Nancy Reagan once said, “A woman is like a teabag – only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.”
On May 3, 1829, at the young age of 19, that is precisely where Elisabeth de Rossillon found herself – in hot water! While walking down the street on the outskirts of the city of Reval in Estonia, she caught the eye of Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell who exclaimed, “Behold this angelic face. Truly, I have never seen anything like it.” A few days later, Ferdinand proposed and three weeks later they wed.
For Ferdinand, a Russian naval officer, the marriage was likely part love at first sight and part marriage of convenience. Earlier that year, the Russian American Company had issued a decree that all future Chief Managers must be married, and the company had just named Ferdinand the new Chief Manager. Set to depart shortly for the capital of Russian America, Novo Arkhangelsk [Sitka], Wrangell had to find a bride fast. On May 3, 1829, 33-year-old Ferdinand traveled to Reval, Estonia, where a cousin had arranged for him to meet possible suitable matches who shared his Baltic German heritage. Fate intervened. Just outside of the city, his carriage broke down. While waiting for its repair, Ferdinand happened to see Elisabeth walking with her friends.
Elisabeth came from a cultivated and well-established family of Baltic German and French nobility. She knew that accepting Ferdinand’s proposal meant leaving the safety of her home and family for a dangerous trek that would take her on a journey from Estonia to Saint Petersburg, clear across the desolate Siberian interior, then by sea from the port of Okhotsk to Sitka. Very few women before her had made the journey, and Elisabeth had the additional challenge of undertaking part of the 12,000 mile voyage while carrying her first child.
Of the Okhotsk Trail, Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company once said, “I could not but marvel that delicately bred females could endure so much pain and fatigue.” Elisabeth hardly fit the ideal European image of the demure, submissive wife. A robust adventurer, she quickly abandoned many of the conventions of her gender and social class, and embraced the opportunity to live, “free as a man.” To her sister she wrote, “I am determined as ever not to cut off the tale about our epic journey before having pulled my left foot out of the stirrup in Okhotsk!” Even her husband remarked, “Nature has endowed her with inexhaustible cheerfulness.”
In September of 1830, after 18 months of travel, the Wrangells arrived in Sitka. One arduous journey had ended for Elisabeth, but another challenge lay on the horizon. The Russian American Company had high hopes of Elisabeth. Idealistic 19th century notions of womanhood saw women as the moral guardians of society. The male-dominated fur trading forts and villages of Russian America had become known for excessive drinking, gambling, and lawlessness. Ferdinand explained, “It was our duty – or rather we considered it as such, to introduce the concepts of decency and mores to this remote corner of the globe.” Thus, Elisabeth, the inaugural First Lady of Russian America, was meant to civilize the colonies by serving as an enduring symbol of morality and sophistication. No small task for a 20-year-old.
As the Chief Manager’s wife, Elisabeth’s role in Russia’s Alaskan colonies resembled that of the First Lady of the United States. She acted as a representative of the Russian Imperial Crown, assisted her husband in receiving dignitaries and visitors, and used her position to further her social cause – improving the Russian colonial life in Alaska by imparting Western culture and moral values. Taking her place in a long history of influential women before and after her, Elisabeth even found herself an unwitting trend-setter. Like the Jackie Kennedy Onassis of 1831 Sitka, she jokes to her parents that she has come “to be considered the local ‘fashion oracle.’”
Elisabeth quickly became the center of Sitka’s social scene, hosting numerous gatherings, dinners, balls, and masquerades. Less than a year after arriving, Elisabeth writes to her parents, “There are so many distinguished gentlemen here who appreciate the presence of the first married governor… It seems that every day new officials join our table.” Far from frivolous affairs, these events replaced the all too common bouts of drinking that had come to typify social life in the colonies. Of Elisabeth, Lieutenant Zagoskin said, “the first woman of culture and education to condemn herself to five years of sequestration on the northwest coast of America, attempted by her own example to check the spread of dubious pleasures.”
Under the First Lady’s influence, the city’s social landscape began to change. British Commander Edward Belcher wrote “I believe that the society is indebted principally to the Governor’s elegant and accomplished lady for much of this polish in Novo-Arkhangel’sk [Sitka].” Some historians even note that Sitka’s moniker, “The Paris of the Pacific” had its roots in Elisabeth’s efforts to legitimize Russia’s colonial efforts by transforming the perception of Russian America from rough and tumble to refined.
Today, Wrangell Island, the City of Wrangell, Mount Wrangell and numerous other Alaskan landmarks remain as testaments to the influential sixth Chief Manager of Russian America. But we must not forget that Elisabeth von Wrangell stood by Ferdinand’s side, a partner in diplomatic and civil matters and a key player in Russia’s civilizing mission in its Alaskan colonies. The First Lady of Sitka often found herself charting new waters in Russian America, both literally and figuratively. But much like a teabag in hot water, the challenges she faced only served to draw out the true force of her character and strength. Always in awe of his wife’s intelligence, social skills, and exuberant personality, Ferdinand wrote, “A merciful fate intended to make her my friend, my priceless treasure and salvation in this life and beyond.”
Kristy Kay Griffin is the Curator of Collections & Exhibits at the Sitka History Museum. “Southeast in Sepia” is a column in the Capital City Weekly that focuses on the fascinating and varied histories of Southeast Alaska as related by historians around the region.