked for Sutter, married into a Mexican family, acquired a land grant near Sonoma, and took part in the Bear Flag Revolt.

It’s too bad the Russians were all gone when Bidwell arrived; it would be interesting to have Bidwell’s impressions. I can’t find a picture of Rotchev, but the house he built at Fort Ross still stands. It is the only original Russian-built building there. (Other buildings are replicas.)

The interior of Rotchev House.

The interior of Rotchev House.

I like to imagine John Bidwell sitting in the Rotchev’s parlor, writing letters to Sutter and revising the journal of his overland trip to California.


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Another Russian in California

Fort Ross in 1828.

Fort Ross in 1828.

From 1838 to 1841 Alexander Gavrilovich Rotchev was the last manager at Fort Ross, the Russian-American Fur Company’s outpost in California. The Company sold the Fort and all its assets to John Sutter in 1841, and Rotchev was the man who negotiated that sale, although personally he opposed it. He believed that the Company should hold on to Russia’s foothold in the New World. We can only speculate how events might have differed if the Russians still had a presence in California in 1849.

But by 1849 Rotchev was back in St. Petersburg, where, having left the employ of the Russian-American Company, he supported himself by writing and translating. In 1849, stimulated by the newly awakened world-wide interest in California, he wrote his impressions of life in northern California before the Gold Rush.

The Overland Journal has recently published James R. Gibson’s new translation of A New Eldorado in California, by Alexander Rotchev. The following quotes are taken from his article.

What an enchanting land is California! For eight months of the year the sky is always clear and cloudless, and during the remaining months, beginning with the last days of November, it rains periodically; the heat in the shade does not exceed 25 degrees Reaumur.

That would be 88 degrees Fahrenheit, but he was on the coast, not in the Central Valley.

In January everything comes to life–the flora is in full bloom, everything is fragrant, and iridescent hummingbirds flutter and sparkle on a stalk or quiver like precious stones over the blossoms.

The virgin soil of California bears astounding fruit: I happened to see a wheat harvest of one hundred and fifty-fold there! Corn and frijoles a thousand, one hundred and fifty-fold! And with what slight effort: a pointed, curved branch, the end of which is shaped into a kind of blade, is a plow, and after scratching one and a half vershoks the plowman starts to sow.

A vershok is an obsolete Russian unit of measurement equaling 1 3/4 inches, so the farmer is planting his seed about 2 1/4 inches deep.

You pick a peach from the tree and the discarded stone falls to the ground, and after three years on that same spot you will see a mature tree and watch them pick and use its fruit!

I really think our Russian correspondent is exaggerating here, or passing on a tall tale. He was only in California three years, so I don’t think he personally witnessed this prodigy of nature. Still, California is a great place to grow fruit!

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Bidwell’s Diary, 1871

Every so often I post an entry from John Bidwell’s diary on the Bidwell Mansion Association’s Facebook page, just to give folks a taste of what he was doing all those years ago. Here are three days from the end of March, 1871:

Tues. March 28.
Went to skating rink – Weather fine except some north wind – Fulton’s Patent Plow came by express – Planting artichokes -


I don’t know whether it was ice or roller skating, but probably not ice–not in Chico. I would love to see John Bidwell on roller skates. Roller skating became quite the fad in the 1870′s, after James Plimpton invented the 4-wheel skate in 1863.


Wed. March 29.
Tried Fulton’s Plow – Farewell prayer meeting at study – [for] Bryant children died from eating toad stools -. Sent Hannah Maloys check for $70 to her father (Michael Maloy) – Draperstown P.O., County Derry, Ireland – Planting artichokes Wind from the north -

Maybe I’ll check the newspaper microfilm for the story of the poor Bryant children who were poisoned by toadstools. I surmise that Hannah Maloy was a servant at Bidwell Mansion. They often employed Irish maids.

Thurs. March 30.
Wind still from N. but not cold – Went over Sandy Gulch to try plow – Hill was there, also Silsby & Kleis, Cochran & R.H. Allen – Mr. Merchant went in carryall with us. Finished planting artichoke – Mrs. Bryant died -

And the children’s mother died too. Very sad.

Although almost all the artichokes grown in the U.S. today are grown in California, mostly in Monterey County, they must have been a new thing for Bidwell to grow in 1871. He was always experimenting with new crops.

fulton_plow_patentWhat was Fulton’s Patent Plow? This was another of Bidwell’s experiments. The typical plow was drawn by two horses. In 1870 David Fulton, a vintner from Napa, invented a plow that could be drawn by one horse, making it possible to plow and plant rows of grapevines closer together. Ever the experimenter, Bidwell would have been quick to try out the new tool. The David Fulton Winery still exists and you can read more about the plow and other historical tidbits on their webpage.

Bidwell, of course, was not planting wine grapes. Annie forbid! But he had just planted table and raisin grapes at Sandy Gulch, so it is not surprising that he would be eager to try out the new plow.

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Nikolai and Conchita, the Conclusion

Sorry that it’s taken me so long to get around to the end of the story. But it is no where near as long as Conchita had to wait to learn the fate of her lover, Nikolai Rezanov.

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 they brought were the salvation of the Russian colony in Alaska.

Rezanov did not hasten to cross the North Pacific and begin his return trip across Siberia. He spent most of the summer 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.


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

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

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

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Nikolai and Conchita, continued

N.P. Rezanov

N.P. Rezanov

Nikolai Rezanov must have looked pretty 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, and distributed 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; 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.

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.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of the tale of Nikolai and Conchita.

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Nikolai and Conchita

Artist's conception of Maria de Concepcion Arguello.

Artist’s conception of Maria de Concepcion Arguello. (Conchita)

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 keepĀ  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.

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 Russian-American Company

Nikolai Rezanov had a vision that went beyond helping his father-in-law corner the fur market in Siberia. To successfully expand the fur trade and make Russia the dominate force in the North Pacific, he would follow the example of British merchant-adventurers and form a government-backed corporation.

The British East India Company was the powerhouse behind Britain’s imperial expansion and accumulation of wealth. Rezanov wanted to do the same thing in Alaska that Britain had done in India: colonize the land, exploit the natives, and extract the wealth. With the backing and the assets of the Shelikhov family, and his connections at the imperial court, he was well-placed to make his vision a reality.

Rezanov went to work in St. Petersburg, publicizing, persuading, bribing. His chief argument was that if Russia didn’t move swiftly into the North Pacific, Britain, or maybe Spain, would, threatening the security of the Russian Empire from the east. He soon had his charter, with a list of shareholders headed by the Tsar himself. It gave the Russian-American Company a monopoly on all trade and natural resources in Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and islands north of Japan.

But Rezanov envisioned an even greater empire. Why shouldn’t Russian control extend even further south, to California and the Hawaiian Islands? With bases rimming the Pacific Ocean, from the Chinese border right round to the San Francisco Bay, Russia could dominate commercial traffic in the Pacific.

How different our world might be if his vision had come to pass.

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