Home -> A. M. Robertson -> California - Romantic and Resourceful -> Appendix A - The Love-Story of Concha Argüello

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Appendix A.

The Love-Story of Concha Argüello.

[The occasion of the following remarks was the placing of a bronze tablet upon the oldest adobe building in San Francisco, the former residence of the Comandante, now the Officers' Club, at the Presidio, under the auspices of the California Historical Landmarks League, on Serra Day, November 24, 1913. Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello (pronounced Arg-wail'-yo), daughter of Don José Dario Argüello, the Comandante of the Presidio, and his wife, Maria Ygnacia Moraga, was born at this Presidio, February 19, 1791 (Original Baptismal Records of Old Mission Dolores, vol. 1, fol. 96, No. 931). The dates of Feb. 26, 1790, given by Bancroft, founded on mere family correspondence, and of Feb. 13, 1791, given by Mary Graham, founded upon a mistaken reading of the baptismal record, are both incorrect. The Spanish pet-name for Concepción (pronounced Con-sep-se-own', with the accent on the last syllable) is Concha (pronounced Cone-cha, the accent strongly on the first syllable, and the cha as in Charles), and its diminutives are Conchita and Conchitita.

Her father was afterward transferred to Santa Barbara, and from there, while he was temporary Governor of California, under the Spanish regime, on Dec. 31, 1814, appointed Governor of Lower California. Her brother, Luis Antonio Argüello, born June 21, 1784, also at the Presidio, died March 27, 1830. He entered the military service as cadet, Sept. 6, 1799; was alférez (ensign), Dec. 23, 1800; lieutenant, March 10, 1806; succeeded his father as Comandante of San Francisco in 1806; was the first Governor of California under Mexican rule, and is buried in the old Mission Dolores cemetery, where the finest monument in the cemetery stands erected to his memory.]

I am glad to see this bronze tablet affixed to this noble adobe building. I take it, that when some of the wooden eye-sores that here abound are torn down, in the necessary beautification that should precede 1915, this old historic building - a monument to Spanish chivalry and hospitality - will be spared. We have too few of them left to lose any of them now. And of all buildings in the world, the Presidio army post should guard this one with jealous care, for here was enacted one of the greatest, sweetest, most tragic love stories of the world - a story which is all the Presidio's own, and which it does not have to share with any other army post.

To you, men of the army, my appeal ought to be an easy one. You have no desire to escape the soft impeachment that the profession of arms has ever been susceptible to the charms of woman. The relation of Mars to Venus is not simply a legend of history, is founded on no mere mythology - their relationship is as sure as the firmament, and their orbits are sometimes very close together.

There is one name that should be the perennial toast of the men of this Presidio. We have just celebrated by a splendid pageant the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Balboa, and we chose for queen of that ceremony a beautiful girl by the name of Conchita. There was another Conchita once, the daughter of the comandante of this Presidio, the bewitching, the beautiful, the radiant Concha Argüello.

In this old Presidio she was born. In the old Mission Dolores she was christened. Here, it is told, that in the merry exuberance of her innocent babyhood, she danced instead of prayed before the shrine. In the glory of these sunrises and day-vistas and sunsets, she passed her girlhood and bloomed into womanhood. In this old adobe building she queened it supremely. Here she presided at every hospitality; here she was the leader of every fiesta.

To this bay, on the 8th of April, 1806[11], in the absence of her stern old father in Monterey, and while the Presidio was under the temporary command of her brother Luis, there came from the north the "Juno," the vessel of the Russian Chamberlain Rezánov, his secret mission an intrigue of some kind concerning this wonderland, for the benefit of the great Czar at St. Petersburg. He found no difficulty in coming ashore. Father was away. Brother was kind. Besides, the Russian marines looked good, and the officers knew how to dance as only military men know how to dance. The hospitality was Castilian, unaffected, intimate, and at the evenings' dances in this old building their barrego was more graceful than any inartistic tango, and in the teaching of the waltz by the Russians - there was no "hesitation."

Then came Love's miracle; and by the time the comandante returned to his post, ten days later, the glances of the bright-flashing eyes of the daughter had more effectively pulverized the original scheme of the chamberlain, than any old guns of her father on this fort could have done. Their troth was plighted, and, as he belonged to the Greek Church, with a lover's abandon, he started home to St. Petersburg, the tremendous journey of that day by way of Russian America and across the plains of Siberia, to obtain his Emperor's consent to his marriage. No knight of chivalry ever pledged more determined devotion. He assured even the Governor that, immediately upon his return to St. Petersburg, he would go to Madrid as ambassador extraordinary from the Czar, to obviate every kind of misunderstanding between the powers. From there he would proceed to Vera Cruz, or some other Spanish harbor in Mexico, and then return to San Francisco, to claim his bride.

On the 21st of May, about four o'clock in the afternoon, the "Juno" weighed anchor for Sitka, and in passing the fort, then called the fort of San Joaquin, she saluted it with seven guns - and received in return a salute of nine. The old chronicler who accompanied the expedition says that the Governor, with the whole Argüello family, and several other friends and acquaintances, collected at the fort and waived an adieu with hats and handkerchiefs[12]. And one loyal soul stood looking seaward, till a vessel's hull sank below the horizon.

How many fair women, through the pitiless years, have thus stood - looking seaward! Once more the envious Fates prevailed. Unknown to his sweetheart, Rezánov died on the overland journey from Okhotsk to St. Petersburg, in a little town in the snows of central Siberia. With a woman's instinctive and unyielding faith, the beautiful girl waited and watched for his return, waited the long and dreary years till the roses of youth faded from her cheeks. True heart, no other voice could reach her ear! Dead to all allurement, she first joined a secular order, "dedicating her life to the instructions of the young and the consolation of the sick," and finally entered the Dominican sisterhood, where she gave the remainder of her life to the heroic and self-effacing service of her order. Not until late in life did she have the consolation of learning - and then quite by accident - that her lover had not been false to her, but had died of a fall from his horse on his mission to win her. Long years afterward she died, in 1857, at the convent of St. Catherine; and today, while he sleeps beneath a Greek cross in the wilds of Siberia, she is at rest beneath a Roman cross in the little Dominican cemetery at Benicia, across the Bay[13].

This history is true. These old walls were witnesses to part of it. These hills and dales were part of the setting for their love-drama. One picnic was taken by boat to what is now called the Island of Belvedere yonder. One horseback outing was taken to the picturesque cañon of San Andrés, so named by Captain Rivera and Father Palou in 1774. Gertrude Atherton has given us the novel, and Bret Harte has sung the poem, founded upon it[14].

When we think of the love stories that have survived the ages, Alexander and Thais, Pericles and Aspasia, Antony and Cleopatra, and all the rest of them - some of them a narrative unfit to handle with tongs - shall we let this local story die? Shall not America furnish a newer and purer standard? If to such a standard Massachusetts is to contribute the Courtship of Miles Standish, may not California contribute the Courtship of Rezánov? You men of this army post have a peculiar right to proclaim this sentiment; in such an enlistment you, of all men, would have the right to unsheathe a flaming sword. For this memory of the comandante's daughter is yours - yours to cherish, yours to protect. In the barracks and on parade, at the dance and in the field, this "one sweet human fancy" belongs to this Presidio; and no court-martial nor departmental order can ever take it from you.

Tombstone of Concha Argüello

[Translation of Baptismal Record.]

931. Maria Concepción Marcela Argüello, Female Spanish Infant 65.

On the 26th day of February of the year 1791, in the church of this Mission of our Holy Patron St. Francis, I solemnly baptized a girl born on the 19th day of the said month, the legitimate daughter of Don José Argüello, lieutenant-captain, and commander of the neighboring royal presidio, a native of the city of Querétaro, New Spain, and of Doña Maria Ygnacia Moraga, a native of the royal presidio of El Altar, Sonora. I gave her the names of Maria de la Concepción Marcela. Her godfather was Don José de Zuñiga, lieutenant-captain and commander of the royal presidio of San Diego, by proxy, authenticated by the colonel commandant-inspector and Governor of this province, Señor Don Pedro Fages, in the presence of two witnesses, namely, Señor Manuel de Vargas, sergeant of the company of Monterey, and Juan de Dios Ballesteros, corporal of the same, delegated in due form to Manuel Baronda, corporal of the company of this royal presidio of our Holy Patron St. Francis, who accepted it, and held the said girl in his arms at the time of her baptism. I notified him that he was not contracting kinship nor the obligations of godfather, and that he should so advise his principal, in order that the latter might be informed of the spiritual kinship and of other obligations contracted, according as I explained them to him. And in witness whereof, I sign it on the day, mouth and year above given.

Fray Pedro Benito Cambon (rubric).

Original Record of Baptism of Concepción Argüello

[11] G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World (Henry Colburn, London, 1814), part 2, page 150. Langsdorff, of course, gives it as March 28, 1806, old style, in that year twelve days earlier than our calendar west of the 180th degree of longitude, and eleven days earlier than our calendar cast of that degree. H. H. Bancroft states that "the loss of a day in coming eastward from St. Petersburg was never taken into account until Alaska was transferred to the United States" (Bancroft, Hist. of California, II, page 299, foot-note 9). Certainly, Langsdorff makes no such allowance in his narrative of old-style dates, and in the only place east of the 180th parallel where he computes the corresponding new style he adds eleven days, instead of twelve (Voyages and Travels, II, page 136). Bancroft adopts the date of April 5th, basing it on the Tikhmenef narrative. Richman and Eldredge follow him in preferring the Tikhmenef narrative to the Langsdorff narrative as a basis, though they differ from each other in reducing it to the new style. from the old style, Richman making it April 5th, following Bancroft in this regard also, and Eldredge making it April 4th, I prefer, with Father Engelhardt, to follow as a basis the painstaking German, Langsdorff, who kept his diary day by day.

[12] G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels, part 2, pages 183, 217. Tikhmenef's narrative would make the "Juno" leave on the 19th of May, but Langsdorff was himself aboard and kept a log.

[13] Nicolaï Petróvich Rezánov, Chamberlain to the Czar, died March 13, 1807 (March 1, old style), at the little town of Krasnoïarsk, capital of the Province of Yenisseisk, now a station on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, where his body is still interred. Von Langsdorff visited his grave Dec. 9, 1807 (Nov. 27, old style), and found a tomb which be described as "a large stone, in the fashion of an altar, but without any inscription." (Voyages and Travels, part 2, page 385.) Sir George Simpson visited the grave in 1842, and states that a tomb had been erected by the Russian American Company in 1831, but does not describe it. Whether this is a mistake in the date on his part, or whether a later and more elaborate tomb displaced the first one, I have not yet been able to ascertain. It is certain, however, that Sir George Simpson had read von Langsdorff's book.

The body of Sor Dominga Argüello, commonly called Sister Mary Dominica (Concepción Argüello) after her death, which occurred Dec. 23, 1857, was first interred in the small cemetery in the convent yard, but in the latter part of 1897 (Original Annals, St. Catherine's, Benicia), when the bodies were removed, it was reinterred in the private cemetery of the Dominican order overlooking Suisun Bay, on the heights back of the old military barracks. Her grave is the innermost one, in the second row, of the group in the southwesterly corner of the cemetery. It is marked by a humble white marble slab, on which is graven a little cross with her name and the date of her death. This grave deserves to be as well known as that of Heloïse and Abelard, in the cemetery of Père Lachaise.

[14] "Rezánov," by Gertrude Atherton (John Murray, London). See also Appendix B. The quaint poem of Richard E. White to "The Little Dancing Saint" (Overland, May, 1914) is worthy of mention, though the place of her childhood is mistakenly assumed to be Lower California instead of San Francisco. It is to be hoped also that the very clever skit of Edward F. O'Day, entitled "The Defeat of Rezánov," purely imaginative as a historical incident, but with a wealth of local "atmosphere," written for the Family Club, of San Francisco, and produced at one of its "Farm Plays," will yet be published, and not buried in the archives of a club.

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