'Glorious Misadventures': How Russian royal Rezanov just missed colonizing the northern frontier

Alaska at a crossroads

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It is hard to imagine and little known to Americans that deep into the 19th century it was still a toss-up whether America's Northwest, from California to Alaska, would be American, Spanish, British or Russian.

This story is of Imperial Russia's efforts, led with varying amounts of success by a member of Russian minor royalty named Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, to bring that area under Russian governmental and commercial control.

By Owen Matthews.
Bloomsbury USA ($28).

The place fell to American hands, instead, ultimately through three events. Spain collapsed as part of the Napoleonic wars in 1807. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused Americans to flood in, and Russia finally sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million, or two cents an acre.

Evidence of a Russian presence there remains to this day. It is gauged that the majority of Christian Native Americans in Alaska are Russian Orthodox by faith. "Alaska Day" -- Oct. 18 -- celebrates the date of Russia's handover of the territory to the United States. (Never mind what Sarah Palin can see.)

The Native Americans apparently didn't like the Russians much. One precious quote from one of Rezanov's fellow travelers states: "Russians are everywhere hated by the natives and murdered whenever the opportunity arises."

They appear to have had three primary characteristics as colonizers, excluding much interest in the locals' souls or well-being. These were acquiring furs and skins to sell; consuming drink and food; in that order, and womanizing.

Their sometime leader, Rezanov, had a fourth interest, accruing glory for Imperial Russia and its tsars, in part to advance his own position at court in St. Petersburg. Russia's interest in America's Northwest lay largely in its commercial potential. The Russian American Co., founded in 1796, aspiring to be to North America what Great Britain's British East India Co. was to the Indian subcontinent, sought money, largely from furs -- "soft gold."

The Russian explorers and colonists drank enormous quantities of liquor, in no small part to help themselves deal with the horrid weather and unspeakable conditions on board their ships. Food seemed always to be in short supply, and many of the Russians died. The male voyagers' quest for female companionship was endless.

Nikolai Rezanov, of Tatar origin, combined lives at the royal court and in the wilderness that the author chronicles with lively zest and color. His picture of Russian life under Tsar Paul, murdered in 1801, who was preceded by Empress Catherine the Great and succeeded by Alexander I, sometimes seems like more than the reader needs to know. But, in fact, it serves both as useful background and striking contrast to what Rezanov has to go through as he launches into America. The reader learns that one rebel against the Russian throne was publicly caged and then executed.

Rezanov's efforts to establish a Russian presence across the ocean beyond Siberia included a difficult and unsuccessful mission to Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate, a visit to Hawaii where there was briefly a Russian colony, and finally, perhaps the ultimate point in his emotional career, his betrothal as a 42-year-old widower to Dona Maria de Concepcion Marcella de Arguello, 15, also known as Conchita, the daughter of a high Spanish official, in San Francisco in 1806.

He left her, promising to return after a trip to St. Petersburg, but died on the road in Siberia the next year. Conchita eventually took herself to a nunnery, where she died two days before Christmas in 1854 at 66 after an unmarried life of good works.

When one reads what the Russians were like, and what would have been the fate of Alaska and other parts of the Northwest if Rezanov had been successful in his efforts to create a Russian America, it is difficult not to conclude that America and the people of that area dodged a bullet.

The Russians were drunks. They were seriously cruel, even the priests for the most part, and completely mercenary. The Russian colonizers failed in their effort to establish authority because of abysmally poor support from their government, too busy plotting and taking advantage of each other back in St. Petersburg to see the opportunity that relatively nearby America presented.

Rezanov's chronicle constitutes a stunning story, full of information and details that are enchanting and that I have seen nowhere else. The story of Nikolai and Conchita is tear-inspiring, even for hardhearted historians.

Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).

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