The Russian Empire is gone, but some of those imperialists? Well, they’re still around.
Recently 14 descendants of Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel convened in Sitka for an informal family meeting, and a tour of the place their ancestor called home from 1830-1835.
The Baron von Wrangel was the 6th general manager of the Russian-American Company, and despite his role in the complex colonial history of Alaska, he appears to have been a compelling mix of gutsy world explorer, navigator, scientist, diplomat, and administrator — the perfect formula for leadership in the minds of the Board of Governors of the Russian-American Company.
Unfortunately, the 32-year old Wrangel was a bachelor, and that wouldn’t do. He had already sailed around the world twice, charted Russia’s arctic coastline by ship and dog team, and was a bit behind the Estonian dating scene (in Reval, now known as Tallin).
His great-great granddaughter, 80-year old Ingela Von Wrangell and her cousin Cornelia Von Wrangell explain what happened next.
Cornelia — So he was in trouble and asked a cousin of his to help him find a woman…
Ingela — A wife!
Cornelia — …Who was willing to share his life. You know, the journey. It took them 1-and-a-half years to get here.
Ingela — He sat in a bar, in a restaurant, and looked out of the window and saw three nice girls going by on the street. And the one he thought was especially nice. So he asked “Who is that?” He was told, and he went to her father and told him “I shall go to Alaska, and I have to be married. Would you give me your daughter?” And this man must have been very liberal and he said, “You must ask her and see if she wants.” And she wanted!
“Would you give me your daughter?” Not very subtle on the Baron’s part, but you can’t argue with success.
Three months later Wrangel and the 19-year old Elisabeth Rossillon were married, and three months after that the couple were on their way on the arduous, overland journey to Alaska.
After their five-year tour in Sitka, the Wrangels returned to Estonia via San Francisco. Ferdinand would subsequently rise to the rank of admiral, and then become Minister of the Navy. In his spare time, presumably, he founded the Russian Geographic Society.
Wrangel’s descendants get together every three years, usually in Sweden or Germany, where Baltic Germans like Wrangel were exiled following the Soviet Revolution. They maintain an official family journal, and Cornelia Von Wrangell is their elected family president. This is their first trip to Sitka.
Although the Wrangel name is a permanent part of Alaskan history, with places like the town of Wrangell, Wrangell Narrows, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park named for him, President Cornelia is sorry that we don’t know more about Wrangel the man.
“I bought a guide book from National Geographic, and was eager to read everything about Sitka and Von Wrangel,” she said. “He isn’t even mentioned. It’s not even explained that the Wrangell town is named after him — where the name comes from. I was very much disappointed.”
While in Sitka, the Von Wrangells did the usual tourist things, and one very special thing: They held a short service at the grave of one of Wrangel’s children, a daughter, who survived the trans-Siberian journey as a newborn, but died at 2 years of age in Sitka.
In the Sitka Lutheran Church…
They also gathered in the Sitka Lutheran Church — which was founded shortly after Wrangel left Alaska — for a photo shoot, where we learn another detail about this family: They all wear signet rings with the Wrangel crest.
Apparently this is a common custom among the families of the former European aristocracy. It’s the only thing suspiciously imperialist about this otherwise ordinary-looking group of visitors.
But Carola Von Wrangel*, who now makes her home in Seattle, says this trip — this gathering — isn’t about empire. It’s about connecting with the past, and with family.
“There’s a word in German that’s untranslatable, but it’s heimat,” she said. “And it means ‘coming back to a place.’ And when I first went to Estonia in 1990 I walked into a place of heimat. And that’s what I’m looking forward to here. It’s about a connection to history and family, and to faith. Important things.”
After their visit to Sitka, the 14 members of the Von Wrangell family are scheduled to travel to Wrangell, Alaska, for a short visit — and connection with — the people there.
*Note: Although the Von Wrangell family all wear the same ring, they show less unity when it comes to how many L’s go at the end of their name. Carola is of the one-L branch; Cornelia and Ingela are of the two-L branch, even though Ingela’s great grandfather was born to the Baron von Wrangel and Elisabeth in Sitka.