“The heart can get really cold if all you’ve known is winter” ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Until 1867, the only non-Aleut folks crazy enough to live in Alaska were Russians, and this no doubt had to do with a distinct predilection for fur hats. Of course, when your climatological standard of comparison is Siberia, Alaska might look downright balmy. Thus it’s no surprise that the first non-indigenous inhabitants of Alaska were Russian. From about 1733-1867, adventurers from Tsarist Russia had been visiting Alaska, establishing hunting camps, trading posts, and permanent settlements (and in the grand tradition of Western colonization of the Americas, wiped out most of the locals – 80% of the native population died from epidemics in the 1700’s, were enslaved, or decimated in bloody skirmishes). By 1790, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, eventually the first governor of Russian Alaska, was running a marginally successful otter fur monopoly for the Russian-American Company from his headquarters at New Archangel north of modern-day Sitka. The Russian hold on Alaska was always precarious at best, as they clung only to the coast, waged ongoing war with the native Tlingits, and as they were a long way from Moscow, were highly dependent on British and American merchants for food and materials, often facing imminent starvation. In 1821, the charter for the Russian-American company was renewed, but as the native Tlingit had never been pacified, and British/American encroachment on Alaska accelerated, the charter stipulated that the managers on the ground needed to be Russian Naval officers (who’s knowledge about how to effectively kill stuff did not actually extend to otters). In such circumstances, it pays to have a castle, and Baranoff Castle was an imposing structure built on a promontory overlooking Sitka Harbor and is where Russia formally handed over Alaska to the United States in 1867. Evidently, they also handed over a lovelorn aristocratic ghost, whose actual identity is a matter of debate.
There is a legend of a beautiful princess whose ghost haunted the Castle for many years. The story has been told by many at different times and is one of the romantic tales that cluster around the old metropolis of the fur trading days. Her lover was sent away or killed through the influence of an ober offitzer who sought her hand in marriage. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who wrote so delightfully of Sitka in her journeys in Alaska in 1883, says that, “By tradition the Lady in Black was the daughter of one of the old governors. On her wedding night she disappeared from the ballroom in the midst of the festivities, and after a long search was found dead in one of the small drawing rooms” (Andrews, 1922, p60).
Folklorists seem to agree that the ghost in question was a Russian princess or similarly high-born individual, cruelly separated from her true love and forced into a loveless marriage. Apart from that, storytellers don’t seem to agree on much, including whether the ghost loiters about in a black, blue, or white dress.
Frederick Schwatka, the explorer, seems to have been one of the first to put the story in print, which he did in the early eighties. It appeared in the Alaska News, a newspaper of Juneau, on December 24th, 1896, and the time is fixed as being in the administration of Baron Wrangell. In 1891 Hon. Henry B. Hayden published it in verse in a small volume printed at Sitka. John W. Arctander, in his Lady in Blue, elaborates it to a small volume and ascribes it to Etolin’s time (Andrews, 1922, p61).
Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell was a Russian naval official and governor of Russian Alaska between 1829-1835. Apparently, in 1829 the Russian American company had decided that in order to be appointed Governor of Alaska, one needed to be married (presumably because the nights are cold and long), so just before departing from Russia, von Wrangell married Elisabeth Teodora Natalia Karolina de Rossillon, daughter of Baron Wilhelm de Rossillon. Adolf Karlovich Etolin was a Finn serving in the Russian Navy, and Chief Manager (basically, the governor) of the Russian American Company in Alaska from 1840-1845. This gives us a range of dates for our ghostly princess between 1829-1840, without much other detail. Most scholars err on the side of suggesting that the princess was the daughter of a predecessor of Baranoff, but credit Baranoff with the fateful decision to exile her lover, and marry her off to a prominent local personage, resulting in her suicide. This is of course impossible, as Baranoff was governor between 1799-1818, after which his health began failing.
The castle lighthouse was a chore for its keepers. They labored many hours carrying heavy containers of seal and whale oil up the stairs to the lantern. Then there was the brass and copper that had to be polished daily. Worst of all, it had a ghost. Legend claims that the tower was haunted by a beautiful princess whose untimely death was the result of Baranof’s little dictatorship. The truth of her fate is buried in conflicting tales, but the most accepted one claims her wraith returned at six-month intervals to haunt the northwest chamber of the castle where either she had been murdered or had met self-destruction. It is told that Baranof, knowing of the flaming love between the princess and her lover, sent the latter to Siberia and told her that he had been killed at sea. By tradition this lovely lady, daughter of one of the old governors, was forced to marry against her will. She mysteriously vanished from the wedding festival and later was found dead in her chamber. It is said that twice a year the swish of her ghostly wedding gown was heard as she walked through the corridors wringing her jeweled hands. In sorrowful and lachrymose mien she wandered about the castle, mourning the fate of her dead lover. Accompanying her visits was the fragrance of wild briar roses. When the new castle was built in 1837, and the lighthouse placed in its crown, the ghostly princess continued her visits. Those who tended the light complained that weird noises would fill their ears on certain nights. Sometimes the fire would go out as she walked through the corridor below the tower (Gibbs, 1955, p6).
Other recountings of the tale are gracious enough to give us names of the parties involved. The ill-fated lovers were said to have been Olga Arbuzoff (niece of Governor Mouravieff) and swarthy sailor Demetrius Davidoff. Captain Mouravieff took over as effective governor of Russian Alaska in 1821, a position which he held until 1824. This is something we can sink our teeth into.
Many stories are told, some of them replete with wild romance and crime of early days when Russian barons and beautiful princesses passed days and nights within the castle in joyous living. It is said that Olga Arbuzoff, a niece of Governor Mouravieff, committed suicide by thrusting a dagger into her heart on the 5th day of March, 1826, the very day of her marriage to Count Nicholas Vassileff. The count was old, ugly, and of coarse morals, and the lovely princess very naturally hated him. Her uncle, however, compelled her to marry him, though she insisted that she would take her life if he persisted in his demands. The princess was very much in love with a young midshipman named Demetrius Davidoff, who was young, handsome, and an accomplished gentleman, and whom the governor, when he found they were in love with each other, sent away on a six months’ cruise. In the meantime the nuptials between the princess and the count were hurried to a consummation. The very night of the wedding the young lover returned and went immediately to the castle. As soon as the princess saw him she uttered a cry, and rushing into his arms, snatched his dagger from its sheath and plunging it into her breast, fell to the floor dead. The horror-stricken youth immediately drove it into his own heart and fell dead by the side of his sweetheart. The following day they were both buried in the same grave. From one of the windows in the banquet hall their last resting place is pointed out, a single Greek cross marking a single mound (Ingersoll, 1897, p314-315).
Obviously, this is Romeo and Juliet in a cold, dark place. Then again, I guess Romeo and Juliet ended up in a pretty cold dark place as well. One might also imagine that the presence of a Russian princess in Alaska might have been commented on by more historians over the years, but sadly there is scant evidence of a Princess Olga in Alaska, let alone a handsome young midshipman named Demetrius Davidoff. In fact, there doesn’t appear to have been much said about the unpleasant Count Nicholas Vassileff. Then again, it’s not like Sitka, Alaska was a plum post for a Russian noble, so perhaps they all got sent out there with the intention of forgetting about them. At any rate, no matter where you build your castle, its inevitably going to get haunted, because frankly the sort of people who build castles are generally up to something nefarious that requires nice, high defensible walls, and maybe a dungeon. This is a tale often told, where true love meets gruesome fate, mostly because, as observed by Francois de La Rochefoucauld, “True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen”.
Andrews, Clarence Leroy, 1862-1948. The Story of Sitka: the Historic Outpost of the Northwest Coast, the Chief Factory of the Russian American Company. Seattle: Press of Lowman & Hansford co., 1922.
Boston-Alaskan Society. Boston Alaskan. Boston: Boston-Alaskan Society, 1906
Bruce, Miner Wait. Alaska: Its History And Resources, Gold Fields, Routes And Scenery. 2d ed., rev. and enl. New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1899.
Gibbs, Jim, 1922-. Sentinels of the North Pacific: the Story of Pacific Coast Lighthouses and Lightships. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1955.
Ingersoll, Ernest, 1852-1946. In Richest Alaska And the Gold Fields of the Klondike: How They Were Found … Together With a History of This Wonderful Land From Its Discovery to the Present Day … And Practical Information for Gold Seekers. Chicago: The Dominion company, 1897.